Date hiked: 06/13/16
Mileage: 21.5 miles; 7.5 hrs
Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): 1 group
Violent eruptions, and the searing heat of molten lava; ash piled thousands of feet high. Carved out from the heart of the La Garita caldera deep within the San Juan Mountains, the ghostly hoodoos of Wheeler Geologic Area are the end result of one of the world’s most catastrophic known volcanic eruptions.
Second only to Pikes Peak, Wheeler was once a highly traffic tourist destination back in the 1800s, when it held the designation of Colorado’s first national monument. But having long since been stripped of its title, now the journey out is just as laborious as its illustrious history. And I don’t know what it was, but something about this hike was just plain eerie.
It could have been the isolation: twenty miles from the nearest paved road, and another ten from the closest town of Creede. Or maybe it was the murky skies and widespread devastation brought on by the spruce pine beetle in recent years. In reality, though, it was probably the hours spent the night before watching videos of the scariest things that have ever happened in the forest. A word to the wise – the day before a solitary hike: Not. A. Good. Idea.
Forging out from the parking lot, the striking lack of green of a beetle infested forest catch me off guard. As beautiful as the woods are today, it’s heartbreaking to imagine its past glory days, like staring down the carcass of a charred forest. Signs navigate between the two options of reaching site: a very rough fourteen mile 4X4 drive, or a seven and a half mile hike. Opting for the latter, the trail begins on a rather flat route through the woods until the flora opens up to the volcanic cliffs surrounding East Billows Creek. As the swift rush of snowmelt-filled banks reaches my ears, the dirt bends back towards the water. Armed with a downed tree branch, I fight the raging waters to the opposite bank, then spend the next hour sloshing my feet dry in my boots.
Taking its lead from East Billows, the trail traverses a loose scree field below Canyon Nieve before breaking into three miles of easy climbing with amazing views of the rolling meadows below Fish Canyon Tuff. Nearing the crest, the forest’s namesake La Garita Mountain (13,710ft) comes into view before dropping again to meet up with the 4X4 road. The final stretch into Wheeler is an easy downhill jaunt along the battered road.
Nothing can quite prepare you for that first glance at Wheeler. If anything, it looks to me like a slice of Bryce Canyon in Utah was scooped up out of the earth and plopped right down into the middle of the San Juans. It’s a bit spooky to be out here alone.
Another three mile loop skirts the woods surrounding Wheeler, leading into a fork towards Halfmoon Pass another 1.25 miles away.
Standing at the top of Halfmoon Pass, the views embrace 360 degrees of untouched backcountry.
(From Creede): Head south out of Creede on CO-149. In 7.3 miles, turn left onto Pool Table Road/FSR-600. At about 9.6 miles, you’ll reach an open area with an outhouse on the right. The hiking trail begins to the left, while the jeep trail veers to the right.
16.8 miles; 43 minutes