Area Jeep / 4x4 / ATVing
A trip to Colorado wouldn’t be complete without a four-wheel-drive adventure! The Rio Grande National Forest offers something for everyone, from scenic, leisurely trips along the back roads, to technical trips that might leave your jeep with a new scratch or dent!
Looking for adventure, but less work than hiking and mountain biking? Try any of the trails designated for motorized traffic. These trails will take you to mountain peaks and amazing vistas of the San Luis Valley, to creek bottoms and dense forest growth. No matter what your skill level, beginners to advanced riders will find limitless possibilities day after day.
Alder Bench #799
Motorcycle ONLY! Starts at Alder Creek Gaurd Station - steep narrow and rocky.
Difficulty: Moderate (8,400-8,900ft.)
Distance: 1.5 miles
Motorcycle Recommended. Trail starts at Cathedral campground, easy to the rock, but from here tail clibs and gets steep and rocky, topping out at Groundhog park.
Difficulty: Eady to Moderate (9,370-10,960 ft.)
Distance: 3.25 miles
Embargo Creek #792
Motorcycle ONLY! Go toward Cathedral Camground and follow road to the end, where trail starts. Nice trail through spruce and aspen with a creek.
Difficulty: Moderate (8,500-12,000ft.)
Distance: 6 miles
Middle Alder Creek #797
Trail stats at first switchback past Alder Creek Guard Station.Trail corsses small creek, with a lot of windfall. About 4 miles up is an abandoned cabin and saw mill site. Motorcycle Friendly
Distance: 5 Miles
Tewksberry Trail #842
Follow the Beaver Creek Road a few miles until you see a sign "Tewksberry Trail" on the right and follow that road stay to the right. Behind the horse corrals you will find the trail. Motorcycle Friendly
Distance: 5 miles
West Bear Creek #932
Motorcycles Recommended: Follow Bear Creek Rd. 614 to dead-end where trail starts.
Distance: 2.5 miles
Our Favorite Forks in the Road
Wheeler Geologic Area - A mysterious ghost city
The Wheeler Geologic Area resembles a mysterious ghost city, with spires and minarets that seem to float like a cloud above the surrounding mountains.
The formations are contained in a tiny 60-acre section of the Rio Grande National Forest where a mound of volcanic ash has eroded into a landscape that is so bizarre it seems to belong on another planet. This unique and somewhat eerie geologic phenomenon originated as part of the violent volcanic history of the San Juan Mountains. After millions of years of erosion, tall spires appear as if a race of giants had sculpted the pinnacles and placed rocks atop them. Erosion of vertical cracks produced rows of ash columns that look like a parade of pale soldiers or huge ghosts. Those who have written about the area describe the panorama of spires and pinnacles as forming castles, cathedrals and mosques.
The area is a wonderful place to see, but getting there requires a good bit of effort. Wheeler is located 24 miles from South Fork on Pool Table Rd. The 14 mile, 4-wheel drive road to the area is quite rough and in wet weather it can get very slick and become impassable. It is an expert level trail. An early start is required, as the trip takes a full day. Potential travelers are advised to check with the Visitor Center and the Creede Ranger District Office prior to making the trip. Visit www.southfork.org for a very detailed trip description.
Summitville to Elwood Pass & Stunner - Backcountry with History
Take Hwy 160 southwest from South Fork for 7 miles, and turn left on Park Creek Rd/FSR 380. Here is an area where Multiple Use Management of the Rio Grande National Forest’s Resources can be seen. A long-term contract was awarded by the Forest Service in 1954 to harvest 62 million board feet of timber. Ranches from the San Luis Valley also graze their cattle and sheep in these meadows. The efforts of many fishermen are often rewarded along the banks of Park Creek. After about 15 miles along this road you will have two choices:
1. Turn left on FSR 330 and in 3 miles you will reach Summitville. Gold was discovered here in 1870 by a group of Midwestern friends who found their way to this remote section of the San Juans. The secret of “Wightman’s Gulch” quickly leaked out, and the following summer brought hundreds of prospectors to what became the largest camp in the district at that time. By 1885 Summitville had over 2,500 staked claims and a population of around 700. A post office, school, daily newspaper, and at least 14 saloons allowed miners to live here year-round, enduring some harsh winters.
The boom faded in the later 1880’s and the town was nearly abandoned by 1894. Some mines were reopened in 1935 and a significant amount of copper was extracted during World War II. The area had a $2,000,000 shot in the arm in 1985 when mining resumed with a new process for extracting ore. However, the company filed bankruptcy and Summitville Mine is now closed and in the reclamation process, as a Superfund Site. Don’t drink the water!
