Paddling the Wild West: Explorations on the Outlaw Trail


After tying up the raft, we walked uphill through the eerily quiet ranch. Other than us, a pair of colorfully dressed boaters wandering between worn buildings, it felt like a piece of the Wild West ripped from the past. A rickety windmill slowly turned. Horseshoes hung on a fence rail. A garter snake slithered across the path.

“Spooky place,” I mused.

We were exploring the John Jarvie Historic Ranch, a BLM interpretive site on the Green River. Surrounding us was Browns Park, a mountain valley ten miles from the three-way junction of Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. One sign pointed the way to “GRAVES.” Other displays told violent stories of ambushes, stabbings, and shootings. In fact, a century before, two drifters murdered the owner of this ranch and trading post. After robbing the safe, they dragged John Jarvie’s body to a boat and pushed it into the river. The valley of today has more tumbleweeds than people. What had happened here?

These fascinating stories soon slipped my mind when we returned to the river. At that time, I was on a mission to paddle the John Wesley Powell route—roughly 1000 miles of flatwater canyons, vast reservoirs, and whitewater rivers—from Wyoming to below the Grand Canyon. But along the way, my explorations would increasingly overlap with another adventure. One that came straight out of the Wild West—the real era, not the fictional version from movies and dime novels. A series of actual routes, hideouts, and true stories on land and water. A path that came to be called the outlaw trail.

My next encounter with the outlaw trail came six months later at Lees Ferry. Seven of us were on the beach, rigging for a Grand Canyon trip. Three weeks of mid-winter rafting and kayaking—a personal first descent for each of us. Like most boaters, we were singularly focused on piling up the party supplies and launching for the trip of a lifetime.

“Did we load the gin yet?” someone shouted—possibly me.

I didn’t give much thought to the fact that historic Lees Ferry was once the main crossing on the Colorado for miles. Not only did outlaws pass through, but a fugitive ferry operator named John D. Lee aided them. He was a murderer and the only person executed for the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

As luck would have it, there would be more chances to explore Lees Ferry. I returned several times in the coming years, including two more Canyon trips and paddling Glen Canyon, upstream. But for now, I once again tucked away the Wild West thoughts while we took to the rapids downstream.

Hiking around Lees Ferry.

The third thing happened in Utah. I was mountain biking when I came across a guided horse trip on a sandy trail in Red Canyon, down the road from Bryce Canyon National Park. After striking up a conversation with the lead wrangler, and explaining where I was headed, he offered a tip.

“I’ll tell you what,” said the cowboy, pointing in the distance. “There’s a cabin Butch Cassidy lived in at the top of Casto.”

I didn’t find the cabin that day, but I tried. While riding my bike through hoodoo-filled canyons, I hopped off and scrambled up ridges. It was like hunting for a living outlaw, not just an abandoned hideout. At one point during my ride, some grazing cattle mistook me for a cowboy and herded along for a hectic half mile.

When I returned a few months later, I looked again. This time, I found it. Not the most impressive structure, honestly. Just some boards splayed out and a pile of stones that might have been a fireplace. But the search was a ton of fun. And, who knew, maybe it was Butch Cassidy’s cabin? I mean, the West is filled with places supposedly related to one of the country’s most infamous outlaws. Butch drank at this bar! Cassidy robbed this old bank! Man, that dude ate a sandwich here! In some cases, it turns out to be true.

Remnants of an old cabin, maybe Butch Cassidy’s.

Wrapping up my Powell route project involved plenty of paddling, which took me back to the outlaw trail numerous times over the coming years. When I was home, I began to read up on the real Wild West. True stories about Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and the rowdy Wild Bunch. The tenacious lives of Ann and Josie Bassett, who became queens of the cattle rustlers in Browns Park. The vicious Harvey Logan and ruthless assassin Tom Horn. Famous hideouts, like Hole-in-the-Wall and Robbers Roost. Daring robberies, like a bank in Telluride, a mining company at Castle Gate, a train near Wilcox. Many of these names were familiar, whether encountered in films or on roadside signs, but I’d never spent much effort placing the original events in the physical world.

