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Outlaw Trail Part IV - Robbers Roost to Browns Hole

Posted in Ultimate Adventure on October 24, 2006
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Butch Cassidy and Elzy Lay took their time riding along the San Rafael River onto Robbers Roost. They felt 10 feet tall and bulletproof after pulling off the most daring heist in Utah's history. That heist was followed by the best-planned and best-executed getaway ever recorded. Since the previous day's robbery at Castle Gate, they had changed horses twice at prearranged relay points. There was absolutely no way any posse could have kept up with them across the San Rafael Swell without the benefit of fresh mounts.

Rock art near the ghost town of Sego.

While Cassidy and Lay led the posse to Robbers Roost, the bags of loot were being carried to Browns Hole. They had been passed off to a third member of the heist who had not been seen by anyone and whose identity has been debated ever since.

Cassidy and Lay wanted everyone to know where they went. They had no doubt the posse would turn around rather than risk a confrontation with an entire outlaw army. No one knew how many outlaws called Robbers Roost their home, but stories about their number grew every time they were told. If the truth had been known, the lawmen in that one posse probably outnumbered the outlaws on Robbers Roost two to one.

Rock art near the ghost town of Sego.

No one liked Robbers Roost. It had the reputation of being a bad-man's land. Water holes were few and far between. They were nearly impossible for anyone to find without guidance from someone who had already been shown where to look. The summer heat was deadly and the winters extremely harsh. Getting onto the Roost from the north involved crossing 40 miles of open desert. Any rider was an easy target for anyone waiting in ambush. For all of those reasons, many who entered Robbers Roost never returned. Although their disappearance was often attributed to outlaws, it is more likely they were killed by the environment.

For the most part, outlaws tried to avoid killing anyone. Once the "wanted for murder" poster came out, the bounty went up and the risk of being hunted down multiplied. One story tells of a lawman who decided to see if Robbers Roost could hold up to its reputation. Once he began his journey onto the Roost, he could be seen crossing the desert from miles away. Three outlaws laid a trap for him. He found himself surrounded with no other choice than to surrender. They took his horse, his guns, his boots, and his clothes. They ordered him to return to Green River knowing he had no chance of getting there alive. The hot desert sun began to take its toll. Just as he thought he could go no farther, one of the outlaws appeared from a nearby ravine. The lawman was sure the outlaw was there to kill him, but instead the outlaw gave him a canteen of water with a warning to never be seen on the Roost again. That story was added to the many others used to form the imaginary wall that protected Robbers Roost from the law.

Most historians believe Cassidy used Horseshoe Canyon for his headquarters on the Roost. The exact location will always be debated as will the exact number of outlaws in his band. Only three outlaws are known to have been involved in Castle Gate even though others may have been involved in preparing the relays for the getaway.

In any case, Cassidy had no intention of staying on the Roost after the holdup. He had already spent the winter there and the hot summer months were just weeks away. Also, there was nothing to do on the Roost except gamble with the other outlaws, and so life on the Roost was often boring. Once the outlaws were sure the posse had given up, the lure of the money in Browns Hole became more than they could resist.

Railway bed going to Sego.

After a few weeks of thinking about the money and maybe even worrying that someone else was spending it, Cassidy's Wild Bunch saddled up and headed north. They used the crossing at Green River and probably even rode through town in defiance of the lawmen there. After the crossing, they rode to Thompson Canyon and used an Indian trail to reach the top of the Book Cliffs. Once on top, they cut across lands now within the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation. They passed through the town of Ouray, then through Vernal, and finally used the Grouse Canyon access into Browns Hole. No doubt they stopped at Jarvie's Outpost at the edge of Brown's Hole to get the latest news. That trip took five days on horseback.

For this trip, we decided to begin in Green River. It is a quiet community located at a point where the Green River can most easily be crossed for hundreds of miles in either direction. When the Wild Bunch passed through, it had already boomed once with the arrival of the railroad and had declined when the railroad moved its operations to another city. Even with that decline, it thrived as a river-crossing town.

There were other boom years centered around mining and oil, but one boom few people are aware of came in the 1960s. Green River became the base for the White Sands Missile Range annex. More than 100 missiles were fired from this range during the development of long-range nuclear weapons. The old bunkers are especially alluring, but watch for rattlesnakes hiding in the shadows.

After getting the necessary gas and supplies, we headed northeast and climbed onto a shelf road high into the Book Cliffs. That shelf road took us to Thompson Canyon.

Sego buildings.
Sego graveyard.

The route used by the Wild Bunch has been closed to motorized vehicles at the boundary for the Indian Reservation. A horse trail is still open at the top of the Book Cliffs, but we have not explored it.

At the point where Thompson Canyon and Sego Canyon connect, we stopped to study the rock art on both walls of the canyon. One of us is still convinced the drawings are nothing more significant than a child's doodles on scrap paper. Of course that is an uneducated opinion which is shared by no one we know of.

