At a time when birthdays come with mixed feelings, I decided to visit a place where things were older than me. Way older! The Wheeler Geologic Area foot the bill by 26 - 40 million years. And I learned a new term - Pyroclastic breccia! So, my birthday was good!
The area is not easily accessible but if a day trip to a unique place fits into your adventure schedule then your experience to the WGA will be memorable.
The first part of the journey requires driving to South Fork on US 160 West, taking a right on CO 149, and heading up the main fork of the Rio Grande toward Creede. The river flows cool and clear and invites fisherman and wildlife seekers. Towering walls of rock line the north side of the highway. A short distance beyond Wagon Wheel Gap will be a right turn on to Pool Table Road. How did it get that name? Not sure, but after taking the dusty gravel road up steep switchbacks for a few miles and nearly two thousand vertical feet, the road tops out into fairly level meadows surrounded by forest. Could have been interpreted by someone, upon their arrival for the first time, perhaps a wrangler looking for a lost cow, "Wow, it's as flat as a pool table up here!" NOTE: This is my hypothesis only, and has no basis in fact! Unless of course, I'm accidentally correct.
The gravel road goes through these high mountain meadows at over 10,000 feet in elevation, past free range cattle, in and out of forests of pine and aspen, and after 'eating' dust, even with the windows up, the 35 to 40 minute drive of 10 miles yielded the end of the line for passenger vehicles at Hanson's Mill, a parking lot complete with makeshift campsites, an outhouse, and two trailheads.
Choice #1. With a four wheel drive vehicle, a 14 mile road heads to Wheeler. The sign warns of rough and slow. Choice #2. The seven mile hike is rated as easy to moderate since the trailhead begins at such a high elevation. The first seven miles only gets you to the trailhead for WGA. It lists the trail to the area as a total of 8.4. I get a late start at 10:45 but I had no serious expectations on how far I would get - could be a reconnaissance mission with a planned return in the future.
I packed food, water, and all other required gear for what was going to be a 16-17 mile round trip on foot. I signed in as required and there were only three other people who opted to hike this day. Several groups had trailers on which they had hauled their specialty 4 WD vehicles and were unloading when I arrived. They hit the road about the same time I hit the trail. The sign shows, the trail intersects the jeep road about a mile from the WGA trailhead and indicates that there is a good chance drivers and hikers will get there at about the same time.
Within a hundred yards of the trailhead an unexpected bonus lay all over both sides of the trail! I have seen wild strawberry plants on trails before but there are usually no strawberries or maybe a few that are hard to find, delicious, but never many. There were hundreds! What a birthday present! I could have returned to the car, grabbed a bag and picked strawberries the rest of the day. I quickly picked a handful and ate them. About the size of blueberries, wild strawberries explode with flavor! This is easily the most prolific strawberry trail I have ever seen in the mountains. Usually, I find raspberries. And lo and behold, after about two miles, I came to a lava flow boulder field, which yielded fresh wild raspberries. Starvation would not happen on this day trip! Wild berry flavors linger wonderfully for a long time.
I crossed a stream, continued up a valley and came up into monstrous meadows with big views of distant mountains and ridge lines. I ran into a backpacker on his way out who said I was about half way there. He indicated the WGA was worth the price of admission. Sure enough, after traversing a long meadow, as I reached the road where the trail intersects, the family who had left at the same time in their four wheeler, came cruising out of the woods onto the road. I waved, waited for their dust to pass, and I dropped down the road and met them at the trailhead in another mile. They were local's from Creede. I drank water, ate a few bites andchatted with them for a bit. I started up the fairly steep trail, crossed a creek, and I could begin to see the rock formations that bring people here. A few people returning said I would soon be in for a spectacular view.
Correct they were! As I popped out of the trees I was looking at unrealistic rock formations, so out of place with the area, and it is, what my friend Ginny calls, a 'Wow!' moment. I walked out on the Pyroclastic breccia and found it to be sharp, hard, and the 'gription' on the bottom of my shoes is beyond that of sandstone. Amazingly, the surface allows you to hike steep angles without risk of slipping. However, self preservation keeps me away from the injurious drop offs into bizarre looking crevasses. In contrast with the Great Sand Dunes, directly east across the San Luis Valley, 80 air miles distant, there were maybe 15 people here on this beautiful cool Sunday in August.
I took pictures, chatted with a couple who came up for the day from South Fork, and headed toward the top of the area. I took a water erosion channel through a gap and emerged upon the flatter heights of the formations. The sun popped through the clouds which provided great contrast for my high tech camera (my iPhone:) to capture the moments. Somehow, a birthday greeting pinged in from Ginny, her ears burning from me thinking about all her 'wow' moments. A distant rumble from the southwest told me it was time to get off the rocks and head out. I ran back to the trailhead, read a few more educational snippets about the geology and looked at the artistic renditions of the La Garita Volcano that blew its top 40 million years ago and that deep underground, there is still activity including earthquakes in the region.
I began running, and after about two miles I heard the rumble of a four wheel drive behind me. It was the local couple I'd met. They asked if I wanted a ride. I looked at the sky, checked my fatigue meter and said, "Sure!" This way I could also see the road. Apparently, someone, perhaps the Forest Service has spent time clearing the road as it was in pretty decent shape, and fairly dry. Beautiful scenery in that 14 miles, certainly a kidney bouncer, great views, across streams, through vast meadows and deep trees. They dropped me at my car and bid farewell. They were on the better road now and screamed away in their Kawasaki specialty mobile. I found a container and went and picked a pint of fresh wild strawberries. It was my birthday after all. These beautiful little berries were destined to be a key ingredient in a birthday present to myself. A fresh strawberry/Colorado peach margarita.
Sound good? Wild strawberries, Palisade peaches (best on planet), juices of one fresh lime and orange, a shot of high end tequila and a splash of Naranjo, an orange liqueur made in Santa Fe plus 3 ice cubes. Blend and say "Ahhhh!"