Overlanding Robber’s Roost: The Land Of Outlaws: I eased my foot into the water, bracing myself for the quicksand that was surely underneath. I strategically transferred my weight from one foot to the other as I took each step. Solid.
Where was it? Am I in the right place? These questions popped into my mind as I hiked in a clear, spring-fed creek, and scoped out the rocks and boulders along the bank. My daughter and wife joined in the search. We kept looking. The “signature” had to be around here, so I thought.
“Did you find it dad?” My daughter, Lilly, asked.
“No, not yet. Maybe we are in the wrong spot,” I replied.
“Wait, I think I’ve found it.” My wife, Louise, stated. Of course, she did, I thought.
We were overlanding in south-central Utah with friends and family in an area known as the Roost. Robber’s Roost is a land of endless canyons, mesas, and red rock splendor. It encompasses an area that is remote, desolate, and stunningly beautiful. A iconic offroad and overland playground. A land infamous by hideaway outlaws such as Butch Cassidy– the Sundance Kid, Matt Warner, and Blue John. They called it home while evading the sheriff and his posse. Today, horses are not needed to access this red rock paradise; but rather a capable offroad or overlanding vehicle.
The road sign signified the only west-east road/corridor to the Dirty Devil River. We turned off of Highway 95 and aired down our tires. With a little less air in the tires, traction and ride comfort greatly improved on this 65-mile off road route through Poison Springs and Hatch Canyons. The overland route traversed the southern boundary of Robber’s Roost and then circled back via Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Along the way, we traveled through and experienced some of the Best of Utah: red rock spires, towering mesas, wide-open canyons, hanging gardens, and very few people.
“Look to your left, along the wall. See anything?” I wondered aloud. Each of us eyed the red rock canyon wall. I slowed my Land Cruiser 200 to a crawl.
“There!” Lilly shouted as she pointed to the wall. I stopped the Cruiser, and we headed toward the wall on foot. The sandstone wall was covered in petroglyphs etched in the rock (note: pictographs are painted onto the rock). Etched by the Natives such as the Freemont Indians at least 1,000 years ago, these petroglyphs depicted animals, humans, and miscellaneous figurines. We stared at the art in amazement and bewilderment. Our minds drifted; in our spoken words, we tried to determine the meaning of the pictures.
The recent human history of the Robber’s Roost area is infamous. Outlaws roamed and hid in the canyons escaping the occasional lawman and posse in the pursuit of justice. Natural springs, deep in the canyon, provided hydration for the outlaws and their horses in the high-arid Utah desert. Towering high canyon walls furnished shelter and protection, a hide out indeed!
What made the Roost so popular for outlaws is that there are few entry/exit points in the canyons that horses could use. Generally speaking, navigating the canyons of the Roost require rope skills. But, the outlaws of yesteryear knew the routes in and out of the canyons so they chose to hide out and escape the grasp of the law. The red sandstone walls and enormous alcoves hid the outlaws in one of the most remote places in the lower 48 states. On this splendid fall day, we entered Poison Springs Canyon along the southern border of the Roost.
The canyon walls engulfed us as we drove further east and deeper into the “unknown.” Within miles, Cottonwoods started to appear, which meant that water was near. Sure enough, water appeared on the canyon floor and the “green” became more abundant. A slight breeze blew the Cottonwoods and the Zen of the desert was in full effect. We found a lovely campsite next to a towering red, sandstone wall. I began to unpack while Louise and Lilly scouted the area with our friends Barb, Heather, and Austin.
“Dad, what are those? Rock art?” Lilly asked as I locked the legs to our camp table. Sure enough, directly next to our overland campsite, petroglyphs of animals, humans, and other mysterious figures covered the rock face. Camp was set, and we relaxed with our friends. Firewood snapped, crackled, and popped as I turned my eyes into the night sky in an attempt to understand the stars and constellations.
