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The Outlaw Trail Part III - Castle Gate, Utah

Posted in Ultimate Adventure on October 16, 2006
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Castle Gate, Utah, popped up in a small canyon northwest of Price when the first coal mine opened in 1886.It got its name from a rock formation nearby that some thought resembled the gates of a castle. Depending on the traveler's position, the gates seemed open or closed.

History has recorded life in Castle Gate during the 1800s to be far from pleasant. The mining company owned everything in the valley, including all the land and every building standing. In the beginning, housing consisted of nothing more than empty boxcars. If you wanted to continue working, you rented your home from the company, and you bought everything you needed in the company store.

Maybe that's why Butch Cassidy and Elzy Lay were able to ride out of town with $8,000 of the company's money while armed men stood by and watched without taking any action against them. After all, it was the company losing money for a change.

The year was 1897. Butch sat in a chair against the wall with his hat pulled low and was seemingly disinterested in anything going on around him. Elzy sat on his horse outside the payroll office holding another horse as if waiting for a friend to finish business inside. Then the train arrived, and the paymaster appeared with a bag full of cash. He walked past Butch without giving him a glance. Quicker than the strike of a snake, Butch shoved a gun in the paymaster's ribs and grabbed the bag from him. He ran to the hitching post and tossed the bag to Elzy. That action spooked the second horse, and Butch wound up going down the street half mounted and half chasing after the frightened animal. That slowed down the getaway at first, but once Butch was fully mounted, the pace went into full gallop.

The Castle Gate holdup site.

If there was one thing the outlaw known as Butch Cassidy was good at, it was planning a robbery. He had thought of everything. First of all, there was a third member of the holdup that no one ever saw. That person was positioned at a telegraph pole a long way out of town. At the agreed upon time, he simply reached up and cut the telegraph wires between Castle Gate and the lawmen in Price. To this day, historians cannot agree as to who that third person was. The historic marker at Castle Gate calls him Bob Meeks. Other sources claim he was Joe Walker. Still others disagree with either one. It is possible that both of them were involved. We can be sure that even though Butch and Elzy were the ones who carried the money away, they had help.

That leads us to the second and most important aspect of Cassidy's planning. We don't know if relay races were popular in those days, but Cassidy either got his getaway idea from watching one or he invented them. In today's relay races, the runners carry a baton. In Cassidy's relay, the horses carried two outlaws and the stolen loot. The first pair of horses carried Butch and Elzy out of Castle Gate. They were the fastest short-distance horses the outlaws could find. They were best described as race horses, and they were expected to get the two riders to Price before any sort of posse could be organized in Castle Gate to chase after them. That would be the end of their assigned task because waiting in Price were two more horses ready to pick up the relay. Those two were long-distance runners - not the kind used in a horse race, but the kind that could settle into a very fast gallop and hold it across 60 miles of open desert.

The town of Castle Dale.

Two more long-distance horses were waiting to pick up the relay at Mexican Mountain. Those two fully rested animals would complete the relay to the outlaw hideout known as Robbers Roost.

Using this relay getaway, it would been completely impossible for a posse to ever get close to the outlaws. Butch and Elzy probably set a new record for the fastest ride ever to cross more than 100 miles of Utah's rugged and barren desert.


It is a logical assumption that members of Cassidy's gang had staged those horses for them and possibly even stayed with the horses to be certain they were ready when the time came for action.

Of course even the best plans can be flawed. Both animals the outlaws used to get out of Castle Gate were capable of covering the distance between Castle Gate and Price faster than any other means of transportation available in the 1890s... except for the locomotive.

Wedge Overlook.

The paymaster wanted his money back of course, and he unhooked the cars from the locomotive that had delivered the money. The engineer tossed in the fuel to put fire in the hole. With no cars attached, the locomotive was able to reach Price at about the same time the outlaws were swapping horses. That action had reduced the lead time the outlaws expected to have in getting to Robbers Roost.

The lawmen in Price sent a telegraph to lawmen in Castle Dale. The instructions were to head off the outlaws at Buckhorn Wash. While one lawman sent the telegraph, others were on the streets rounding up a posse. Within minutes, thundering hooves roared out of Price hot on the trail of the outlaws.

The mouth of Buckhorn Wash. Once the outlaws passed this point, there was no longer any way for the posse to get ahead of them.

Butch Cassidy and Elzy Lay raced across the desert toward Buckhorn Wash. They had to cover 40 miles of rolling hills, and they had to be there first. If the Castle Dale posse got there ahead of them, the outlaws would be in for a nasty battle. Buckhorn Wash was their gateway to Robbers Roost, where no lawman had ever dared to follow.

Meanwhile, the posse from Castle Dale charged cross-country in a cloud of dust. They only had 20 miles to go, but they had lost some time assembling and they did not have the benefit of Cassidy's relay horses. Even so, they knew Buckhorn Wash was critical to the capture of the outlaws, and they were sure they could get there first.

Dinosaur footprint. We smeared water inside the print to help it show up better in the photo.

