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The Outlaw Trail Part II

Posted in Ultimate Adventure on September 13, 2006
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We were camped at Robbers Roost Spring on a very cold April night. Temperatures had dropped to under 20 degrees F, and strong winds took the wind chill far below that level. A campfire was not an option due to the winds, so the usual socializing had been postponed for another night. Everyone had retired to their vehicles to wait for the possibility of a warmer morning.

The sun was up and the sky was a clear blue, but the temperature was taking its time to get above freezing. Around 9 a.m., we began moving around outside the vehicles and built a fire for cooking and to huddle around. We spent some time talking about the outlaws and the robbery that occurred almost exactly 109 years ago. The route we would take to the site of the Castlegate holdup could be the same one used by the outlaws, but there is no way to know for sure. We know they planned the robbery while on Robbers Roost, and we know where the robbery occurred. Connecting those two points could be done many different ways. That is a part of the mystery that makes following the Outlaw Trail so interesting. It is possible to pick the route of your choice and you could very well be going the exact same way the outlaws went.

It was April 21, 1897, when Butch Cassidy and Elzy Lay left Castlegate carrying more than $8,000 in stolen payroll money. It was one of the most daring robberies ever committed in Utah's history. It was well planned, almost perfectly executed, and occurred in broad daylight among hundreds of armed miners, guards, and townsfolk. They had posses from three towns hot on their trail as they made their way back to Robbers Roost.

The planning for the Castlegate holdup actually began months earlier on Robbers Roost. Butch Cassidy and Elzy Lay had established a basecamp on Upper Pasture beside Horseshoe Canyon. In her book, The Wild Bunch at Robbers Roost, Pearl Baker claims Butch was accompanied by Etta Place, and Elzy lived with his wife, Maude Davis. They spent their days training the many horses to be used in the getaway.

Robbers Roost with the Henry Mountains in the background. Robbers Roost with the Henry Mountains in the background.
Temple Wash access to Temple Mountain Ghost Town. Temple Wash access to Temple Mountain Ghost Town.
0610or 03 z+Outlaw Trail Part II+dodge rear view wide
Temple Mountain Ghost Town. Temple Mountain Ghost Town.

We were unable to find any remains of the camp, but access to Upper Pasture is limited to hiking (unless you are lucky enough to have a horse in your backseat), so I wasn't able to cover much of it. If we could have located the camp, it would have made a great starting point for our journey along the Outlaw Trail to Castlegate. Since that was not the case, we selected Robbers Roost Spring.

When Butch Cassidy and Elzy Lay left Upper Pasture, they still had to meet with Joe Walker, whose only task during the robbery was to cut the telegraph wires. That meeting could have taken place at Upper Pasture or anywhere along the way to Castlegate.

The bandits proceeded on a casual pace to Castlegate. Their horses had to be rested for the getaway. That meant plenty of water, feed, and time. There were several hideouts they could have used along the way, and several routes they could have chosen. The route we selected is currently open to 4x4s. It passes through a ghost town and two of my favorite hideouts. If you decide to take the entire journey, be prepared to cross 135 miles of desert without passing a single town. That's 135 miles of unpaved roads ranging from easy graded dirt to serious rockcrawling. There are, however, several points along the journey where you can take a detour and find civilization complete with hot showers and vehicle parts.

We left Robbers Roost Spring about 11 a.m. We needed to gas up the vehicles and get a few supplies. We used Hanksville since it was also a favorite supply town for the outlaws. We took the scenic route, which does not hit pavement until it reaches the highway at the Hanksville airport.

After spending an hour or so in town, we headed back south on Highway 95 to Mile Post 136. At that point, we turned west on the road for Goblin Valley and Temple Mountain. We decided to visit the ghost town at Temple Mountain on our way to Swazy's Cabin.

Temple Mountain Ghost Town. Temple Mountain Ghost Town.
0610or 06 z+Outlaw Trail Part II+landscape
Swazy's Cabin. Swazy's Cabin.
Temple Mountain Ghost Town.

At the time Cassidy and Lay were headed for Castlegate, the town at Temple Mountain did not yet exist. It came to life during the uranium boom of the 1950s. There are still two buildings and a few foundations marking the town's location. At one time, numerous buildings housed dozens of miners who worked the rich uranium veins inside the mountain. Exploring the open mines is not recommended. High radiation and bad air can make them hazardous enough even if they don't fall in on you. When the sun goes down, you just might discover that you glow in the dark.

Temple Mountain is a landmark that can be seen all the way from Robbers Roost. For anyone crossing the desert on horseback, it made a great mile post. From the base of the mountain, the ghost town is accessed by way of a beautiful narrow canyon up Temple Wash. Beyond the ghost town, the road around Temple Mountain can be serious four-wheeling, depending on the route you take. There are also a couple of places where a wrong turn might put you on an ATV trail going to the peak of the mountain. If you make the right choices at the intersections, you will connect to a graded dirt road.

