October 26, 2011

Backpacking Robbers Roost

The Dirty Devil River country must be one of the most wild places in the contiguous U.S.
Even more amazing is that it's still like that today, having survived all these years, without any protection other than it's impossibly ridiculous access. One of the most inaccessible parts of this canyon system is now known as Robbers Roost. A hundred years ago Butch Cassidy and his rambunctious crew would commit acts of Robinhood-esque, corporate thievery, such as the hold up of the Castle Gate payroll. In this case, they cut the telegraph wire, snatched the loot, and rode like hell for the wild deep of Robbers Roost, where they made quick work of losing the posse.
I don't think it's possible to do much wandering around in Utah without stumbling into some intriguing history. Lisa and I wanted to do an end of season backpacking trip, so we met in Price, gassed up the old '77 blazer and rode for Robbers Roost, at a slightly slower pace than Butch Cassidy. We planned on going to the Angel Point trail head on the east side of the river, but we only made it out by the Flat Tops, on the road to the Maze district of Canyonlands Nat'l Park. We stopped to sleep at a random place off the main road where a coyote was waiting for us. He wasn't happy about us showing up without a burger from Ray's Tavern. He wanted nothing of my offer of a cold beer so he took his attitude, and beady eyes, and sauntered off into the night. The next morning we arrived at the Angel Point trail head and packed our gear for a few days. We shouldered heavy packs, thanks to two liters of red wine, among other things, and walked over to the rim of the Dirty Devil to look at a dizzy sight of slickrock that the map said we were supposed to somehow navigate. We walked off the rim with a slow progress, setting a relaxed pace that permeated the next 5 days of wandering in and around the Robbers Roost.

It took a little over an hour to walk the 2 miles to the river. We dropped packs and explored around a little, then headed up river another mile or two, to the mouth of Robbers Roost Canyon where we were met by beautiful October cottonwoods, and ancient pictographs on a wall of several hundred feet.

As soon as we entered Robbers Roost Canyon I was surprised to see how easy the walking was. It wasn't the jungle that is the overwhelming character of the Escalante. The beautiful open walking on the canyon floor continued for the entire trip, without even much cheat grass. The corridor trails were established more by deer than by hikers. As we walked quietly up canyon we came face to face with a big doe, running straight at us, without knowing we were there. She was was spooked about something. She stopped to look at us with her big confused ears, then headed off, apparently late for the next adventure. A few minutes later a coyote ran across our path, missing us by 20 feet, also late for some adventure.
Not far into Robbers Roost we started looking for a campsite that would work for a two night camp. We found a few places that would've worked, with water close by, but ended up going into the South Fork of Robbers Roost where we found a nice spot near an alcove with water running out of 190 million years of Navajo Sandstone. Usually while backpacking in the arid desert I don't like to camp too close to watering holes because of the stress my presence may bring wildlife that are trying to get a drink of water. In this case the canyon bottom was very wet and water was virtually everywhere. We guessed that this year's unusually frequent moisture was the reason why, so we weren't too concerned about getting in the way of watering bighorn sheep. We set up camp under cottonwood trees that must've watched the wild bunch ride through, then walked to the spring source where we filtered the pre-historic water. We sipped red wine and wondered how it would've been to see the wild bunch come riding hell-bent-for-leather around the bend. The next day we did a day-hike several miles up the South Fork of Robbers Roost, then returned to camp in the same spot again.

Most people that come here do so for the technical canyoneering opportunities that exist in the higher reaches of these canyons. They park on the flats above, rappel into a canyon, exit at the first opportunity, then walk back to the car. To each their own, but my purpose for being here is different. I want to be out in the wonderful, wild nature of October's soft light. I'm in no hurry to exit, and don't mind carrying a heavy backpack to accommodate a few days out yonder. On this particular trip I felt isolation and stillness like I haven't experienced before. To elaborate on the internet what this feeling is like has been attempted by writers greater than I, so I'll leave it to the experts, and won't try writing about it. Edward Abbey said it well when he said what I'll try to paraphrase: you gotta get out of the goddamn car and walk until you can't anymore, then your going to have to crawl on hands and knees until your bloody, then you may understand, probably not, but maybe.
The main Robbers Roost Canyon continued with several miles of open walking, lots of water, and big big walls of classic Utah red rock. The native species of the riparian corridor were healthy and dominate. We stopped to camp near the forks of the White Roost, where the canyon splits several ways.

Looking into the mouth of the White Roost Fork.

...and looking into the mouth of the North Fork and Middle Forks of Robbers Roost.

The afternoon that we hiked out of the canyons we camped on the rim above the South Fork that we spent walking a few days prior. We couldn't see the bottom of the abyss, but we could see a hundred miles distant. We spent the afternoon looking over the maps and planning future routes into and around the canyons of the Dirty Devil. As you can imagine deep canyons don't host much in the way of sunset vistas, so after being several days in a deep chasm in southern Utah it's particularly enjoyable to watch a beautiful sunset. The sunset and stars from Angel Point were as spectacular as the sunrise.

See also No Mans Canyon here
See also Sams Mesa Box Canyon here


  1. Christophe de Saint-LouisNovember 25, 2011 at 3:01 PM

    And to top it all, you take good pics. That IS outrageous.

  2. Great trip report! I've really been wanting to backpack in the Roost but it's tough to find information on what is doable. This is really inspiring!

  3. Only tents or sleeping bags and shelters are ideal for a person to rest at night, but if you want to spend a little 'more time to sleep in a tent, or if you have a partner, you'll want something a little 'bigger. Easy up tents