La Garita-Wheeler Hike, La Garita Wilderness, Colorado

The La Garita-Wheeler hike begins at the La Garita Trailhead in the northeast side of the wilderness. It includes long hikes along meadows surrounded by towering spruce, a visit to the Wheeler Geologic Area, and a traverse of the Palmer Mesa. The entire trip is 23.6 miles.

The Maps: The maps are true 1:24,000 scale based on the USGS 7.5 minute quadrangles. The loop is shown in red and is based on the GPS track taken on the hike. The trails in blue and purple are other trails in the area and are from the Forest Service GIS database. The purple trail is the Continental Divide Trail. All other trails are blue. The green and black line is the wilderness boundary. The forest roads are in black and based on aerial and satellite imagery.

These maps are FREE to download and print. Click on image to access full size maps and download them. They are formated for 11x17 paper. Alternatively, both maps are available on 11x17 Rite in the Rain weatherproof stock for $5/sheet ($10 for the set) plus S&H. Email cew5151@gmail.com.

Trip Mileage Table: Click here for trip mileage table.

Track of the Loop: This link is to a Google Earth KML track file of the La Garita-Wheeler Hike. You should be able to right click the file and save it on your computer. Then open it with Google Earth to see the entire loop in interactive 3-D. You can also load this on top of the wilderness data set found on the La Garita Wilderness page. If you have the right software you can select the tracks you want and load them on your GPS. This file also has the waypoint coordinates.

Google Earth Images:
Waypoint LG-01
Waypoints LG-01 to LG-03
Waypoints LG-03 to LG-04
Waypoint LG-04
Waypoints LG-04 to LG-05
Waypoints LG-05 to LG-06
Waypoints LG-06 to LG-08
Waypoints LG-08 to LG-13
Waypoints LG-10 to LG-11
Waypoint LG-12
Waypoints LG-12 to LG-24
Waypoints LG-24 to LG-30
Waypoints LG-30 to LG-31
Waypoints LG-31 to LG-32
Waypoints LG-32 to LG-34
Waypoint LG-34
Waypoints LG-34 to LG-02

The Hike: The hike starts at the La Garita Trailhead on Forest Road 787. To get there you need to take one of the many gravel roads coming off Highway 114, west of Saguache. The miles you shorten by taking the more direct roads closer to Saguache, you make up in time on the gravel roads. The fastest route was to go 36 miles west of Saguache on Highway 114 and take 17-GG south. More detailed directions are provided below.

After about 14 miles of gravel roads you will come to an old cabin and a great view of the La Garita Wilderness and Saguache Park. Once across the park you will see Chimney Rock sticking out of the trees on a hill to your right. There is a forest road to it if you want a closer look. About a mile or so further is Stone Cellar Campground. The road splits here, take FR 787.

The La Garita Trailhead has a huge parking lot surrounded by a split log fence. There are no facilities. The trail take off from the south end of the parking lot near the registration sign (LG-01). The trails are not blazed. There are marker posts along the way, mostly at trail intersection, and a few signs, but there are few indications of trail names or numbers.

The trail heads south in grass and sagebrush on a fairly level course on a bench above Saguache Creek. At mile 0.5 is a junction with Whale Creek, where you will come out at the end of the hike (LG-02). At LG-04 is another junction (LG-03, mile 0.7). You will stay to the right, leave the South Fork Saguache Trail and follow the Unknown Creek Trail. After a half mile of woods, you enter another park, make a short climb through a narrow partially wooded valley and then enter a larger park with a big scree slope to the north side. Pass through a small grove of spruce and its back into a long park that will take you to the divide separating Unknown and Twin Peaks Creeks.

Just before entering the forest at the divide, the marker post of the Half Moon Pass Trail can be seen on a low bench above Unknown Creek (LG-04, mile 3.4) . Although the tread you are on is well worn as you pass the pole on the other side of the creek, it will end soon as the grass gets marshy, so cross the creek when you get to the pole. A little past that the trail will end in a meadow and then pick up again on the other side as you enter the woods at the divide. As you enter the main Twin Peak Creek park, you get a great view of tomorrow's hike.

About 0.9 miles past the divide, the trail will cross Twin Peaks Creek in the middle of a park. You may notice a slight tread heading up to the left that could easily be mistaken as just an alternate path to get out of the creek bottom. It is the Half Moon Pass Trail, the one you have been on and the shortest route to Half Moon Pass (LG-05, mile 4.9). Although it dies out right there by the creek, there is a marker at the tree line to the south. We wanted a longer trip and a chance to get a view of the other side of Twin Peaks so we kept heading west up Twin Creek on the Half Moon Creek Trail. At mile 5.1 the trail enters a small section of forest and there is a well used trailside campsite complete with fire ring, sitting logs, level tent sites and a great view of the surrounding park and willow bush meadow.