Swazy's Refrigerator from the inside looking out.

We were using Delorme TopoUSA 6.0 with GPS tracking to guide us through the maze. As we traveled, our computers recorded that track into what Delorme calls a draw file. If you have TopoUSA, you can purchase a copy of that draw file from us and import it into the program. It will display a blue line indicating every turn we made. If you connect a GPS to your laptop, you can follow that blue line and TopoUSA will display your exact position on that route from beginning to end. For more information, visit OutbackUSA's website at www.outbackusa.com.

Swazy's Cabin is another Registered Historic Site. Like the ghost town at Temple Mountain, it did not yet exist when Butch and Elzy passed through. At that time, it was a popular camping spot for travelers because of the bubbling spring in the canyon behind the cabin. It was a place where travelers from different directions shared a campfire but never asked questions. There are some things it's just not healthy to know.

Behind Swazy's Cabin is a cave known as the Refrigerator. Ranchers who occupied the cabin took advantage of its cooler temperature to preserve butchered game. The first time we visited the Refrigerator, about 20 years ago, a log spanned the width of its ceiling. That log was used to hang meat above the reach of coyotes that might try to steal it.

Swazy's Hallway to the Refrigerator.

There are a lot of nice campsites north of the cabin along a cliff where you can find rock art left by the Ancient Ones a thousand years ago. Improvements to the site during recent years include a modern pit toilet and a billboard with historic information about the area.

From Swazy's Cabin, our route passed under Interstate 70 through a narrow cattle tunnel. Our first stop was to take some photos of Dutchman's Arch. From there, we took a northwesterly route to the trailhead for Devils Racetrack. We found a billboard with maps, directions, and plenty of warnings to welcome us to the trail.

A revised management plan was recently implemented by the BLM due to pressure from a radical group that calls itself environmentalists. That plan closed a lot of roads on the San Rafael Swell. The most devastating loss to four-wheelers was the closure of Saddlehorse Canyon. Using the Saddlehorse Canyon trailhead enabled those of us who cannot carry supplies for a four-day hike to visit the cabins at the top of the mountain. Those cabins mark a site that many people believe was used by the outlaws as a hideout during the late 1880s. The cabin on stilts is a unique structure that has been photographed by numerous photojournalists and has appeared repeatedly in books and other publications. Although that cabin is not old enough to have been visited by Butch Cassidy, the remains of an older cabin and corral beside it are much older.

Driving under I-70 through a cattle crossing to Dutchman's Arch.

In the past, a day hike from the Saddlehorse Canyon trailhead was more than enough to visit the cabins and return to the vehicles. Now that Saddlehorse Canyon is closed, again, unless you have a horse in your backseat, you have a two-day hike each way to visit the cabins on Sids Mountain.

Devils Racetrack was the only road from the south that survived the management plan with access into Coal Wash. It is not one for amateurs and probably should not be done in stock vehicles. The Blazer ZR2s we took over the trail came from the factory with a 3-inch lift kit, wider track, and oversized tires. We used every inch of that clearance numerous times during the crossing. The Dodge extended cab truck suffered some rocker panel modifications along the way.

Dutchman's Arch.

The Racetrack is open to all vehicles, according to the maps at the trailheads; however, we did not see any other 4x4s anywhere near it. The trail seems to have been adopted by ATVs and has taken on a shape that is most friendly to vehicles of that size.

We reached the end of Devils Racetrack at Coal Wash about dinner time and made a right turn going up the wash to our favorite campsite at Slipper Arch. That site can accommodate large groups of campers, so we were able to spread out far and wide. Steaks cooked over an open fire were on the menu. Temperatures were well above freezing, and the clear blue sky was full of stars.

Devils Racetrack

The next morning brought another beautiful day. The Slipper Arch campsite does not get early morning sun due to the high canyon walls, so we were grateful for the mild temperature. Once again, we took our time getting breakfast cooked. We were in no hurry to leave the tranquility of Coal Wash behind us.

The trail climbed the west wall of Coal Wash and took us to higher ground. We followed it to another intersection with wide-open campsites for those who use it to unload ATVs. Going west at that intersection would have taken us to the town of Ferron, but we still had plenty of gas and supplies. We took the right fork going northeasterly back to the rim overlooking the point where Saddlehorse Canyon connects to Salt Wash.

Devils Racetrack

Before the new management plan, we were able to drive to within a few hundred feet of the canyon floor. At that point, we connected to the original horse trail that accesses the top of Sids Mountain. From there, it was possible to hike to the cabins, but it was a very long day. We only used that hiking route twice.