Our group goes by the name of Pass Patrol. It has been called that since 1985, and many of you may be familiar with some of the books and videos we have produced in the past two decades. Those products are still available at bookstores and gift shops across Colorado, and of course all of them are available online at

The posse galloped into the canyon and set up an ambush. When they saw riders coming, they opened fire. The riders returned fire, and a short battle began. Then someone caught a glimpse of someone on the other side, and both sides realized the two posses were fighting each other - the outlaws had already passed through the mouth of the canyon.

Two members of Pass Patrol (known as Outlaw and Happy Jack) rolled into Castle Dale on a cloudy day in June for a return visit to the Castle Gate getaway route. We were expecting temperatures exceeding the 100-degree mark to be waiting for us but found pleasant 70s instead.

We had chosen Castle Dale as our starting point so we could begin the journey by taking the route used by the posse. They had been so sure they could beat the outlaws to Buckhorn Wash; after all, they had only half the distance to travel across relatively flat and open space. They did not even consider the possibility the outlaws could have beat them to the canyon, so they immediately set up an ambush and opened fire on the first riders that entered their trap.

Castle Dale began as a ranching community in around the mid-1870s. The first major ranchers in the area were the Seely brothers. As time passed, the discovery of coal enabled it to grow. Currently, the town has about 2,000 occupants and supplies ranches, farms, and the coal-mining business. At the time of the Castle Gate robbery, Castle Dale was a booming community with about 700 residents, a new brick courthouse, and a fine jail. The sheriff would have been happy to provide rooms for Butch and Elzy in his jail, but "you can't skin a rabbit if you can't catch it."

It was late in the day when we left Castle Dale, so we turned off the posse route before getting to Buckhorn Wash and headed for the primitive campground on the rim of the Wedge Overlook. The BLM has recently upgraded the campground, so it now features a pit toilet, camping tables, and firepits mounted on concrete slabs.

The campground mascot resides in the outhouse. We named him Spike. He was there all evening, but we couldn't find him the next morning so we guessed he might have met his maker when the woman in a nearby campsite asked her husband to have a talk with Spike.

Spike was about two inches long and pale in color. He seemed to enjoy hanging on the wall and terrorizing humans by waving the needle-shaped end of his tail in the air. Contrary to popular belief, most humans do not die from the sting of a scorpion; however, Spike wanted everyone to think it was true.

Matt Warner's signature dating back to February 17, 1920.

The scenic view from the Wedge Overlook is overwhelming. The San Rafael River runs through the canyon more than 1,000 feet below the rim of the overlook. Numerous other canyons feed into the river and have carved out fabulous formations up and down the river's edge. Of course we took photos, but this is a place you can never take home with you - the massive panoramic view simply will not fit in a camera lens.

After a restful night, we resumed our journey along the route used by the posse. When Pass Patrol first began visiting Buckhorn Wash several years ago, it was nothing more than a faint path though dense brush and forest. Today, it is a graded, two-lane country highway. Once the road was improved, traffic exploded and the canyon lost its primitive nature.

Even so, Buckhorn Wash (now referred to as Buckhorn Draw) is a fun place to visit. The first attraction along the way is a dinosaur footprint. This single three-toed footprint is a testament to a time when Utah had no deserts and man had no control over his environment. A short hike is required to get to the footprint, and it may be covered by huge rocks put in place by others who believe their actions will protect the relic from erosion. Personally, we think the heavy rocks probably do more damage than Mother Nature.

Buckhorn rock art panel and picnic area with outhouse.

Anytime we drive through the canyon, we wonder where the ambush took place. There are numerous locations where the canyon narrows and any sort of ambush would be easy to organize. One such place is the area on either side of the parking area for Cattleguard Rock Art. A short hiking path climbs the west side of the canyon to a panel where ancient artists drew people, sheep, and other designs into the rock.

Buckhorn Wash has always been a popular passage route. It is the only way to get across the San Rafael River for many miles in any direction, and it could be used by wagons as well as by riders on horseback. On either side of the wash, the approach from the north ends at a rim similar to the Wedge Overlook with no possible way to reach the other side of the river.

A short distance past the Cattleguard Rock Art is another panel with much more recent artwork. It is Matt Warner's signature and the drawing of a cow. Those of you who are not familiar with outlaw history probably wonder what's so special about some guy named Matt Warner. If you go back to the year of 1889, eight years prior to Castle Gate, Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank in Telluride, Colorado. He was more of a participant than the leader in that robbery. The person who enlisted him for the task was Matt Warner.

PhotosView Slideshow
San Rafael historic swinging bridge. Of course, this was not in place when the outlaws passed this way.

Matt Warner was a thief, but not a very good one, and he got caught. After spending some time behind bars, he was released and eventually became a lawman; after all, everyone knows it takes a thief to catch one. Some say Warner wasn't all that good at being a lawman either - maybe he couldn't figure out which side of the law he was really on.

The last rock art panel in Buckhorn Wash has been turned into a picnic area. An outhouse is available there, and there are numerous markers along the wall describing the ancient drawings. Many thousands of hours are spent each year by people trying to determine what the meaning is behind the rock art panels scattered around Utah.

