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The Outlaw Trail Part I

Posted in Ultimate Adventure on September 15, 2006
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There has been a lot written about outlaws such as Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and Kid Curry. Nearly all of it is based on stories passed down from one generation to another. Some outlaws, such as Matt Warner, told their stories after retiring from the outlaw way of life. Others, such as Kid Curry, left their stories with friends who published them years after the outlaw's death. Then there was Butch Cassidy's sister who narrated a very interesting book with convincing evidence that the famous outlaw did not, in fact, die in South America. Others like Pearl Biddlecome lived near outlaw hideouts as children and either knew them or had parents and grandparents who knew them.

Regardless of which stories you believe, the result can be simply put that following outlaw escapades leads to visiting very remote country and enjoying some of the most scenic lands this country has to offer. During the next few months, Off-Road will publish a series of stories that follows the Outlaw Trail from southern Utah to the Canadian border. You can also find other stories about the trail at Details on guided tours, guidebooks, and entertaining videos are also available there.

Of all the outlaws that roamed the West during the late 1800s, Butch Cassidy is one of the most prominent. Long before the movie with Newman and Redford, books were being written about Cassidy and his Wild Bunch. If you believe those books, Cassidy was the one who planned the Wild Bunch's dozens of robberies, even if he didn't take part in all of them personally.

During the month of April 1884, at the age of 18, Robert LeRoy Parker left his father's home near Circleville, Utah. He was wanted for stealing horses - probably the same horses he took through Hanksville, then up the Angel Trail onto Robbers Roost. From there, he drove his herd to Moab, Utah, then to Telluride, Colorado, where miners were willing to pay top dollar.

The house where Robert LeRoy Parker said goodbye to his mother is located south of Circleville, Utah, on Highway 89, between Mile Posts 156 and 157. It has never been designated as a historic site and is falling down from years of neglect.

Although he used various assumed names during the next 20 years, Robert LeRoy Parker was best known as Butch Cassidy. Cassidy he took from his mentor, another outlaw who had used the same name; Butch was a name given to him when he worked briefly as a butcher. He rode the Outlaw Trail, also referred to in those days as the Owl Hoot Trail. He was involved in robberies from New Mexico to Montana and became the notorious leader of the Wild Bunch.

Poison Spring Canyon.

Several years ago, the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, told the story Hollywood style. A part of the movie was filmed in the ghost town of Grafton, Utah. The old school and the building behind it were in the background while Etta and Butch rode around the yard on a bicycle. Grafton can be seen south of the highway going east out of Rockville on Highway 9.

The life and legend of Butch Cassidy and other members of the Wild Bunch sets the stage for some interesting four-wheeling trips. Many of their hideouts and trails still exist, virtually unchanged in the past 120 years.

"Outlaw Trail" was more of a term than an actual trail. When old-timers said someone was on the Outlaw Trail, it simply meant they were running from the law. The name "Wild Bunch" was applied to most anyone who was running from the law. Saying Butch Cassidy was the leader of the Wild Bunch was a pretty vague statement.

There were three major hideouts used frequently by the Wild Bunch: Hole-in-the-Wall in Wyoming, Brown's Hole in Colorado, and Robbers Roost in Utah. This series of stories will take you to all three of them. Other places where Cassidy spent a lot of time waiting for things to cool down included Landusky, Montana, and the Wilson Ranch in Alma, New Mexico. If you connect the dots between all those locations, you wind up with a trail extending from Canada to Mexico. Although they followeded no specific path, the Wild Bunch did use all of the hideouts on a regular basis and traveled between them frequently. Using the same method, we can connect the dots using four-wheel-drive roads and still be on the Outlaw Trail, quite possibly the same path taken by the outlaws since they too avoided the main roads.

Crossing the Dirty Devil River.

The most remote and fun to visit of the hideouts is Robbers Roost. It is true that the term Robbers Roost was used freely by those who were missing certain items to describe where the people went who took those items. For that reason, there are lots of "Robbers Roosts" scattered throughout the country, but as far as the Wild Bunch were concerned, there was only one. Since it was the first one visited by Butch Cassidy when he left home and headed for Telluride, it is the most logical place for us to begin our journey back in time along the Outlaw Trail.

When Robert LeRoy Parker left home, he was guided to Robbers Roost by other rustlers who knew the area well. Hanksville was a supply point for the Roost, and there were three established trails connecting the town to the hideout. The most commonly used route today is to cross the desert on a graded dirt road that currently provides access to the Hans Flat ranger station. You can find that road north of Hanksville between Mile Posts 136 and 137 on Highway 24.