The new management plan closed the roads to the canyon floor, so it is now necessary to hike all the way down into the canyon then all the way back up the other side to reach the top of Sids Mountain. That's not really the hard part. Imagine what it would be like to hike across that canyon on the way back after dark. So unless you have that horse in your backseat, the best plan would be to make this a three-day backpacking trip.

Devil's Racetrack

The original trail is still active today. Ranchers use the top of the mountain as open range for horses. You will nearly always find a horse trailer parked at the trailhead. If you were to hike the trail, you would find it to be steep and rocky getting to the top of Sids Mountain. Once you reach the top, it opens up and flattens out. Then, after a short distance, the steep sides of the canyon close in from both sides and nearly come together, leaving a trail not more than 50 feet wide. Ranchers have built a gate across that narrow section which fences in the entire mountain. Horses are often left on the mountain to take advantage of the rich grasslands. One rancher told us they occasionally lose a horse to mountain lions.

Devil's Racetrack

Sids Mountain would have been a perfect hideout - only one way up on horseback, flat on top, plenty of grass, an abundant supply of water, and all they had to do was guard that one spot to watch for intruders. We imagine that if Cassidy ever used the hideout on top of Sids Mountain, he probably did so on his way to Castlegate. In the days of the outlaws, it was difficult enough to get a horse up the trail, and that hasn't changed. On the other hand, because the hideout is so difficult to get to, it was very easily defended. There are two cabins at the hideout. The cabin on stilts was probably built some time in the early 1900s, but the one that has fallen down could date back to the days of the Wild Bunch.

Crossing San Rafael River.

We spent some time at the new trailhead looking down on the road that we once used to get to the canyon floor. We relived the stories about those days and the enjoyment we got from our numerous visits to the top of Sids Mountain. It is a place we will probably never see again. Actions like this new management plan shut us out and deny us access to public lands simply because a selfish group of so-called environmentalists has the clout to make those demands.

Our route took us north to the crossing for the San Rafael River. It was only bumper-deep, but the south bank was soft and the ruts were deep. Once again, we used every inch of clearance our ZR2s had to offer, and still we dragged bottom. From there, we followed the graded road toward Price until it connected to the highway. The Castlegate holdup site is north of Price and designated with a historic marker.

Joe and His Dog formation.

When Butch and Elzy reached Castlegate, they were ready to execute the plan. In those days, the only horses commonly seen in Castlegate were for racing, so the outlaws posed as jockeys. The town was buzzing with activity as the miners waited for the noon train to bring their payroll. Butch joined others lazing around the store below the mine headquarters while Elzy waited beside the store with the two horses.

The train arrived, the money was handed to the paymaster, and Butch waited for the paymaster to walk by him. He jumped up, gun in hand, took the moneybags, and tossed them to Elzy. The flying bags spooked Butch's horse. She yanked her reins from Elzy, who was concentrating on the bags of money, and took off down the street with Butch close behind. People in the area were so shocked that such a bold robbery could be taking place in the crowded street that only a few of them even thought about trying to stop it. Luckily for the outlaws, those few were not marksmen.

Slipper Arch campsite.

Elzy spurred his horse and caught Butch's horse. Butch jumped aboard and both horses instantly bolted into action, taking the outlaws out of rifle range. Joe Walker had done his part. The telegraph wires to Price were down, but the outlaws had not anticipated the paymaster's next move.

The paymaster jumped on the train, the engineer fired the engine, and their helpers disconnected it from the other cars. The train lurched forward and was almost instantly at full throttle. It rolled into Price with the whistle blowing to get the sheriff's attention. A telegraph was sent from Price to all nearby towns alerting other lawmen in hopes of heading off the outlaws. Butch and Elzy had already made the first relay point where they had stashed two long-distance runners to replace the winded short-distance racehorses.

Coal Wash.

Posses were formed in Huntington and Castle Dale. In order to get back to Robbers Roost, the outlaws would need to get through Buckhorn Wash. The lawmen wanted to seal off that escape route.

Butch and Elzy met Joe Walker, and the three of them headed for Buckhorn Wash as fast as their horses could go. Butch was an expert at picking the right horses for the right job, so they knew the odds were in their favor. On the other hand, they had not planned for the paymaster's quick thinking in using the locomotive to get to a telegraph station in Price. It would be close, and there was no time to spare. Unless they got to that narrow canyon ahead of the posses from Castle Dale and Huntington, their getaway might be quickly halted by a well-placed ambush... but that's another story.

Join us next month as we pick up the trail from Castle Dale and chase the outlaws into Buckhorn Wash. That will begin our journey along the Outlaw Trail, taking us to the hideout most favored by the outlaws when their main line of work was rustling cattle instead of robbing banks. We'll travel scenic backroads all the way to Browns Hole in the northwestern corner of Colorado.