The canyon opens up at the point where Buckhorn Wash meets the San Rafael River. Cassidy and Lay turned east and followed the River downstream to Mexican Mountain. A dirt road runs east along that same path. It goes to a locked gate for another protected wilderness study area. The newer road that once accessed an airport has nearly washed away, but the original wagon road is down by the river's edge. We used it to get our vehicles to Mexican Bend before the locked gate went up, but that was a long time ago.

Historians believe the third outlaw (we prefer Joe Walker) was with Cassidy and Lay when they reached the relay point at Mexican Mountain. Walker split off from the other two, taking the loot with him. The other two helped him hide his tracks so the posse would not notice that he had gone north heading for Brown's Hole instead of Robbers Roost.

As soon as Cassidy and Lay were sure they had covered Walker's tracks, they took off for Robbers Roost leaving their own tracks for the posse to follow. They would continue to leave an obvious trail for the next few hours. No lawman had ever entered the Robbers Roost area. Stories had long been told of the hundreds of desperados that protected its interior. Once the outlaws crossed the imaginary boundary along the north end of the Roost, they would be safe from pursuit.

Due to the presence of the wilderness study area, we cannot follow the trail to Mexican Mountain. There never was a road beyond that point; the most likely route taken by Cassidy and Lay was to follow the San Rafael River into the heart of Robbers Roost.

The most fun way to get a 4x4 from Mexican Mountain to Robbers Roost is by way of Black Dragon Wash. You can get a map with the route marked from the BLM office in Price. It is one of the designated routes still open to motorized traffic. The road is narrow and rocky, and unlike Buckhorn Wash, Black Dragon gets very little attention.

Using the navigation chart included with this story, you will be able to follow our route all the way from Caste Dale to Interstate 70. We won't take you back onto Robbers Roost since you were there in the last two issues. Instead, we will take you to the town of Green River to prepare you for the next cross-country adventure along the Outlaw Trail.

You can also purchase the draw file from our website. If you import the draw file into DeLorme TopoUSA, you will see our route displayed in blue for unpaved roads and yellow for paved ones. If you attach a GPS to a laptop, TopoUSA will display your progress along that route and assist you in making the correct turns.

The road into Black Dragon Canyon is rough and requires plenty of clearance.

After the Castle Gate holdup, Butch and Elzy waited a few weeks for things to cool down before leaving Robbers Roost and going to Browns Hole for their share of the loot. It is a long ride from Robbers Roost to Browns Hole, and there is no way to know what route the outlaws took. The route we use in the next issue of OFF-ROAD crosses 300 miles of backcountry roads - 245 miles of that is unpaved.

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. You can find these products at along with many other products including TopoUSA draw files and information about guided trips along the Outlaw Trail.

Meter Latitude Longitude Notes
0.0 39 43.9041 110 52.2382 Parking for historic marker for Castle Gate holdup. When leaving, go back to Price on Hwy 6/191 to the exit for Hwy 10 South.
11.6     Exit 241. Go south on Hwy 10 toward Castle Dale.
40.3/0 39 13.2528 110 59.8301 Turn east on the road with a sign for Wedge between Mile Posts 40and 39. Reset your trip meter to 0.
12.7/0 39 10.5304 110 47.4516 Straight. Right is Fuller Bottom and Wedge Overlook. If you go to theWedge, come back to this location to continue and reset yout trip meter
2.3 39 10.2530 110 45.0852 Right into Buckhorn Draw.
3.8 39 9.6659 110 43.7745 Hiking path on the left goes to the dinosaur footprint.
  39 9.634 110 43.754 Footprint.
4.7/0 39 9.2844 110 43.2389 Hiking path to Cattleguard pictographs.
1.9 39 8.2530 110 42.2065 Matt Warner signature.
3.3 39 7.4096 110 41.6360 Buckhorn pictograph panel.
7.2 39 4.9791 110 39.8541 Go straight. Road going left is the road to Mexican Mountain.
7.3/0 39 4.9063 110 39.9552 San Rafael Bridge. Campground with pit toilets.
13.6/0 38 55.7861 110 36.0764 Left turn across Sinkhole Flat.
1.7 38 54.9966 110 34.5052 Left fork.
4.5 38 56.4705 110 32.9788 Right fork.
6.2 38 56.4733 110 31.2661 Left fork.
6.8 38 56.8532 110 31.1242 Right at the sign for Black Dragon {{{Canyon}}}.
13.6 38 56.6237 110 25.4822 Parking for Black Dragon rock art hiking trail.
14.3 38 56.2438 110 25.1261 Right turn into wash. Follow main route to I-70.
15.4 38 55.5395 110 25.0330 Connects to I-70 by going through at this gate.
15.4 38 55.4843 110 24.9982 Cross the westbound lane then turn left on the eastbound lane. You are at Mile Post 147 on I-70. Green River is Exit 158. Showers are available at the truck stop and at the campgrounds.
PhotosView Slideshow

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