Option 2. Stay on FSR 380 and travel through picturesque Elwood Pass (which can be very rough) towards another abandoned mine site, Stunner. Continue on FSR 380 and eventually reach Platoro, 41 miles off Hwy 160. To return, follow the same route or go back to Summitville and follow FSR 330 to CR 14 (Pinos Creek) toward Del Norte. (See map on page 12)
Beaver Creek Reservoir & Poage Lake - Classic Rocky Mountains
Go south of South Fork on Hwy 160 and turn left on Beaver Creek Road. Follow this road for 7 miles to the Beaver Creek Reservoir. Here you may fish, boat or just admire the scenery. Great creek fishing stretches below the dam for several miles. In the winter, find a great sledding hill and superb ice-fishing on the far side of the reservoir. Continue on this road another 13 miles to Poage Lake. A short 1/4-mile hike gets you to the banks of the picturesque lake. Back-track to the turnoff, and the route also continues on to Summitville and loops back through Del Norte, for a full day’s trip.
Big Meadows Reservoir, Shaw & Hunter’s Lakes - Into the high country for fall colors
Take Hwy 160 southwest of South Fork 12 miles and turn right on FSR 410 to Big Meadows Reservoir, a 600-acre lake with a spillway waterfall, boat ramp, fishing pier and amenities. This area is a delight to campers, fisherman, hikers, and boaters alike, and is a state wildlife area, where deer, bear and moose are easy to spot.
Depending on road conditions, you may choose to continue past Big Meadows for 3 miles to Shaw Lake. If you have a few hours of daylight remaining, drive an additional 11 miles to the parking area for a short 1/3-mile walk into Hunter’s Lake. A nice 1-mile hiking trail circles the lake and gives fishermen access to the trout swimming in its waters.
Bachelor Loop Historic Tour - Creede
This 17-mile driving tour loops through Creede’s historic silver mining district and ghost towns. The tour’s first interpretive stop is just north of Creede in Willow Creek Canyon at the juncture of East and West Willow creeks. A passenger car can traverse the graded gravel road to the Equity Mine and then return to Creede via Bachelor Road (FS Road 504) and the old town site of Bachelor.
Guidebooks, keyed to numbered markers along the loop, are available at the Creede Visitor Center and various businesses. The 25-page guidebook with map costs $1.00. The loop road has some narrow stretches and steep grades that require caution. Check on road conditions during inclement weather. Several 4-wheel-drive roads lead off the tour route into less accessible terrain. Allow a minimum of 1 hour for the tour.
Penitente Canyon & La Garita Arch
Experience the Power of Place
Grab breakfast in town before heading east towards the San Luis Valley. To take the “scenic route” east, turn off at the Ute Bluff Lodge onto CR 19, cross the mighty Rio Grande and follow the paved/dirt CR 15 as it snakes along the river, through scenic ranches and farmland for about fifteen miles. Consider a detour at the sign for Colonel Pfeiffer’s Grave, and visit the land granted to him by the Native Utes. Pass by Indian Head and other unusual and remarkable mountain outcroppings. Zigzag south-east-north just before getting onto Colorado 112 and travel north along the outer edge of the Valley for just over 2 miles. Follow the signs for Penitente Canyon and La Garita, and turn onto CR33/38A.
You will first take an 11 mile round-trip expedition to see the Arch, or La Ventana (spanish for “window”), one of southern Colorado’s most unusual natural formations. Note the interesting geology of the area: about 33 million years ago during a period of explosive volcanic activity, large amounts of volcanic debris and ash were ejected into the air. Heat and pressure formed the ash into very hard rock, and millions of years worth of erosion deteriorated the softer material, leaving behind what we see today! The Arch was carved out of a volcanic “dike” and you might notice the signs of weathering on nearby companion arches.
To see the Natural Arch: Take a left off of Rd 33/38A onto FS 660/Rd A32. Follow this road for 4.1 miles. Take FS 659/ Rd 35C and go another 1.6 miles north.
South Fork to the Natural Arch: aprox 1 hr drive.
Return to Road 38A and continue north-bound. Next up is Penitente Canyon, a designated Special Recreation Area with something for everyone!
For the sight-seer, hiker and history buff: Take the short hike up to see the Wagon Wheel ruts, a part of the Old Spanish Trail that served as a pack-animal route for traders traveling west to California in the mid-1800s. Wander throughout the unusual canyons in search of the San Luis Valley’s largest collection of pictographs. Most is the work of indigenous peoples who lived in the area 2,000 years ago, but a newer example is the faded blue Madonna high up on a rock face, reportedly painted by locals in the mid 1900s.
