THE WHEELER GEOLOGIC AREA, in Colorado’s La Garita Wilderness, is something of an oddity. Twenty five million years ago, vast volcanic eruptions – among the largest to have occurred on Earth during the last 500 million years – created the La Garita caldera and laid down a hundred meters or more of volcanic deposits. The eroded remains are visible over just a small area in the Wheeler Geologic area, where they form a landscape of spires that resembles a less colorful version of Bryce Canyon National Park. The area was Colorado’s first National Monument (somewhat amazing when you think of all the other spectacular landscapes in the state), but visitation never took off and it now sees relatively few visitors. In summer 2019, my brother and I explored the area on a day hike.
It remains possible to drive to the base of the Wheeler formations, but the road is in poor condition and genuinely reserved for high-clearance 4WD vehicles and ATVs. Alternatively, you can hike from the Hanson’s Mill trailhead along the East Bellows trail (#790). Hanson’s Mill is about 10 miles from Highway 149, along Pool Table Road (unpaved, but in good condition). The nearest town is Creede. From the trailhead it takes about 7 miles of hiking to reach the Wheeler Geologic Area, and the start of a loop around the formations that’s about 3 miles long. (If you just want to see the best part, or are short of time, go clockwise and stop at the overlook where there’s a bench.)
I’d rate this hike as recommended. The Wheeler is not one of Colorado’s most immediately spectacular locations, but it’s a unique landscape with an interesting geological and human history. Hiking there gives the feel of having reached an out-of-the-way spot (notwithstanding the presence of a handful of jeeps and ATVs), and makes for a good day out.