The following day, we packed camp and sipped coffee in the autumn, morning sunshine. Afterward, we casually wandered into a side canyon. To the west, Louise spotted a large cave, so we decided to check it out. As we ascended, our shoes stuck to the slickrock. After a couple of handholds, we faced the dark, black abyss. Louise, Heather, Lilly, and Austin cautiously stepped into the darkness as their headlamps illuminated the path. Surprisingly, the cave kept going back further and further. Off to the right in the faint light from my headlamp, I spotted a shelter of some sort. I cautiously walked into it. My eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness, and I realized that I was in the middle of a dwelling. The rock walls lined the “bunker” type dwelling. Immediately, I wondered about the story behind this cave and structure.
“Over here,” shouted Louise as her headlamp illuminated a faint image. I quickly walked over. Louise pointed to a stunning rock art panel on the back wall. The Natives had visited and possibly resided here. What was their life like? How did they live? Better yet, how did they survive? Were the paintings of significance? With no answers and more questions, we left the cave in wonderment and returned to our campsite.
After a late lunch, we continued driving down the canyon. The over land road was rough. But with decreased tire pressures, we rolled over the cobblestones and the flash flood ravaged canyon floor. My Land Cruiser 200 Series eased through the trouble spots as the ICON suspension soaked up the bumps. We saw water flowing—flowing “gold” in the desert. I previously heard about a nice spring to fill our water jugs. The lushness of the area and large Cottonwood trees grew, which made us slow to a crawl and savor the tranquility of it all.
“I think I see it.” Louise called out.
“Where?” I questioned.
“Right behind all the grass. Look along the sandstone wall,” explained Louise.
We stopped to walk toward the wall. Soon our feet were soaked as we walked in a small, flowing stream of water. I ducked my head through the willows and paused. I fixated on a small sound coming from the wall. Louise pulled back the steel door of a stone structure to reveal a crystal-clear pool of water. And, that sound? Above the pool, flowing water trickled through the sandstone rock. The stone structure captured the water and created a large pool of water. We filled our water jugs and paused to refresh ourselves. We envisioned Native Americans and cowboys taking water from that same spring years ago.
The numerous springs in the canyon as well as the rock art, signified that years ago, this canyon was home to Native Americans. I had heard about an infamous signature in the canyon from a gentleman whose family ran cattle in the area in the 1950’s. Cowboys and outlaws ran in the Roost in the late 1800’s. The Roost’s most famous outlaw was Robert LeRoy Parker, aka, Butch Cassidy.
Butch Cassidy was born in southern Utah but left his family at a young age to work through his teenage years as a ranch hand. In the summer of 1889, Butch strolled into the San Miguel Valley Bank in the town of Telluride, Colorado. Moments later, he rode away with roughly $21,000 or over $600,000 in today’s currency. His life of crime had begun. He and his accomplice, Matt Warner, rode west to the canyons of southern Utah to escape the law. The canyons provided them food, water, and shelter. The canyons were wild and remote, perfect!
We walked carefully and eyed every large sandstone boulder. The son of the former rancher, who informed me of the general location said it was up to me to find it. Frustration percolated. I knew we had to be close. “It’s right here,” Louise said as she pointed to the large sandstone boulder. Of course, she found it first. Butch Cassidy’s signature and mural pecked into the rock. I marveled at this piece of history. We snapped pictures and once again, paused to ponder Butch and the Wild Bunch camping in this very spot.
You can overland and adventure in many wonderful, awe-inspiring places in the US. The canyons of southern Utah not only offer unparalleled natural beauty, but lessons and experiences in history—in an outdoor museum. Whether you learn about Natives who wandered and lived in the land thousands of years ago or about outlaw cowboys escaping the law, keep your eyes open. Lessons abound! Find and savor them. I’ll see you out there.
Trip Tips for a Robber’s Roost adventure:
*Resupply in the towns of Green River or Hanksville. Robber’s Roost is remote.
*Carry an extra five gallons of fuel (at minimum).
*Prepare to be self-reliant with shovels, traction boards, tow straps, and tire repair kit (at minimum).
*Carry plenty of water. It is scarce!
*Prepare for minimal to no cell phone coverage.
*Call the Hanksville’s Bureau of Land Management office for up-to-date conditions: 435-542-3461
*Plan to stop at Stan’s Burger Shak in Hanksville for scrumptious shakes and greasy, good burgers.