Sego graveyard.
Sego buildings.

There was nothing of importance in Thompson Canyon when the Wild Bunch passed through; however, a man by the name of Harry Ballard had already discovered huge coal deposits in Sego Canyon and had purchased the land around that claim. Ballard tried to make his discovery profitable but was not successful. He finally sold the mine to investors who had big plans for Sego. A company store, boarding house, and other necessary buildings were constructed. Unfortunately, one very important factor had been overlooked. The water level in the wells was dropping quickly and the more workers that moved in only hastened that decline. The only way to keep the wells full was to haul it in from elsewhere.

Sego buildings.

Even so, the mine continued to be worked until 1947. There are numerous buildings still standing, including the stone-walled store and the huge wooden boarding house. The boarding house looks like it was blown apart with dynamite, but much of it is still standing. The graveyard has been maintained to some extent.

We had some fun at Sego. We strapped on our irons and took a series of photos for our outlaw scrapbooks. Sego is far enough away from civilization to let the imagination go wild.

Since crossing the Indian reservation is not allowed, we decided to skirt the east side of it. The most fun way to do that is to climb back onto the shelf road in the Book Cliffs and follow it east until it drops into Sagers Canyon. From there, the route crosses the flats using roads through oil fields and nearly connects to Interstate 70 before turning back to the north and entering the Campbell Ranch at Diamond Canyon.

Sego general store.

There are lots of private property signs along the road passing the mouth of that canyon. They can be confusing, but if you follow the directions in our navigation sidebar you will be on the county road which is open for public access. There will be several gates to open and close depending on the rancher's current operations.

Older maps show a route going up Diamond Canyon and getting to the top of the Book Cliffs without entering the Indian reservation; however, those roads no longer exist. A fire took out all the vegetation, then heavy floods took out the road. The BLM then closed the area to motorized traffic.

After Diamond Canyon, the route hugs the Book Cliffs, rising and falling with the terrain until it connects to Middle Canyon Road. For anyone using I-70, this road is accessed at the exit for Harley Dome.

The Middle Canyon Road is the only motorized access to the top of the Book Cliffs between Green River and Harley Dome. It is a major graded dirt road and is used frequently by heavy trucks servicing oil fields. It is twisty and narrow in places and has a steep grade at times but does not take long before it reaches the crest. It then connects to the Book Cliffs Ridge Road where scenic views are plentiful. The ridge road works it way across the top of the Book Cliffs, meandering in and out of heavily forested areas with lots of great camping spots.

Outlaw and Happy Jack playing lawmen and outlaws.

After turning off the Book Cliffs Ridge Road and heading north, we passed an intersection for the ghost town of Rainbow. There are no buildings left from the town. If you wander around the area, you will see evidence of digging and mining.

Beyond Rainbow, the road runs in and out of one wash after the other but continues to be graded. It eventually connects to a paved road going to Bonanza. Once in Bonanza, you will be almost due east of Ouray and still running parallel to the route used by the outlaws.

Outlaw and Happy Jack playing lawmen and outlaws.

After leaving Bonanza, the paved road goes to Vernal. We turned off before getting there and went to Jensen. Both cities have gas and supplies, but of course Vernal has a much better selection.

When the outlaws passed through on their way to Browns Hole, Vernal was a thriving community. The LDS Church had set it up as a town 15 years earlier. The outlaws may have witnessed some celebrations going on during their visit since Vernal was actually becoming incorporated during that time.

From Sego to Middle Canyon Road.

You will find everything you need in Vernal from supplies to Internet service. No doubt the outlaws stopped long enough to shake off some of the dust from the four-day ride that brought them to that point, but the one thing still first and foremost on their minds was all that money in Browns Hole. They figured it was time for a whooping big party, and that would not be possible until they had the money in their hands.

From Vernal, the shortest way into Browns Hole is by way of Crouse Canyon. It is the kind of canyon often used in movies for the entrance into an outlaw hideout. The walls are steep, the canyon is narrow, and a single gunman could hold off an entire posse with a good rifle from any number of vantage points.

From Sego to Middle Canyon Road.

The north end of Crouse Canyon opens up into the valley known as Browns Hole. The main road travels northeast and uses a swinging bridge to cross the Green River. Of course, the bridge was not there in 1897; the crossing most commonly used was the ferry at Jarvie's Outpost.

The base for outlaw operations in Browns Hole was located at Powder Springs. It was located on the far east side of the valley and just north of the Colorado border on the Wyoming side. The band of outlaws running that part of the country was known as the Powder Springs Gang. The leader of that gang was a man named Bender.

From Sego to Middle Canyon Road.

When Cassidy arrived at Powder Springs, he found Bender dying from a bad case of pneumonia. The celebration of his success with the Castle Gate holdup was somewhat dulled by his friend's demise. On the other hand, Castle Gate had secured Cassidy's position as a leader among outlaws. A few days later, Bender died and Cassidy became the leader of the Powder Springs Gang more by default than by vote. From that day on, the Powder Springs Gang was referred to by many as the Cassidy Gang from Powder Springs.