For the rock climber: Penitente Canyon is an internationally recognized climbing area, providing 60-70 incredible sport climbing routes. The unusual volcanic landscape (rock that eroded and cracked over time) not only created a mystical backdrop for recreation, but the smoothed and rounded rock-face provides good hand-holds! South facing routes can be climbed year-round and range from beginner to advanced levels.
For the mountain biker: 2 mountain bike loops offer a great opportunity to see the area. The B-loop is best for the beginner, while the A-loop is more fun for an advanced rider. Each route is less than three miles, and can also be hiked.
If you need a snack break, return to CR 38A and drive the short distance to the town of La Garita. Stop at the Cash Store, an old log cabin turned general shop. Visit the picturesque 1924 Catholic church that today houses the San Juan Art Center. Make your return trip via Del Norte. Consider a stop by the Rio Grande County Museum for more about the local heritage and make a note to ask about Colonel Pfeiffer, a well know and respected Indian Agent! Wander Grand Avenue’s antique shops and art galleries, and have dinner at the Historic Windsor Hotel.
Learn more at www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/riogrande/recarea/?recid=64790
Download a detailed map of the area
Wheeler Geological Area
The Wheeler Geologic Area is one of the most fascinating geological features in the San Juan Mountains, located 2- miles east of Creede on the south side of the San Luis Peaks, or 24 miles from South Fork on Pool Table road. The geologic formations are contained in a tiny 60-acre section of the Rio Grande National Forest. In this area a mound of volcanic ash has eroded into a landscape that is so bizarre it seems to belong on another planet.
For road conditions, contact the Divide Ranger District, Creede Office:
304 South Main St., Creede, CO 81130
Wheeler Geologic Area resembles a mysterious ghost city, with spires and minarets that seem to float like a cloud above the surrounding mountains and evergreens of the national forest. This unique geologic phenomenon originated as part of the violent volcanic history of the San Juan Mountains and millions of years of erosion by the elements that carved the eerie landscape that we see today.
The San Juan Mountains are the largest volcanic area in Colorado. Enormous lava flows from volcanoes that existed 40 million to 30 million years ago coalesced into a composite volcanic field that was up to 4,000 feet thick and covered about 9,000 square miles. After a quiet period that lasted about a million years, the character of the volcanic activity underwent a dramatic change. About 20 million years ago great pyroclastic eruptions began to produce large quantities of volcanic ash. With major ash flow eruptions exploding again and again from 18 different volcanoes, building up a layer of volcanic ash that was up to 3,000 feet thick in some areas. Most of these pyroclastic eruptions ended about 26.5 million years ago. Sporadic volcanic activity continued until about five million years ago.
The Wheeler Geologic formations are a product of the period of ash flow eruptions. The debris was blown into the air during a pyroclastic eruption consisting of individual particles that range in size from dust flakes to a few scattered pebbles rarely more than a few inches in diameter. Occasionally broken rock fragments up to two or three feet in diameter, called brecci, were thrown out with the ash cloud. The ash particles settled back on to the groun din layers called volcanic tuff. Tuff particles are not firmly cemented together, so the relatively soft tuff beds are readily eroded by the wind and rain over millions of years. Most tuff is light gray or creamy in color, with a bit of pink and sometimes brown thrown in for good measure.
In the Wheeler area, the rains have carried away much of the smaller particles. Although a large rock will protect the tuff underneath it with the surrounding ash eroded away. Resulting in a tall spire with a large rock balanced on the top as if a race of giants had sculpted the pinnacles and then balanced a rock on top of their sculpture.
During cooling, the beds of ash often developed numerous vertical cracks. Erosion slowly widens these cracks, producing rows of ash columns that look like a parade of pale soldiers or huge ghosts. Some areas of ash are more solidly compacted than others, resulting in different rates of erosion that have produced many of the more peculiar shapes. Those who have written about the area describe the panorama of spires and pinnacles as forming castles, cathedrals and mosques.
The first recorded visit to the Wheeler formations was in 1907 when Frank Spencer, a Forest Service supervisor, and Elwood Bergy, a resort owner from Wagon Wheel Gap, followed up on rumors and located the place. Their enthusiastic report owner from Wagon Wheel Gap followed up on rumors and located the place. Their enthusiastic report resulted in the designation of 300 acres around the area as the Wheeler National Monument. President Theodore Roosevelt signed the proclamation creating the monument, in December 1908.