So, I studied maps showing the overlapping routes that linked up hideouts and roughly formed a north-to-south grid of outlaw trails across the Colorado Plateau and Rocky Mountains. I realized I’d already explored many of these places during road trips and paddling adventures. One reason was that the same rugged topography that once made this region inaccessible to lawmen—and an ideal place for hardy outlaws to hide—had become one of the greatest adventure-sports corridors in the U.S.

By now, I’d run Red Canyon on the Green River below Flaming Gorge by raft, kayak, and paddleboard. Each time I paddled the fun and scenic A Section, I took out at Little Hole, where Butch Cassidy once hid out. After running Lodore Canyon through Dinosaur National Monument, I stepped inside the Josie Bassett Morris cabin and hiked the trails around her ranch at Cub Creek, I just hadn’t connected all the dots the first time.

While descending Desolation Canyon and later driving through Nine Mile Canyon, I followed old outlaw escape routes through the Tavaputs Plateau. On trips through Labyrinth, Stillwater, and Cataract Canyons, we hiked into parts of Robbers Roost that went by different names nowadays. Then we took out across from Hite, near what used to be called Dandy Crossing—an old ferry station on the outlaw trail.

By learning the stories of the past, it seemed possible to retrace the outlaw trail with an adventure-travel twist. Instead of riding a horse, I rode a bike, paddled a boat, and went on foot.  Sometimes my wife and friends joined. Other times I went alone. Along the way, the project evolved into my new book for Mountaineers: Discovering the Outlaw Trail: Routes, Hideouts, and Stories from the Wild West. The book blends true stories about infamous outlaws with a travel guide to having your own adventures on trails and rivers with Wild West significance.

The Royal Gorge War on the Upper Arkansas River
One favorite place for many paddlers is the Upper Arkansas River, with classic whitewater runs like the Numbers, Browns Canyon, and Royal Gorge. Given the mining legacy and historic towns, it’s no surprise the valley has a Wild West past. In fact, it was once the setting for a great railroad feud called the Royal Gorge War.

In the late 1870s, silver was found in the mountainous headwaters near Leadville, Colorado. Two powerful railroad companies each wanted to lay tracks and reap the rewards. Beyond the rivalry, the most formidable obstacle was the Royal Gorge, an imposing canyon with sheer 1000-foot-tall cliffs that were only thirty feet wide at the narrowest spot.

Rafting Browns Canyon on the Arkansas River

The Santa Fe Railroad Co. acted first by starting to grade the right-of-way. Allies of the competing Rio Grande Railroad Co. allegedly responded by rolling boulders from above and tossing their opponents’ tools in the river. Arming themselves for a conflict, the Santa Fe hired legendary gunfighters Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday to raise a posse of sixty.

When the Supreme Court ruled in Rio Grande’s favor, the Santa Fe posse responded by seizing train stations from Cañon City to Denver. So, the Rio Grande Co. raised an even bigger posse of 100. Masterson stood down, avoiding a confrontation, and ending the so-called war. Today, a historic tourist train called the Royal Gorge Route follows the once-disputed railway through the canyon, not far above the rapids.

Later, after his heyday in Tombstone, including the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Doc Holliday briefly lived in Leadville. He became a regular at the Silver Dollar Saloon, which remains a fun place to stop when passing through.

Outlaw Hideouts: The San Rafael Swell and Robbers Roost
The San Rafael Swell, which borders Robbers Roost to the northwest, is usually considered a destination for hiking, rock climbing, and overlanding. It’s less known for its paddling and fleeing outlaws. Yet both are more common than most realize.

Over 130 years ago, Robert Leroy Parker, who became Butch Cassidy, was a 23-year-old rookie on his first bank robbery in Telluride, Colorado. On a Monday in late June 1889, Butch and two others walked into the San Miguel Bank below the looming San Juan Mountains. Shortly afterward, they rode away along the San Miguel River with $20,000 in bills and gold. Soon, a posse was on the chase.

“They made one of the wildest rides in their history,” outlaw historian Charles Kelly later wrote.

Using a series of pre-planned horse relays, they mounted Lizard Head Pass, hopped over to the North Fork Dolores, and eventually went through McElmo and Montezuma Canyons into Utah. They crossed the Grand River—later renamed the Colorado—at Moab in the middle of the night. During morning twilight, they traversed the dizzying landscape that became Arches National Park.