The most fun way to get to Robbers Roost in a 4x4 is by way of Poison Spring Canyon, Hatch Canyon, Sunset Pass, and the Flint Trail. It actually follows along at the base of the Roost all the way across its southern end, then follows along the eastern side of it for a few miles before climbing to the top. In the process, it enters Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on the west side of Sunset Pass and exits at the Hans Flat ranger station. If you go that way, keep in mind that permits are necessary to camp in GCNRA, and pets are not allowed.

The shortest route, the one Parker used, is by way of the Angel Trail. It has not changed in the past 120 years and still requires hiking or horses to get across the canyon where the Dirty Devil River flows (if you would like to take that route, send us an e-mail - we've hiked it several times).

Driving through Hatch Canyon.

We have never felt comfortable with camping restrictions, so we rarely camp anywhere that enforces them. On this trip, as always before, we camped on BLM lands west of Sunset Pass before crossing the boundary for GCNRA. It took us about five hours to get from Hanksville to this secluded campsite. Along the way, we enjoyed some of the most breathtaking scenery Utah has to offer. Getting down to the Dirty Devil River, crossing its bumper-deep currents, and then climbing back out of the canyon involved taking dozens of photos. Unfortunately, since this country is so panoramic, a camera just can't capture its beauty. The only way to truly enjoy it is to go there.

There is no bridge for the Dirty Devil River, and it can be extremely deep during or after a rainstorm. On this trip, we found it barely at bumper level. The riverbed is quite rocky, but a slow, steady pace is all that's required to drive across. Both banks are sandy and give way slightly under the vehicle's tires, but we managed not to spin our wheels during the crossing. From the river, it is a long drive to Sunset Pass. The road is rocky but still an easy trip shifted in 2-Hi. There are numerous photo opportunities along the way.

Crossing the Dirty Devil River.

We were using the new Topo USA 6.0 software by DeLorme to map our trip. The software creates draw files that can be shared with anyone who has the same software. In other words, if you would like to see the exact route we used, you can purchase the draw file we created on our journey. You then start Topo USA 6.0 on your laptop and download the draw file you got from us. Once you connect a GPS to your laptop, the software will guide you along the exact same route we took. As you move, your position along that route is displayed by an arrow symbol. For more information, visit our website at

There is a campsite at the top of Sunset Pass. This campsite requires permits. We would not have stayed there even if we had a permit due to the strong winds that came up in the afternoon. Any time winds are blowing, they are at their strongest across the top of a pass.

There is an intersection on the east side of Sunset Pass. If an outlaw were going to Telluride, he would likely continue east to Spanish Bottom or go south to Dandy Crossing. We turned left and took the road going north from Sunset Pass. It followed along the base of Robbers Roost along the east wall then climbed that wall by way of the Flint Trail. The view is nothing short of spectacular. There are even points along this route where landmarks in Colorado can be seen on a clear day.

The Flint Trail can be exciting. Its surface is mostly dirt, which becomes mud when it's wet. The switchbacks climb 1,000 feet of vertical canyon wall, so there is plenty of opportunity to slip off the road for those of you who are looking for a good place to test your rollcage. Most of it is one lane wide; the only place to pass oncoming traffic is at the switchbacks. Although the climb is steep and rocky, it's not really difficult provided you choose the right course. Once you reach the top of the Flint, you are on Robbers Roost.

From the top of the Flint Trail, we drove past the Hans Flat ranger station on graded roads and to the intersection for the Ekker Ranch. We took the sandy road going west and soon arrived at Silver Spring.

According to several references, the cave at Silver Spring was the site of a gunfight between a posse from Green River and three outlaws known as Silver Tip, Indian Ed Newcomb, and Blue John. According to the story, the three outlaws were on the run and stopped at the cave to spend the night. No posse had ever dared to enter the Roost, so the outlaws didn't expect to find the law waiting for them the next morning. Not being familiar with the area, the posse made a critical mistake. If they had climbed the walls of the rocks above the cave, they could have easily picked off the outlaws. As it happens, once the outlaws realized they were under attack, one of them climbed the wall at the back of the cave and began firing down on the posse. That was more than the posse was prepared to deal with, and they hightailed it for home.

Looking at Sunset Pass.

From Silver Spring, we continued down the canyon to the remains of the first known cabin to have been built on the Roost. It was owned by Jack Cottrell and his family. They were good friends with the Wild Bunch and according to Pearl Biddlecome (Baker), the author of a very good book entitled The Wild Bunch at Robbers Roost, the children played their gunfighter games a bit unconventionally: Whichever one was the lawman always lost.

There is nothing left of the Cottrell home today except for a chimney. The house was accidentally burned down by a cowboy trying to run the rats out.

Camped outside the edge of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area with Sunset Pass in the background.

