As the wheels fall off on the way to Wheeler…

Reese gets face time at Wheeler.

We had already been on the trail a few hours, and though a potent whiskey hangover still echoed in my head (never pass up a chance to share campfire hooch with strangers), I was bolstered by the knowledge that within the hour we would arrive at one of Colorado’s greatest natural wonders, the Wheeler Geologic Area, a field of ethereal pinnacles, domes and canyons etched into the Rio Grande National Forest by volcanic eruptions some 20 million years ago.

The formations at Wheeler are molded from compacted volcanic ash.
The formations at Wheeler are molded from compacted volcanic ash.

Although clouds roiled, the previous night’s driving rain had so far failed to show for an encore. We set out later than planned, but thanks to the sun-blotting clouds and a light breeze, it was a perfectly mild midsummer afternoon.

A sort-of mini Devil's Tower (seek help if you begin carving this out of mashed potatoes at home).
A sort-of mini Devil’s Tower (seek help if you begin carving this out of mashed potatoes at home).

Ahead, a figure emerged from a wooded section of the trail. Thunder rumbled portentously.“You’re about halfway there,” the man said, pausing briefly to be mauled by the dogs.

I tried to temper my dumbfounded expression.

“Hope the rain holds off for you.” He gave the dogs a final pat and continued on his way.

Halfway?” I thought, glancing at my watch. It was nearly 2:30, and we hit the trail at 11. How could a 7 ½-mile, round-trip take this long? We maintained a leisurely pace, sure, but it wasn’t like we had changed time zones or entered a wormhole.

Clouds swirl above Wheeler.
Clouds swirl above Wheeler.

I pulled up a rock and pulled out my map, recalling that there were at least two trails and a four-wheel-drive road that led to the site. I checked our bearings and the trail description; we were on the path I intended.

Then I noticed an important detail that escaped my eye when planning this outing. While loop-trail distances were provided in round-trip mileage, distances for one-way trails were listed as “each way.” Seven-and-a-half miles suddenly became 15.

A few errant raindrops fell from the sky.

Stone pustules at Wheeler.

Much to the dogs’ delight, the human picked up the pace, knowing that daylight on the return trip would be on the wane and that the threat of a downpour increased by the minute.

With only a few sprinkles dampening the remainder of inward journey, we reached the junction of a four-wheel-drive road and a small camping area about a half-mile from the site within two hours. Between heaving breaths, I took in the array of spires, flumes and bulbs, alternately jutting forth, plummeting through and bubbling out of one another.

Reese takes a rest after a long hike to the Wheeler Geologic Area.
Reese takes a rest after a long hike to the Wheeler Geologic Area.
Miles and Reese give scale to one Wheeler’s seemingly infinite formations.

A percussive roll of thunder served as a reminder and we reluctantly turned back for camp. Over the last few miles, the dogs dragged me more than I walked. I should have paid more attention in math; or not cheated on my Map Reading merit badge. But the pain was a small, temporary price to pay to experience what Frank Spencer1 succinctly called “a truly remarkable sight.”

1Frank Spencer was a supervisor for the Rio Grande National Forest in the early 1900s and the person who made the initial push to have Wheeler designated as a national monument (a designation supported by President Theodore Roosevelt, but one that was rescinded in 1950 due to its remote location and relative lack of access). Wheeler was granted geologic area status in 1969.

Mush! Mush!
Mush! Mush!
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