At about mile 5.4 the trail breaks into several competing paths that seem to come and go. It was hard to pick the "official" tread and several that started strong, just petered out. The trail becomes unifies after about a 0.1 mile, so if it disappears on you, back track and try another. After you leave the woods and begin the final climb to the Twin Peaks saddle, the trail will split. This is another place where it seems to be hiker's option. The upper trail is the official trail and it is a constant grade along the side of the slope. The lower trail is at the bottom of the slope and ends with a short but steep climb to the saddle.

On the saddle there are view of Twin Peaks and the drainages on both side. There are two trail junctions on the saddle. The first is the Twin Peaks Trail that will drop you in to Half Moon Creek (LG-06, mile 6.5). (Maybe the Forest Service GIS has misnamed the trail because I can't figure out why the Half Moon Creek Trail goes up Twin Peaks Creek and the Twin Peaks Trail goes up Half Moon Creek. Maybe the more appropriate thing would be to switch the creek names since Twin Peaks Creek is the one below Half Moon Pass and Half Moon Creek is on the other side of Twin Peaks.) Another 0.1 miles and 100-plus feet up slope through the brush is the Machin Basin Trail (LG-07). We will turn left (south).

The trail contours above the tree line for about 0.9 miles alternatively through grass and shrubs. In front of you juttiing off of a small mesa is a very interesting crag. When you finally turn the corner, you will be in the small basin under Half Moon Pass. When we were there on July 1, 2010, the winter snow field had just melted back from the trail. A note on the trailhead registration board indicated a horse party had to turn back the previous week. The basin is also where we were greeted with a herd of elk working their way up the pass. Just before the main climb to the pass, you will pass the junction with the Half Moon Pass Trail (LG-08, mile 7.7). Once at the pass, there are some great views of the side of the ridge you just came from and Wason Park to the west.

On the other side of the pass, pick up the Wheeler Trail wrapping around to the left. Just past the pass proper, the tread will develop into a good and very evident trail. There is no marker for LG-09 (mile 7.9) and no visible intersection. A few hundred feet further down hill on the Wheeler is a post. If you are looking for the La Garita Stock Driveway heading to Wason Park, look for a marker due west of the pass.

The Wheeler goes south from the pass and descends 600 feet over 1.2 miles through grass and shrubs. Coming into view on your right will be a rock monolith defining the back side of the Wheeler Geologic Area (WGA). At LG-10 (mile 9.0) is the intersection with the loop trail around the WGA. Since we did not hike the entire loop and there was no track available from the Forest Service, only the east side down to the Wheeler Shelter is shown in color on the map. Look carefully and you will see a dashed line on the base map defining the west side of the loop. I don't know how accurate it is, but there is a loop trail.

The shelter is an open air log cabin (LG-10, mile 10.1). There is a large area around it that is suitable for camping. Water is available in the nearby creek.

The WGA is pretty awesome. Its formation was due first to the layered deposition of volcanic ash. The ash erupting from the San Luis caldera was hot and sticky and the when it landed, the glass shards that make up the fine ash particles fused together to form a solid rock called tuff. Multiple explosive events (think multiple Mt St Helens explosions) resulted in layers of varying thickness. Slightly different chemical compositions, grain size and texture result in different colored rocks. The second step was erosion. Erosion, of course, is a continual process so what we see today is just a snap shot in time. What we are seeing today is that the more resistant cap rock, such as the densely welded tuff that forms the flat topped mesas in the wilderness, has eroded away exposing this softer tuff to erosion. Joints (cracks) in the cap rock allows water to seep down to the tuff which erodes fairly quickly (geologically, speaking) forming hoodoos, columns and pillars.

From the shelter, the hike back to Half Moon Pass and up on top of Palmer Mesa is 2.6 miles and 1,800 feet. Since it is another 5.5 miles across the mesa, an important bit of planning is necessary. Summer is monsoon season in Colorado and days that start out clear and blue often produce afternoon thunder storms. And by afternoon, it could be 12:01. So prudence dictates getting up early and being OFF the Mesa by noon, because up there you will be the tallest object around.

