RIO GRANDE NATIONAL FOREST • Near the end of a long, hard path, we were camped in a meadow cast in an otherworldly glow by the setting sun, which along with the evening drizzle created a perfect rainbow. By morning, the moon still hung high, big and bright — another phenomenon suited for this remote, mystical place.
From a distance, rock walls could be seen above the trees, hinting at some fortress.
But nothing, not even the pictures across the internet, can prepare one for what lay deep in the forest, hidden and protected indeed: Wheeler Geologic Area.
As white men began populating this valley in southwest Colorado, they heard talk of a peculiar domain. “The Sandstones,” the native Utes called it.
No record has been found of George M. Wheeler coming by it during his influential surveys in the area in the late 19th century. Nor is it believed John C. Fremont came across the scene earlier during his railroad prospecting. Though, in the wild vicinity in the winter of 1848, there was one ill-fated expedition, resulting in men perishing and mules being eaten. Rumor has it survivors resorted to their own flesh.
No, this was no place for a railroad.
Finally, in 1907, one Frank Spencer managed to complete the gritty trip to the site tucked in the La Garita Mountains.
“A truly remarkable site,” went the forest supervisor’s report.
“Before us, enhanced by the rays of the setting sun, lay the vista of what seemed to us an enchanted city. Spires and domes, castles and cathedrals, mosques and temples, with their fluted columns and wonderfully carved friezes, were arrayed in a confusing panorama of form and color.”
The report was enough for President Theodore Roosevelt the next year to proclaim Colorado’s first national monument: Wheeler National Monument.
Wheeler was found to be a masterpiece of erosion and ancient time. The San Juan region was once home to one of the world’s most ferocious volcanic activities, several eruptions over the millennia bursting and covering the land in ash, rubble and magma. With wind, rain and cold, the debris warped and hardened, creating the formations seen today.
The descriptions have been many. “The City of Gnomes.” “Dante’s Lost Souls.” “Phantom Ships.”
“A parade of pale soldiers or huge ghosts,” reads an informational webpage by the town of South Fork, one town nearby but not exactly. No matter the mode of travel, Wheeler is multiple hours away.
As it is from Creede, the once-booming silver town that foresaw Wheeler National Monument becoming an economic lifeline after the bust. Early after Roosevelt’s proclamation, it was sure enough a popular attraction. Waves of horses and buggies made the arduous journey. Wheeler rivaled Pikes Peak in popularity.
But things changed as motors began roaring in America. Twenty three million automobiles were counted in the country in 1930, up from 8,000 in 1900. And with the National Park Service and the Bureau of Public Roads coming to a broad agreement in 1926, roads were being built across natural wonders.
“National Park Service designers during the 1920s tended to perceive roads and buildings as necessary evils,” wrote Laura Soullière in her 1995 history paper compiled for the agency.
Colorado National Monument’s Rimrock Drive was finished in 1931. The year after, Trail Ridge Road opened at Rocky Mountain National Park. Great preserves were well on their way to this “loved to death” age as we know it, this age of overcrowding.
Meanwhile, with all of its lingering, rugged difficulties, Wheeler fell out of favor for a vehicle-crazed nation. Wheeler remained reserved for the strong-willed traveler on horseback.
It was a lack of funds or a sense of environmentalism or a combination of both that kept the U.S. Forest Service from constructing a road to Wheeler. Why? asked the local newspaper. “Other places have secured appropriations to build highways over more difficult places,” opined the Creede Candle.
In 1933, the Forest Service transferred the area to the National Park Service, which also held back on a road. In the 1940s, annual visitation was reportedly a few dozen. In 1950, the monument status was abolished, and the land returned to the Forest Service due to “the isolation” and “very limited visitation.”
Later, it seemed Wheeler could no longer resist development. There was talk of a resort-style setup, lodging and a restaurant. A logging road was built toward the boundaries in the 1960s — the rocky, rutted track marked as 14 miles long today.
But the road stops short of the dreamscape, still out of view from a meadow. That’s because Wheeler was deemed worthy of the hallowed, motorless mandate of the 1964 Wilderness Act, protecting sanctuaries “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
From that meadow, visitors must hike about a mile uphill through La Garita Wilderness to the geologic area. At the trailhead, signs provide scientific background.
“However,” one reads, “the fantasy of Wheeler is in allowing your imagination to run wild.”
So we did before the stark, astonishing beauty.
We watched the rising sun color the spires and pinnacles. Watched the shadows play between the cracks and crevices of crags stacked like pyramids, or like the spine of a dragon. We watched from the gray surface of an overlook, like the surface of the moon, we imagined. We were on another planet, we presumed. Somewhere far from this world.
For hours, we saw not another soul.
While there were saddening sights at the trailhead — a cigarette butt, a beer cap, a discarded face mask — we found none of it around the volcanic tract. Estimates in this decade suggest about 15 people a day make it all the way to Wheeler.
ATVs are most popular. On the way back, a driver stopped us, a tourist from Oklahoma.
“Is it still there?” he asked.
Yes, we were pleased to report. It was still there.