When Robert LeRoy Parker first visited Robbers Roost, he used the Angel Trail to get his horses across the canyon between the two trailheads. The Angel Trail was used frequently by outlaws simply because it was the shortest distance between Hanksville and Robbers Roost, and it was easily defended. Anyone coming across that canyon was a sitting duck for a good rifleman. On the other hand, the opposite was true for anyone crossing the canyon with a posse in hot pursuit.

During the 1870s, years before Parker saw the Angel Trail, Cap Brown and a couple of young riders were driving a herd of stolen horses across it. A posse closed in and they were forced to stop and fight. One of the young riders was hit by a bullet before the posse gave up and headed for home. The outlaws took their herd across the canyon to Angel Point then camped beside a hill where the young rider died. Even today, that hill is marked on maps as Dead Man's Hill.

We left the remains of the cabin and continued down the canyon to Roost Spring. We still had strong winds to deal with, and the temperature was dropping like a rock. A radio station claimed we would be enjoying snowfall and temperatures below 20 degrees on this April night. Since the wind prevented making a campfire, we cooked our meals on our tailgates and then made our beds in the backs of the vehicles. Roost Spring was, and still is, a popular watering hole on the Roost. So popular, in fact, that there are cowboy glyphs written on the rocks dating back to the 1800s. One of those signatures is Pearl Biddlecome's, the author mentioned earlier. Her family moved onto the Roost in 1909 and founded the first successful ranch after the outlaws moved out. The water troughs at Roost Spring were built by her father.

At the time, Robert LeRoy Parker rode across the Roost on his first trip (he was not yet using the name Butch Cassidy, and the Wild Bunch did not yet exist). Lawmen had never been to the Roost, but cattle thieves and horse thieves were using it regularly. Parker had no way of knowing he would some day rule the Roost or that he would be credited with founding and leading the Wild Bunch, the most infamous band of outlaws to roam the western states. Parker perfected the tactics for robbing banks and trains, yet his outlaws had a code of honor. Women were respected and treated well. Killing was to be avoided. Stealing from common folks was enough to be banned from the country. And nothing was worth doing unless it was fun.

Climbing over Sunset Pass.

One book tells the story of a woman who lived alone on a ranch. One night, a lone rider arrived and asked if she had anything to eat. She fed the man, and during the conversation mentioned that she was spending her last night in her home. Her husband had died, and she was unable to keep up with the payments. A banker was expected to arrive in the morning demanding the money or he would repossess her property. The stranger finished his meal then handed her enough cash to pay off the debt. He told her to be sure she got the deed fully signed and clear of all debt before the banker left. The next morning, she paid the banker and collected her deed. She later learned that the banker was robbed by a lone rider on his way back to town. That lone rider was Butch Cassidy.

Robert LeRoy Parker took his horses across the Angel Trail, watered them at Roost Spring, camped at Silver Spring, and then completed his journey to Telluride. He would return to the Roost years later under the name of Butch Cassidy, and with the help of Elzy Lay, would spend an entire winter preparing to pull off the most daring robbery Utah ever saw. It was called the Castle Gate Holdup... but that's another story. Join us next month for part two of "The Outlaw Trail."

PhotosView Slideshow
PhotosView Slideshow
Begin this trip by driving south from Hanksville, Utah, on Highway 95.
0.0 38 08.507 110 36.614 At the 17-mile post, turn east onPoison Spring {{{Canyon}}} Road.
16.3 38 05.839 110 24.385 Dirty Devil River crossing.
37.1/0 38 04.437 110 12.183 Glen Canyon National Recreation Area boundary. Reset your trip meter to 0.
4.6 38 03.516 110 08.487 This intersection comes after Sunset Pass. Turn left toward the Flint Trail and the Maze.
11.6 38 07.638 110 06.354 Stay left toward the Flint Trail.The Maze is right.
14.5 38 07.093 110 07.657 Go right at top of the Flint Trail.
14.8/0 38 07.295 110 07.739 Flint Trail overlook.
11.9 38 15.330 110 10.797 Hans Flat ranger station. Permits, toilets, and info available.
12.6 38 15.330 110 11.454 At this intersection, stay left which is straight ahead.
19.0 38 16.974 110 17.006 Right fork.
25.8 38 22.{{{600}}} 110 18.336 There is a cutoff just before the main intersection. Turn left and then go across the next road and continue straight up the hill.
29.5 38 21.824 110 21.314 Watch for this one or you'll miss it. Turn left going downhill on a sandy trail.
29.9 38 21.606 110 21.702 Right. Left goes to Dead Man's Hill.
30.1 38 21.657 110 21.841 Silver Spring is on the right. The short trail to it has room for parking.
30.3 38 21.613 110 22.362 Roost Spring. This is a popular camping site and is also used as a parking area for backpackers going into Robbers Roost Canyon. The spring and cowboy glyphs are in the canyon. Follow the trail past the big tree.

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