Colorado’s Wheeler Geologic Area was an A-list tourist attraction in the horse-and-wagon era. Sadly, even elevating it to national monument status couldn’t sustain its appeal once people started avoiding destinations not served by decent roads.
The Wheeler Geologic Area in the 1.86 million-acre Rio Grande National Forest is a one square-mile tract of rugged terrain located in the La Garita Mountains of south-central Colorado. You’d like it a lot of you went there, since its physical aspects and historical associations are definitely a cut above. The highly eroded outcroppings, pinnacles, and spires of 25 million year-old tufa, rhyolite, and other volcanic rocks are hauntingly scenic. If you know your Colorado history, you know that this is where General John Charles Fremont and three dozen of his men were trapped in the awful winter of 1848-1849. The Fremont party ate a hundred winter-killed mules, and when that was not enough, it’s said that they began eating each other before Kit Carson arrived with a rescue party.
People knew about this place, were fascinated by it, and began beating a path to it more than 125 years ago. By the late 1800s, the Wheeler formation (named for Captain George M. Wheeler, who explored and surveyed this area for the U.S. Army in 1874) was Colorado’s second most popular tourist attraction. Only Pikes Peak attracted more tourists.
Situated way up in the La Garitas, just 40 feet shy of the 12,000 foot level, the Wheeler tract was just plain hard to get to. But remember, this was the horse-and-wagon era and people were used to traveling slowly and arduously. The fact that the Wheeler site was accessible only by foot or on horseback was not a deal-breaker.
Then a remarkable thing happened. The automobile era came along, revoked the metric of the horse-and-wagon landscape, and yielded an incredible profusion of roads. People now preferred to visit tourist attractions that you could reach with your car – places like Pikes Peak, for example. (It remains the world’s second most-visited mountain after Japan’s Mount Fuji.)
Unfortunately, you couldn’t get to the Wheeler area by car, and that was a problem for a place that was Colorado’s #2 tourist attraction. You couldn’t expect it to hold that position in the automobile era, and it didn’t.
By the time that President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed a 300-acre Wheeler National Monument (under Forest Service management) on December 7, 1908, Wheeler was already foredoomed as a major tourist attraction. A road serving the site from the village of Watson was proposed in 1911, but no action was taken (trail access did get improved). In the 1920s, as more and more people used cars for their weekending and vacationing, Wheeler attracted only about 100 people a year and the site was rapidly fading from the Colorado tourism map. Today it’s a place visited by people who don’t mind primitive camping and ten mile hikes.
Wheeler National Monument was transferred to the National Park Service incident to the agency reorganization of 1933, but what was the Park Service going to do with so remote and inaccessible a place, especially when the agency was given no money to develop the site or improve access to it? To hardly anybody’s surprise, Wheeler National Monument was never activated as a National Park System unit. During the 1940s, the site was neglected to the point of embarrassment and almost nobody went there (43 visits were recorded in 1943, and far fewer than that in 1944). Finally, on August 3, 1950, Congress abolished the Wheeler National Monument and returned the property to the U.S. Forest Service.
Postscript: The Forest Service doubled the protected area in 1962 and redesignated the site Wheeler Geologic Area in 1969. Since 4WD-ers had been damaging the terrain, in some cases driving through the protected area itself, the Wheeler vicinity was permanently closed to wheeled vehicles on September 11, 1969. Conservation NGOs have campaigned to have the Wheeler Geologic Area designated federally protected wilderness and added to the adjacent La Garita Wilderness Area.
Traveler tip, no extra charge: When you visit the Wheeler Geologic Area, look for the stumps of the many trees the Fremont party felled for firewood. The cuts are four feet off the ground, which gives you some idea of the depth of the snow during that cruel winter of 1848-1849.