The Castlegate holdup site is in the valley below.

Larry E. Heck is the author of numerous guidebooks, including the popular The Adventures of Pass Patrol series, which is also available on video or DVD. For more information about those products or a guided trip along the Outlaw Trail, visit his website, www.outbackusa.com, or write:
OutbackUSA LLC
PO Box 470309
Aurora, CO 80047
E-mail inquiries can be sent to sales@outbackusa.com.

NAVIGATION
The following route begins on Robbers Roost which was mapped in the September issue of OFF-ROAD. The route ends at the holdup site in Castledale, Utah.
Trip
Meter
Longitude Latitude Notes
0.0 38 21.613 110 22.362 Roost Spring.
0.2 38 21.745 110 22.336 Right on main road.
Trip
Meter
Longitude Latitude Notes
6.1 38 22.595 110 18.346 Left. This is the Hans Flat intersection.
13.3 38 28.349 110 16.{{{825}}} Left at billboard.
21.6 38 30.149 110 24.575 Left toward ranch house. Follow road past the ranch house going south. If you are in a hurry, you can continue on the main road and it will take you to the highway. The route we took is the scenic route skirting Robbers Roost {{{Canyon}}}.
39.9 38 25.703 110 35.999 Right turn.
42.8 38 27.932 110 34.554 Left turn.
51.7 38 25.006 110 41.604 Left onto highway to go to Hanksville. This is the airport. The road connects to the highway between Mile Posts 119 and 120. After visiting Hanksville, we backtracked the highway and went to the Goblin Valley Road at Mile Post 136.
0.0 38 37.848 110 34.033 MP 136. Left toward Goblin Valley. Reset trip meter.
4.2/0 38 39.284 110 39.350 Right turn comes after Goblin Valley and follows fence.
Reset trip meter.
0.2 38 39.360 110 39.109 Left fork. Follow the fence, always taking left forks.
0.8 38 39.562 110 38.593 Take this left and the next left. You should now be in a wash going between rock walls on both sides.
3.9 38 41.105 110 40.126 Temple Mountain town. Drive through and cross wash.
4.0 38 41.153 110 40.091 Right fork. Do not take the one with the sign for the designated route.
4.5/0 38 41.404 110 40.451 Right fork. Reset trip meter.
0.2 38 41.561 110 40.585 Right fork on BLM 846.
0.4 38 41.684 110 40.699 Right fork on BLM 846.
4.6 38 43.613 110 44.108 Straight onto main road.
Trip
Meter
Longitude Latitude Notes
6.8 38 44.707 110 45.795 Straight.
9.5 38 45.587 110 48.181 Right turn.
10.2 38 45.938 110 47.755 Left at sign for Swazy's Cabin.
16.1 38 50.284 110 47.704 Left to Swazy's Cabin.
16.8 38 50.173 110 48.421 Swazy's Cabin parking. After visit, return to intersection above.
Reset meter.
0.0 38 50.284 110 47.704 Back at intersection. Same as 16.1 odometer above.
2.0 38 51.779 110 46.845 Left toward I-70.
2.4 38 52.124 110 46.775 Left fork, then left again on Trail 641.
2.8 38 52.284 110 47.004 Left again on 641 to Dutchman's Arch.
3.1 38 52.333 110 47.258 Dutchman's Arch. Continue past the arch on 641 to Devils Racetrack.
11.7 38 {{{57}}}.077 110 50.742 End of Racetrack. Enter Coal Wash.
14.4 38 55.869 110 48.833 Slipper Arch camp.
0.0     Back to end of Racetrack. Reset trip meter.
4.1 38 59.009 110 53.316 Right turn. A BLM billboard is here with maps.
5.8 38 59.667 110 54.044 Right turn at billboard.
6.3 38 00.002 110 54.036 Either way goes to same.
9.5 38 02.467 110 54.835 Left.
9.6/0 38 02.519 110 54.{{{940}}} Left at billboard. Reset trip meter.
Trip
Meter
Longitude Latitude Notes
0.4 38 02.542 110 55.460 Right at campsite. This is unloading spot for ATVs.
2.0 38 03.524 110 54.545 Right.
5.7 38 03.980 110 51.326 The horse trail to Sids Mountain goes down here.
10.3 38 06.860 110 51.278 Right.
10.5 38 06.976 110 51.262 San Rafael River crossing.
15.9 38 10.085 110 47.344 Left.
16.5 38 10.525 110 47.458 Straight.
23.1 38 15.634 110 49.335 Right.
25.3 38 17.374 110 48.907 Left.
  39 43.916 110 52.238 Castlegate holdup site.

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