Stencil Riders on the San Rafael Swell.

With lawmen hot on their trail, the three outlaws dashed inside a canyon at the Book Cliffs, only to stare up at a dry fall. Trapped, they pulled out rifles, but no one came. The posse had turned the other way. So, the outlaws found another route over the Tavaputs Plateau. On Diamond Mountain, not far from the Jarvie Ranch, they finally got to rest. When a posse arrived in Browns Park a few days later, the outlaws rode again. All the way south to the San Rafael Swell. In the blistering July heart, they found a shady camp near a spring. Fifty miles from the town of Green River, there are a few such springs around the San Rafael River.

Now these guys were bandits, not travel agents, so they never outright shared which spring they camped at. But one spring matching the description can be found deep inside the walls of the Little Grand Canyon. Today, this makes for a great spring paddling trip through a remarkable desert canyon.

Butch Cassidy’s adventures in the San Rafael Swell didn’t end there. Eight years later, after robbing a mining company at Castle Gate, UT, Butch and an accomplice made another wild ride into the Swell. After passing through Buckhorn Wash, they crossed the river near present-day Swinging Bridge. They followed a slot canyon through the San Rafael Reef and dashed into open desert. Shots were exchanged with pursuers near Wildcat Butte. But the posse gave up near Little Flat Top, and the outlaws escaped inside the confines of Robbers Roost. After descending into Horseshoe Canyon, they made their way to the Orange Cliffs, where they set up camp.

Today, the latter parts of this route pass through Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Most people visit in 4x4s or at river level, during trips down Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons on the Green. The midway access point is Mineral Bottom. This dirt road was once known as Horse Thief Trail, used by rustlers to water stolen livestock in the bottomlands where boaters now camp.

Stillwater Canyon on the Green River.

An Outlaw Boater named Blue John
There are many further connections between beloved paddling trips and the outlaw trail—more than I can share here. A dugout cabin and riverside railroad on Ruby-Horsethief Canyons. An alleged outlaw cave amid the schist and granite gorges of Westwater Canyon. There are even some outlaw connections in the Grand Canyon that I’m still unraveling.

But the story I’d like to end with is about Blue John Griffith, a minor member of the Wild Bunch. He was known for having one brown eye and one blue, and for being an experienced boatman on the Colorado River. It was said he’d come from the area around Grand Junction and Westwater, so Blue John may have known about the cave on the latter run.

When it came to Butch Cassidy’s robberies and hideouts, Blue John often helped with logistics. Essentially, he was the shuttle driver. Moving people and supplies around the rugged desert from town to camps and so forth. He sometimes stole livestock, as well. He was arrested occasionally, including once outside a hideout ranch with his pants down, relieving himself. When it came to gunfights, Blue John had a few.

When the days of the Wild West came to an end, Butch, Sundance, and Etta Place went to South America. Some said they died in a shootout, like the scene depicted in the beloved 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But many who knew them later claimed this was misdirection that allowed the outlaws a chance to finally go straight and come home. Blue John, however, mostly stayed in Utah. One day, around the turn of the 20th century, he and two friends were camped at an alcove near Robbers Roost Spring with a herd of stolen horses.

“Looks to me like the old days are about gone,” said one of them.

The next morning, a series of rifle shots erupted. Sherriff Jesse Tyler from Moab had invaded the Roost. Bullets flew, but no one was killed. Eventually, the posse retreated, and the outlaws escaped one last time.

Blue John picked up a trail through a confusing region of multicolored ridges and spires, later called the Maze. He dropped down on a steep trail to Spanish Bottom, crossed the river above Cataract Canyon, and continued onward through the cracks and spires of the Needles. That fall, he was spotted at Hite, where he departed by boat for Lees Ferry. How far he went remains a mystery. The last Blue John was seen, he was rowing on the Colorado River through the confines of Glen Canyon.

Narrow Canyon, Cataract River Trip

Editor’s Note: Mike Bezemek is the author and photographer of Discovering the Outlaw Trail: Routes, Hideouts, and Stories from the Wild West for Mountaineers.