To get to the top of the mesa, head back to LG-09. If you have a GPS you can grab the coordinates and take the "official," albeit invisible, trail. Otherwise head back to the marker pole just this side of the pass. Either way, look for the pole at the edge of the mesa (on top) and make a bee line to it. Once you get close to the top, you should be able to pick up the path through cap rock. Once on top you can see a second marker pole a little further east (LG-12, mile 12.7 of the hike, including the trip down to the shelter and back).

The mesa is different than most mountain hiking I've done. It is flat but at 12,500 it gives you this unfettered, 360 degree view. It is all short grass and although certainly not as smooth as a golf course, almost feels like you are walking down a giant's fairway. However, the rough on the side has been replaced by a very rough fall. There is no tread to follow across the mesa and, while you may encounter some short paths, they are short lived. If the sky is clear you can do this section using dead reckoning. Your best bet for the most direct path is to look for the marker posts and walk straight to them. If it is socked in, which could easily happen at 12,500, you'll need a compass or use pre marked waypoints from your GPS.

I think I marked all the posts from LG-13 to LG-30. There may be one or two between LG-12 and LG-13 I missed, and for sure, I don't have a point for the post at the edge of the mesa LG-09 and LG-12. The coordinates of these points can be extracted from the KML file. You will see some have a rusted sign that when it can still be read says Center Stock Driveway. I don't know the history of the stock trails, but this is now the La Garita Stock Driveway, and you are on the correct route.

The two topographic features to look for are the saddle at LG-17 (mile 15.2) and Laguna Hilda. The saddle is formed where the cap rock has been eroded and there is an interesting shingled rock formation. Laguna Hilda looked more like a stock pond than an alpine lake.

On the map you will see two waypoints on the mesa, LG-25 and LG-26. These are big rock cairn and they are further south than where you need to travel. There are three posts in a triangle, LG-27, LG-28 and LG-29. I show the trail going through LG-27 and LG-29 because it more closely follow the "official" route as defined by both the Forest Service GIS and Trails Illustrated. Since there is no real trail, in retrospect if I had the coordinates of the LG-30, I would have taken a direct route from LG-28 to LG 30.

LG-30 it the marker for the Whale Creek Trail (mile 18.3). From here the trail drops over the edge of the mesa. The trail is very steep and made of loose dirt and cobbles. It is easy to follow on the descent but it gets lost as you enter the forested area of the upper valley. LG-31 (mile 18.7) is another post to help you with your navigation. Which is good because the trail is difficult to find until it begins to swing around to the north. LG-32 (mile 20.0) is the junction with the Coyote Trail. You will be coming out of a wooded section and the trees will recess to the east. The trail comes out in the south east corner of the recess.

The route crosses Whale Creek. Being all meadow, there is not defined path. LG-33 is where the trail becomes evident. LG-34 is another marker post but since the trail had been evident since LG-33 you probably won't need this waypoint.

About a half mile after LG-34, the trail enters a flat area of forest where you can start to see the canyon formed by Whale Creek. Just before it starts it's descent down the aspen covered slope of the canyon, the trail cuts back on an odd little hill formed where water drains toward the up stream directions of Whale Creek (but draining down hill, of course). At the bottom of the canyon, cross the creek to the east side and follow it until it enters another meadow and cross back to the west. This meadow is another section of intermittent trail. The trail climbs a little to cross a nose separating Whale and South Fork Saguache Creeks and then crosses South Fork Saguache Creek. Up the last little hill to the South Fork Saguache junction, turn right and its a half mile back to the trailhead (23.6 miles).

Info: USGS 7.5 minute Quadrangles: Mesa Mountain and Half Moon Pass for the hike and Wagon Wheel Gap and Pool Table Mountain for additional coverage of the southern approach to WGA and the south rim of Palmer Mesa. This entire trip is in the Rio Grande National Forest, headquartered in Monte Vista, CO, telephone: 719-852-5941. The La Garita Wilderness is administered by the SaguacheRanger District, Saguache, CO, telephone: 719-655-2547.

Directions: Go 36 miles west of Saguache CO on Highway 114. Turn south on gravel road 17-GG. Go 5.3 miles to the "T' and go left on NN-14. Go 1.1 miles and turn right on 17-FF. 17-FF will become Forest Road 787. After 13 miles you will come to the Stone Cellar Campground. Follow the signs for FR 787. Go 7 miles until you see the large timber-fenced trailhead parking lot on the right.

To Buy Maps: These maps are FREE. Click on image to access full size maps and download them. Both maps are available as a two map set on color, weatherproof, Rite-in-the-Rain paper (11x17). The maps are $5/sheet ($10 for the set) plus S&H by emailing cew5151@gmail.com.

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