La Garita Wilderness, Colorado

The La Garita Wilderness? You betcha! We are talking the Wheeler Geologic Area with layered volcanic rocks eroded into bad lands topography; flat topped alpine mesas that provide a constant 360 degree view of southern Colorado; and grassy parks that wind their way through the healthy spruce forest like a giant fairway.

This page provides general background of the wilderness, a free, full sized 1:24,000 scale topo of the entire trail system and some extra goodies. The following link will take you to a page devoted to our hike in July 2010. There, you will find a printable maps of the trip, GPS tracks, interactive mileage tables, trail descriptions and pictures. This was my first trip to La Garita and I am definitely going back!

La Garita-Wheeler Hike: This is a 23.6 mile loop that begins on the north side of the wilderness at the La Garita Trailhead, crosses the Half Moon Pass to the Wheeler Geologic Area and returns via the Palmer Mesa.

The Map of the Wilderness: This map is FREE, but first, be advised that it is a 19 mb file, so you will need a fast connection and some patience. The map is true 1:24,000 scale based on the USGS 7.5 minute quadrangles. The featured trip 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. The purple trail is the Continental Divide Trail. Green depicts unmaintained trials such as to the top of San Luis Peak. The green and black line is the wilderness boundary. The forest roads are in black and based on aerial and satellite imagery. Some may not be drivable with low clearance cars so check with the FS to make sure you can get to your trailhead.

All the tracks but the ones in red are from the Forest Service GIS database. For the most part there was very good correlation between the our GPS tracks and the forest service’s version. I also compared the FS tracks to the National Geographic Trails Illustrated map and conclude the FS tracks are definitely good enough to plan your trip and are probably the most accurate publicly available rendition. For example, some of the grassy areas have either no treads or multiple paths. In areas where we were unsure of the exact route, the FS track defined the best route. There is one exception and that was on the Palmer Mesa where there was no defined path. A further explanation is presented on the La Garita-Wheeler Page.

Since this map is so big, my suggestion is to use the KML file (below) or the Trails Illustrated map to pick your trip and use this USGS topo with track data to refine it. Since I am obviously a map guy, I would then print the sections of the big USGS topo for the field. You will note on the next pages I'd be more than happy to sell you weatherproof maps of the hike listed above ($10 for the set of 2 plus S&H on 11x17 Rite in the Rain stock), but they are formatted so that you can download and print them yourself.

Tracks of the Entire Wilderness: This link is to a Google Earth KML file for all the tracks on the big map. 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 wilderness trail system in interactive 3-D. Once in Google Earth you can access individual tracks. If you have the right software you can select the tracks you want and load them on your GPS.

Background:The 129,626 wilderness was first designated in 1964 making it one of Colorado's original five wilderness areas. La Garita, meaning the lookout in Spanish, sits in the San Juan Mountains surrounded by the Colorado towns of Creede, Del Norte, Saguache (sa WASH) and Lake City. Divided by the Continental Divide, it is administered by both the Gunnison and Rio Grand National Forests. The former covering the northwest portion that ultimately drains to the Colorado River and the latter covering the southeast portion that drains to the Rio Grande. There are about 175 miles of hiking trail in the wilderness.

The highest mountain in the Wilderness it San Luis Peak, a 14,104 non-technical hike. The topographic form of the wilderness and surrounding national forest is different than most Colorado ranges. The dominant features are the high alpine mesas that run for miles at elevations around 12,000 feet: Snow Mesa, Palmer Mesa, Wason Park, Silver Park, Sheep Mountain, Pool Table Mountain to name a few. The cause is the presence of a dense welded tuff layer of the Nelson Mountain formation that forms a cap rock over weaker less welded tuff layers. (Tuff is a rock formed from volcanic ash. Technically ash is the powdery stuff you see after a volcanic eruption. When it lithifies or turns to rock, it becomes a tuff. If the ash is super hot when it begins to settle, the ash particles fuse together to form a welded tuff). For more about the general geology of the San Juans, see the Geology section of the South San Juan Wilderness page of the this site.

The vegetation ranges with elevation. Coming in from the north to get to the trailheads, you will drive through grassland parks such as the Saguache Park where few trees are present, Once you get into forest, because of the high elevation, the dominant tree is the Engelmann spruce. In the lower valleys of the wilderness proper, you will see many aspen groves and limber pines are present. The high mesas are alpine, mostly grasses. Technically, you should see some subalpine firs mixed in with the Engelmann, but frankly I don't recall seeing any.

The only large mammals we saw was a herd of elk crossing Half Moon Pass and probably the same heard the next day on Palmer meadow. However, a hiker told me about a moose near Chavez Creek the week before our trip. Also, keep your eye open for the Canada lynx that was introduced in 1999. A 30-40 pound cat, it is grayer and bigger than a bobcat. (Yeah, good luck spotting one).

Info: The La Garita Wilderness straddles the Rio Grande and Gunnison National Forests. South of the Continental Divide it is administered by the Rio Grande National Forest, Saguache Ranger District, Saguache, CO, telephone: 719-655-2547. North of the Continental Divide it is administered by the Gunnison National Forest, Gunnison District Office, Gunnison and Lake City CO, telephone: 970-641-0471.

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