The Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountain range was formed about 135 million years ago when a geologic "uplift" pushed sub-surface hot rock up into the plains area between what is now Taos and Red River, New Mexico. The original mountains were much higher than they are today, but gradually, wind and water weathered away the outer crust of the mountains exposing the previous hot rock, called "igneous intrusive."
In several areas, the igneous intrusive rock began to crumble due repeated freezing and thawing, thereby creating slopes of numerous small rocks, called "tallus slopes." Approximately 15,000 years ago, the glaciers of the ice age pushed into the Sangre de Cristos, further carving and shaping the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area. When the ice receded about 10,000 years ago, it carved out the Williams Lake basin, the Rio Hondo drainage area, and the sharp ridge line (an "arete") of Wheeler Peak. Williams Lake is geologically known as a "glacial cirque", i.e., a basin carved out by the receding glacier.
The highest peak in the range and in the State of New Mexico was first known as Taos Peak, after the nearby town of Taos, New Mexico. However, in 1950, the peak was renamed Wheeler Peak in honor of George Wheeler. A plaque at the summit states: "Named in honor of Major George Montague Wheeler (1832 - 1909) who for ten years led a party of surveyors and naturalists collecting geologic, biologic, planimetric and topographic data in New Mexico and six other southwestern states."
In March 1957, the New Mexico legislature passed a joint resolution requesting that the United State Congress designate an area around Wheeler Peak as a protected wilderness area. Seven years later, on September 3, 1964, Congress established the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area which today includes nearly 20,000 acres of high rugged terrain along the top of the Sangre de Cristo range.