The name of the monument honors George M. Wheeler of the U.S. Army Corp of Topographical Engineers, who did extensive geological surveys in the area from 1873 to 1884. Although he got close to the area, there is no recorded that Wheeler actually observed the formations.
The Forest Service managed to monument until 1933, at which time jurisdiction was transferred to the National Park Service. However, because of its remote location and a lack of money there was no development of the site. In 1943 there were only 43 recorded visitors. On August 3, 1950 the Wheeler National Monument was abolished and the area once again became part of the Rio Grande national Forest. The Forest Service was sensitive to the need to protect this fragile area. In 1962 the protected area was increased from 300 to 640 acres and all mineral prospecting was prohibited.
In 1969 the improved gravel road that reached to within 14 miles of the area was constructed, but plans to continue the road to the actual geological formation were cancelled. It was in 1969 that the title Wheeler Geologic Area was applied to the protected 640 acre site. The status of the Wheeler Geologic Area remained unchanged until 1993. On August 13 of that year the Colorado WildernessBill of 1993 was signed, placing a total of 611,730 acres in Colorado under tightly controlled wilderness management.
One of the designated wilderness areas includes the Wheeler Geologic Area; comprising 25,640 acres in Mineral and Saguache counties. Wilderness designation precludes any logging, mineral exploration, road building, new water diversion structures or mechanized travel. Under the terms of the 1993 Wilderness Bill, the Wheeler Geologic Area will receive full wilderness protection. The area is a wonderful place to see, but getting there requires a good bit of effort. The 14 mile, 4-wheel drive road to the area is quite rough and in wet weather it can get very slick and become impassable. Potential travelers are advised to check with the Creede Ranger District Office prior to making the trip. A visit to the Wheeler Geologic Area begins on Pool Table Road, which is a good gravel road that climbs to an elevation of 10,840 feet in about ten miles and ends at the site of the old sawmill referred to as Hanson’s Mill. Car travel ends at Hanson’s Mill, where the only remnants of the old sawmill is a huge pile of sawdust that continues to smolder with a deep fire that never goes out. The only amenities offered at this area are room for primitive camping and restroom facilities.
From Hanson’s Mill, the 4-wheel drive road is well marked, and designated as Forest Service Road 600. The road is a narrow corridor that is surrounded by the newly created wilderness area. The left fork can be driven for about a mile until the road ends and the 5.7 mile hiking and horse trail begins (Trail No. 790). The 4-wheel drive route goes straight ahead at the fork, beginning the start of a long and bumpy 14 miles to Wheeler. The road is relatively flat, as the Wheeler site is only 300 feet higher than Hanson’s Mill. However, deep ruts and an unending succession of big rocks keep progress to a crawl. The 14 mile trip will often require more than three hours. The scenery along the route is so beautiful that stops for pictures and looking always slow progress. A variety of wildlife is common with deer, elk and coyotes rewarding those who keep a sharp eye on the surrounding forest. The last mile of the road winds through dense stands of fir and spruce, with deep ruts and narrow spaces between trees requiring some driving skills, when wet, this section of road becomes so slick that not even 4-wheel drive provides much control.
The road ends about a half-mile from the formations, where there are several nice spots to camp or have a picnic. A well-defined foot trail leads to the geologic area. After 200 yards, the trail divides; straight ahead leads to the base of the scenic area and a small rough shelter that was built around 1915. The left fork climbs around the west side of the formations to a spectacular scenic overlook that provides a panorama of the entire area. A small bench has been erected near the overlook. Visitors will need to be careful at the overlook and everywhere else you walk on the volcanic tuff. Erosion has formed canyons with steep walls. Many small round pebbles lie about the ash fields, resultin gin tteacherous footing much like walking on a floor covered with marbles. A trip to the Wheeler Geologic area requires a long day plus strong legs, a horse or 4-wheel drive vehicle.
Local Outdoor Clubs
The Silverthreaders and Powderbusters are diverse groups of locals, part-timers, and visitors that enjoy ATV riding, camping, hiking, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, fishing, hunting, skiing and motorcycling. Their many organized activities aim to preserve the multi-use of our magnificent outdoors and impart responsible recreation use. They organize weekly outings for hiking (3x’s per week), ATV/4x4 rides, snowmobile and snowshoeing.
Ask for a copy of their recreation map from the Visitor Center
Consult local sources concerning directions and trail conditions before going out. Never enter the backcountry alone and always leave detailed information with someone.