Cowboy Cave

Round Trip Distance: 7.1-11.6 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation: 5379 - 6417 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 5 hrs. 45 mins.
Trailhead: BLM Rd. #1145
Fee: none
Attractions: Scenic canyons

Cowboy Cave can be found in the Horseshoe Canyon Wilderness Study Area in Wayne County, Utah. Being on BLM land the study area is bordered upon by the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and near to the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. The cave itself is tucked away in a side canyon of the Spur Fork branch of Horseshoe Canyon. Hiking in the area is very remote and should only be attempted when in the company of someone with advanced hiking and route finding skills. Horseback riders and backpackers should be aware that most of the water sources can be undependable.

There are multiple routes to Cowboy Cave that begin from different access roads. This post begins off of BLM Road #114.5. The turnoff for BLM #114.5 is 61 miles from Hanksville, Utah and takes about 2 hours of driving time to get there. From Hanksville head north on Highway 24 for about 16 miles and turn right just before reaching the Goblin Valley State Park road at the sign for Horseshoe Canyon and Hans Flat. Follow the Lower San Rafael Road for 24 miles and turn right at the sign for Hans Flat. Continue for another 20 miles and turn left onto BLM 114.5. The turnoff comes up a little before you would reach the Hans Flat Ranger Station. The road is suitable for 2wd vehicles with normal highway clearance up to this point but after a quarter mile or so BLM 114.5 deteriorates into a high clearance 4wd road. You can also enter Hans Flat Ranger Station into your driving app for turn by turn directions.

How far down BLM 114.5 that you drive will depend upon your vehicle and driving skills and what route you want to take to get to Cowboy Cave. The route that we took requires a GPS with the route loaded beforehand. Our builtin GPS map showed an old trail at the 2.7 mile point of BLM 114.5 leading to the drainage we were targeting and that is what we followed although we also had a rough track of our own that we made using Google's satellite view that we also loaded. In many places the trail disappears entirely. The easiest route to follow for those without a GPS is to stay on BLM 114.5 for another mile where you can follow one of the burro trails down into Spur Fork. Route finding skills are still needed going that route to get around a couple of the spillovers.

Having already mentioned the wild burros I'll hint at how they can be helpful while hiking in the area. If you are following a wash or canyon and you see all their tracks disappear up ahead you are probably coming upon a spillover. All you have to do is pick a suitable set of burro tracks that leave the wash to find a good route around the upcoming obstacle. There are a few spillovers that the wild burros will continue to if there is a chance they will find a pothole of water to drink. Still you can backtrack to find a route to get past it. The same technique can be used for finding routes in and out of the various canyons. (The wild burros have been here since the time of the Old Spanish trail. They aren't indigenous and were't here during the times of those that dwelt in the canyons and left behind their rock art and such.)

What we are calling on our map the 'abandoned' trail follows a straight course for 1 mile until it reaches the top of the Cowboy Cave drainage where it turns sharply to the right. Along the way the trail dips into and out of multiple washes and climbs over several small hills. The turn to the right isn't at all obvious and isn't marked so when you get to that point pick whatever route looks best.

We can't think of anything to recommend the route that we took at the right turn other than it got us to our destination. The target to keep in mind is the canyon that runs along the sandstone cliffs that you can see off in the distance about a mile ahead. Some people call the pointed dome in the middle of the photo the 'Head of the Spur'. It overlooks the junction of  the Cowboy Cave drainage, Spur Fork and an old 4wd road. You can also see these same cliffs in places from BLM 114.5.

A little over 3/4 of a mile after the right turn the wash comes to a huge spillover where you have the option of following the wild burro tracks down into the canyon on the left side of the spillover or hiking around the rim until you are opposite from Cowboy Cave where you can scramble down into the canyon without too much trouble. The canyon route is fun enough and pretty easy hiking. There is one spot as you drop into the canyon where you have to slide or crab your way down a 6 foot slope of slickrock. Younger hikers will probably do what the burros do and just jump into the sand at the bottom while the more feeble, like us, choose to take it on their bottoms sitting down.

Cowboy Cave is in a short side wash but there's not much danger of missing it. There are actually 2 caves side by side. The smaller one on the left is named Warner's Cave. We have no idea how these caves got their names. Unlike the Cowboy Cave north of Moab that has more inscriptions and a nice image of a cowboy there is no such iconery here and only a couple of names.

The size of Cowboy Cave is rather impressive. We're just guessing but it looks like it is probably a good hundred feet deep. The holes in the floor were probably left by pot hunters although judging from the extensive midden in front of the cave that was totally devoid of any fragments of pottery the cave may not have been used after the Basket Makers. Remember that it is illegal to do any such excavating of your own or to damage the site in anyway. If you are backpacking be responsible and make your camp on one of the benches above the wash and don't camp inside any of the caves or alcoves.

We spotted one noticeable pictograph inside Cowboy Cave. It looks a little like a long boat with ribs running across it from one end to the other but that would make about as much sense as saying it's a cigar.

High on the cliff between the 2 caves is a Barrier Canyon style petroglyph that we had a hard time getting a good photo of. There are other petroglyphs below it as well as an inscription left by 'L. Wilson' who carved his name right over some sharpening grooves. There are also some petroglyphs behind a fallen slab of rock to the left of Warner's Cave and a few near the east entrance side of Cowboy Cave.

Inside of the caves are several metates but if you look up on a ledge between the caves you can see a nice little metate and mano.

Rather than retracing our route to get back to our truck we opted to continue past Cowboy Cave to Spur Fork and loop around that way. We had hiked Spur Fork in the past and knew that other than a couple of spillovers to go around it's not too bad a route. There is a side canyon off of Spur Fork on the left along the way that leads to Outlaw Spring. A short distance up that from Spur Fork is a huge pothole that looks so deep it's hard to imagine it could ever dry up. Almost right across where the wash from Cowboy Cave spills into Spur Fork there is an old 4wd road that has been reclaimed that leads up to National Park Road #777. It's pretty easy hiking even though it is 4 miles long and probably provides the most direct and easiest to follow route to Cowboy Cave. NP 777 is pretty rough and also requires a high clearance 4wd.

Besides the route finding to Cowboy Cave another crux of the hike is that it is all uphill on the return trip so the more of BLM 114.5 that you can drive the more your tired legs will thank you on the hike out. The entire Horseshoe Canyon Wilderness Study Area can be a lot of fun to explore and would take a lot of dedication and effort to search out all of the various springs and side canyons. Casual hikers that venture too far from their vehicles have a good chance of getting lost or running out of water. It's also a long way to a paved road if you happen to have car trouble. If you can make it to the Hans Flat Ranger Station you should be able to get a cellphone signal and if nothing else they could probably radio for help. Other than that, if you would like to see Cowboy Cave for yourself all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.