Round Trip Distance: 5 miles
Elevation: 4985 - 5254 feet
Cellphone: 0-3 bars
Time: 3 hrs.
Trailhead: Owl Draw Road
Attractions: Prehistoric caves, rock art
Cowboy Cave is located in Squaw Park north of Moab, Utah. It is believed that the cave gets its name from a bust of a cowboy that is etched into the sandstone cliff along with a lot of other graffiti and authentic Indian pictographs and petroglyphs. Archaeological excavations at Cowboy Cave uncovered items dating back to the early archaic period 7400-5100 BC. The cave appears to have been inhabited during other periods as well with the latest date being 100-650 AD. This isn't the only cave in southeastern Utah that carries the same name. There is at least one more that is near the Horseshoe Canyon annex of Canyonlands National Park.
Finding a suitable route to Cowboy Cave can be an adventure in itself. We included 4 different approaches that we know will get you there in the right vehicle and under the right conditions. The approach that we took for this post was from the Yellow Cat exit on Interstate 70. It is the brown line on the map. From the interstate it is 16.2 miles to the dirt road in this picture that has a marker that says 'Dead End'. Both the Yellow Cat exit and the Cisco exit that come in from the north are usually navigable in a 2-wheel drive vehicle with good ground clearance. The 2 routes coming in from the east off of Highway 128 both require a high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle or other OHV.
After turning onto the dead end road follow it for just under 1 mile until you come to an old trail that has been closed off to vehicle travel.
The trail starts out by crossing a shallow wash that drains into a very deep and narrow section of the canyon. At this point you can tell that you are following an old doubletrack trail. Off in the distance, about 2 miles away, you can see the approximate destination where the point of the cliff juts out into Squaw Park.
The trail leads to the edge of the little point that it is traveling along and then disappears as it drops down the white sandstone cliffs. On the trip out we went to the right to get down to where we could see the trail, which we marked in this photo with a blue line, continuing toward Cowboy Cave. On the trip back we opted to come up the left side. There was nothing significant about either way but the left side may have been a little easier and more direct.
The old trail is pretty obvious for the most part. There are several side trails that come up but they don't head to the promised land so they are pretty easy to ignore. If you send the Google Map or the GPX file to your cellphone then you can use it like a GPS and be able to follow our exact route. If you have an actual GPS then all the better.
The trail is sandy and it is anything but flat as it climbs in and out of every wash that it comes to. The total amount of elevation gain, which includes the climb back out of the canyon on the way back, comes out to 1,280 feet.
After another mile of trudging over the sandy trail you come around the first point of the cliff and see a road and a cul de sac. You can indeed drive right up to the caves if you have high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle or an ATV. Since our truck it only 2-wheel drive and we don't cherish getting stranded out in the boondocks we opt for doing a little leg work.
The cave closest to the turnaround and the first that you come to is overgrown with Fremont's mahonia which is a prickly holly leaf looking plant that is about as much fun fighting your way through as cactus. The next cave that you come to is Cave Spring.
A rancher has attempted to divert water from the spring inside the cave to a watering trough outside the entrance.
Continuing around the next point in the cliff from Cave Spring leads to Cowboy Cave and its companions.
The caves currently have huge ramps of sand blown into them.
One of the smaller caves goes back into the sandstone cliff quite a ways. Near the back of the cave there is another spring that forms a pool of water. It is pitch black in this cave so bring a flashlight or flashlight app if you want to see inside it.
If you look past all the graffiti on the cliffs you will find several panels of rock art including these faint hand pictographs.
We traced some of them on the computer to make them stand out. Here you can see one of the bison images. There are also a few Barrier Canyon style petroglyph images as well as anamorphs and turkey tracks.
There might also be a map of sorts represented here.
This gringo graffiti is probably the icon for which the cave gets its name. The date '1847' is engraved deeply into the cliff. That is the same year that the Mormon's were led into Utah by Brigham Young. If you think about it, for someone to happen upon these very remote caves in 1847 they were most likely following a trail that already existed at the time.
There are several other small caves in the area and more petroglyphs as well. We made this trip in the month of December when the days are short and there isn't much daylight to work with. If you choose to camp in the area be sure to not setup camp within any of the caves and try to pick a spot that is away from the trails and roads enough that you won't impede other visitors. Also remember that it is illegal to dig around these sites or damage them in any way including adding your own graffiti. There is a lot to explore around Cowboy Cave and Squaw Park. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.