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Wheeler Geologic Adventure

1. Introduction

On a sunny day in June, Chris Canaly (Ecosystem Council Director) and Izzy Lisle (Communications Manager) set off into the La Garita Wilderness, outside of Creede, CO, on a three day backpacking trip. The two intrepid travelers packed their bags with tent poles, rain coats, camping stoves, water purification, journals, knives, sleeping bags, and a deck of cards, determined to make it to their destination. Their goal: to find and explore the mystical Wheeler Geological Area. Along the way, they chatted about the interesting land use of Creede, encountered wildlife of all shapes and sizes, and learned about the unique geological formations of the Wheeler Geological Area.

Chris and Izzy spot elk as they drive to Hansen's Mill Trailhead

Trailhead Sign

2. Bureau of Land Management

To access the trailhead, Chris and Izzy drove past sweeping views of the public lands that surround Creede. Creede, located deep within the Rocky Mountains of Southern Colorado, features 95% public lands (Mineral County Colorado, 2022). The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) designates public lands to “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations” (Bureau of Land Management, 2022). These lands are available for visitors to camp, hike, horseback ride, swim, fish, mountain bike, or climb for free - a unique opportunity to recreate, explore, and enjoy some incredible parts of Colorado. The San Luis Valley manages nearly 500,000 acres of public land in Colorado’s Rio Grande Basin, and Creede holds about 900 square miles of mountains, forests, valleys and canyons for public access (Discover Creede, 2021). The stunning open spaces and large areas of land are not only places for human recreation, but also important habitat for the abundant variety of wildlife and plant life that exist within its borders.

La Garita Wilderness

Wild Strawberry

This interactive map lets you play with different BLM land uses:

3. Wildlife and Butterflies

Chris and Izzy encountered a wide variety of wildlife on their journey through BLM land into the La Garita Wilderness. Along the way they saw: 8 elegant elk, 25 curious cows, 1 peek a boo black bear, 2 hummingbird moths, 6 sweet wild strawberries, 2 unripe wild raspberries, 1 bashful beaver, 12 pretty pika, 1 gregarious gopher, 1 monstrous marmot, 7,000 colorful wildflowers, and 36 delicate dancing butterflies. Butterflies swooped in and out of the trail, guiding their hike for much of the way. In fact, Colorado is home to about 80 different species of butterflies (Butterfly Identification, 2022). Chris and Izzy spotted the common blue butterfly, a clouded sulfur, and a painted lady that sparked their curiosity about metamorphosis. Caterpillars, it turns out, ‘melt’ almost completely before growing into butterflies in the chrysalis. They digest themselves, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of their tissues. But certain groups of cells survive, turning the soup into eyes, wings, antennae and other adult structures (Scientific American, 2012). Appreciating the diversity of creatures that exist in Southern Colorado is the first step towards managing and protecting their habitat for future generations, because it allows us to care and observe when these populations start to decline.

Chris hiking on trail to Wheeler Geological Area

Common Blue Butterflies on Flower

4. Wheeler Geological Area Eruptions

Finally, Chris and Izzy arrived triumphant at the Wheeler Geological Area, hiding within the southeast corner of the La Garita Wilderness (Forest Service, 2022). The odd rock formations towered over them in strange and exquisite spires, domes, caves, ledges, pinnacles, and ravines. The only ways to access this otherworldly sight are by a 10 mile hike, or a grueling 14 mile four wheel drive road. Its remoteness and lack of accessibility invoked a sense of awe, wonder, and humility in the presence of this cathedral-like geological feature. 40 to 30 million years ago, violent volcanic eruptions in the San Juan Mountains created enormous lava flows that solidified into a large volcanic field (South Fork Visitor Center, 2022). A million years later, major ash flow eruptions from 18 different volcanoes built up a layer of volcanic ash that was up to 3,000 feet thick in some areas. The Wheeler Geologic formations are a product of the period of ash flow eruptions (South Fork Visitor Center, 2022).

Arriving at Wheeler Geological Site

5. Breccia and Volcanic Tuff

During these eruptions, particles of ash, dust, and volcanic pebbles were violently blown into the air. Broken rock fragments called breccia were occasionally dislodged from within the volcanoes and blown out with the ash (Atlas Obscura, 2022). As the ash and breccia settled on the ground, the layers were called volcanic tuff. Volcanic tuff is not well bonded and is easily eroded by rain, freezing and thawing, and wind (Volcano Hopper, 2020). This erosion wore down the tuff creating the rock features that look like spires and domes we see today.

Rock Formations at Wheeler Geologic Area

6. Hoodoos

A hoodoo is a geological formation created by the dynamic forces of erosion. Hoodoos are usually tent shaped and capped with a resistant rock (breccia) that affords some protection to the formation from rain water (Denver Post, 2020). If the cap rock should fall, erosion of the formation will rapidly accelerate until a new cap rock is reached. The hoodoos of Wheeler Geologic Area are revealed after thousands of years of continuous erosion (South Fork Visitor Center, 2022). The area has a feeling of enchantment about it described as castles, cathedrals, and mosques.

Hoodoos at Wheeler

7. Cultural History

The Wheeler Geological area not only has a fascinating geological history, but also an interesting cultural one. The Utes that migrated through the San Juan mountains may have given special significance to the Wheeler Geological Area, but little evidence has been uncovered about their connection to this place (Colorado Enciclopedia, 2017). The first recorded visit to the Wheeler formations was in 1907 by a Forest Service Supervisor and a resort owner from Wagon Wheel Gap. In 1908, President Theodore Roodevelt read the pair's enthusiastic report, and he designated Wheeler as a National Monument. In 1950, because of its remote location and lack of money and visitors, the Wheeler National Monument was abolished and the area once again became part of the Rio Grande national Forest (Colorado Enciclopedia, 2017). Today it is part of a designated wilderness area that receives the government's highest level of land protection and is part of the National Wilderness Preservation system (Creede Recreation, 2022).

Mushroom in La Garita Wilderness

8. Tips for planning your trip: “One Tuff Hike”

Planning a trip to Wheeler requires extensive preparation and planning. The lack of water sources makes it difficult to navigate. Check stream flows and river crossings to figure out the best route. In addition, the mileage of the trip is longer than advertised. From the trailhead to Wheeler, the distance is actually about 10 miles. Once at Wheeler, it is another couple mile loop within the site itself. Taking an ATV to the site is also possible, although it is a full day trip. Be sure to give yourself time to explore the trails within the geological area itself.

Hail in La Garita Wilderness

9. Conclusion

Chris and Izzy enjoyed exploring the Wheeler Geological area, discovering the plants and animals that inhabit the area, and learning about the geological and environmental history of the La Garita Wilderness. Along the way, they also uncovered more about each other through conversations on their hike. Both share a love of the outdoors, a strong sense of purpose, and a curiosity for humans in the landscape. The trip reinvigorated their commitment to the mission of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council: “To protect and restore, through research, education, and advocacy, the biological diversity, ecosystems, and natural resources of the Upper Rio Grande bioregion, balancing ecological values with sustainable human needs'' (SLVEC, 2022). They encourage you to get outside, appreciate our Colorado public lands, and explore your sense of place in the natural world.

Chris Canaly heating up water at camp

Content, Photos, and Videos by: Isabel Lisle (SLVEC Communications Manager)

Izzy Lisle at the end of Wheeler Hiking Trip

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