PhotosView Slideshow
Trip MeterLatitudeLongitudeNotes
8.6/0.038 55.3619109 56.4694Turn left on the dirt road. This is also Exit 173 off I-70. If you came off I-70, turn west on the access road and take the first dirt road going right. Resetyour trip meter.
3.438 {{{57}}}.7076 109 54.4582Right fork.
8.938 0.9190109 50.7153Right fork up hill. Close gates where posted.
12.839 0.2849109 48.2973Left.
23.7/0.039 1.4913109 42.7868Sego {{{Canyon}}} intersection. Straight goes through and to Sego. Right goes to rock art and outhouse. Lots of campsites.
0.2/0.039 1.4449109 42.5571Right fork toward Sagers Canyon. Left is Sego.
8.339 0.9599109 37.4096Straight at intersection. This is Sagers Canyon.
10.138 59.9733109 36.1086Left fork.
10.539 0.1231109 35.8539Right.
13.938 59.3587109 32.6503Left turn.
17.638 1.5346109 32.9718right turn.
8.139 1.9237109 32.6902Stay left. There are numerous intersections in this area. We assume it was for oil drilling. Stay on the through route past the mobile home.
19.039 2.6694109 32.6105Cattleguard and intersection. Turn right.
19.339 2.6366109 32.3789Right fork.
24.5/0.039 0.3058109 27.8092Left turn.
2.039 0.4729109 25.7093Right fork.
3.639 0.9092109 24.3334Right turn at pump station.
4.539 0.9349109 23.4425Right turn.
6.139 0.2479109 22.5604Right fork through ditch.
6.638 59.9804109 22.2966Left turn.
7.439 0.1115109 21.5537Left turn.
8.339 0.5528109 21.0389Left at cattleguard and follow fence a short distance.
8.439 0.6587109 21.0345 Right fork.
9.339 0.5924109 20.1570Left turn.
12.239 2.8938109 19.0088Right fork.
13.039 3.3812109 18.5714Left turn.
13.639 3.6009109 19.1586Right turn.
15.339 4.4298109 17.6980 Left turn.
25.239 8.8963109 25.2043Right. If gate is closed, close it. This is a county road through the Campbell Ranch. This is also the access road to Diamond Canyon, but there are no signs pointing to anything.
25.3/0.039 8.9825109 25.2718Right fork. Left fork goes to dead-end canyons. Stay on main road.
0.3/0.039 9.3758109 25.3140Turn right on road before gate with private property sign. There is another gate after the turn. If it was closed, close it after you.
9.339 12.3542109 17.8978Turn right at this four-way intersection. There is an old homestead on the left.
11.139 11.4892109 16.3403Left turn.
16.9/0.039 15.0660109 14.0586Left after old homestead.
5.139 16.8750109 17.4677Left to Hay Canyon.
7.039 17.2192109 19.3098Left fork.
14.139 20.8460109 24.2715Right fork.
19.639 24.9571109 23.9430Right turn toward Seep Ridge.
28.939 27.1445109 16.4733Left turn.
39 27.4235109 16.6346Left.
50.639 42.0370109 26.0157Right on 4190.
50.839 42.1794109 26.1329Right.
63.339 47.8184109 17.7899 Right fork.
72.239 50.8830109 11.3289Left fork toward Bonanza.
85.2/0.039 57.5231109 9.7867Right on paved road toward Bonanza.
40.440 22.2388109 20.6663Jensen visitor center and rest area. Gas and supplies available. Vernal is a major city 13 miles away.
0.040 22.2388109 20.6663Rest area parking lot. Exit the lot and turn north on Highway 149.
2.540 24.3669109 20.5259Left turn onto 3500 South.
7.340 26.6596109 24.5935Right fork toward Island Park.
11.240 29.6150109 23.1420Right fork toward Island Park.
19.640 30.5299109 14.1814Left onto dirt track.
21.440 31.8943109 14.4485Left fork.
22.940 32.8532109 15.3311Right fork.
27.240 35.5945109 16.2048Left. This is the top of Diamond Mountain.
30.4/0.040 36.2316109 18.5848Right on pavement.
4.140 39.2442109 17.3890Left toward Little Hole.
9.040 42.7048109 19.7138Right.
12.240 45.2123109 18.9351Right.
19.240 43.6356109 11.7696Right.
19.940 43.0034109 11.8888Left
21.940 42.7594109 9.8577Left
33.140 49.7983109 4.8134Left at sign for Taylor Flat.
36.840 50.1770109 7.7277Right fork.
43.940 54.0108109 10.3403Left goes to Jarvie Homestead. This is the crossing for the Green River.
44.240 53.9910109 10.6090Jarvie Ranch. There are lots of campgrounds in this vicinity.

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