Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Horse Thief Canyon Trail in Utah's San Rafael Swell

           In the silence we can still hear hoofbeats pounding and see dust clouds swirling from herds of stolen horses thundering their way through this desert canyon.

          Once a staging area for horse thieves and cattle rustlers, the Old Smith Homestead in Utah's San Rafael Swell is now used to stage a more benign activity—hiking Horse Thief Canyon.  
          The 1880's Smith Cabin is also rumored to have been one of the many hideouts of Butch Cassidy and his gang.  Does a locale exist in the intermountain west that hasn't laid claim to hosting the Wild Bunch during their criminal careers?

Smith Cabin—Home to Nefarious 1800's Activities.
 To view another Butch Cassidy haunt—mentioned in a previous post—click here.

            Unlawful activities far from our minds, two friends and I begin our Horse Thief Canyon hike in a sandy wash through a desert bursting with color.  Cactus and desert wildflowers bloom in reds, oranges, yellows, pinks and purples, their hues complemented by the cream and coral sandstone rock walls surrounding the canyon. 

The brilliant red blooms of the Claret Cup Cactus—considered

one of the desert's most beautiful plants.

Plains Prickly Pear Cactus.

Plains Prickly Pear Cactus plants take root in cryptobiotic soil.

To learn more about the fragile ecosystem of cryptobiotic soil, 
click here.

Orange Globemallow.

Scalloped Phacelia, Scorpionweed.

          We hike for a couple hours and then climb out from the wash to find table-top rocks perfect for a lunch stop.  The setting affords panoramic views of our surroundings—from the Book Cliffs area of eastern Utah to the Henry Mountains of south-central Utah.

          After lunch we turn to retrace our steps and peer across the vast expanse of rock and sky.  Everything looks familiar and nothing does.  With a sense of dread we realize we've lost the trail.  Where did we exit the wash?  We follow a series of rock cairns leading to steep drop-offs over cliff edges.  After more climbing up, over and around groups of rocks we find a cairn we'd seen on the way to our lunch spot. Descending from this cairn delivers us into the correct canyon and back onto our trail.

Rita and Robin begin the return to the trailhead.
But wait?  Where is the route back into the canyon?

Cairns—(a mound of rough stones built as a landmark)
such as these guide hikers across slickrock.

Returning to the trailhead we re-live the tense moments before finding the trail; we've learned a sobering lesson today: It’s easy to become disoriented when hiking the San Rafael Swell and we were ill-prepared to spend the night in the desert.   
Relieved now, we enjoy a little laugh.  After all—if cattle rustlers and Butch Cassidy could navigate and survive in this harsh environment, well, maybe we could have done it too.  
           Shade is non-existent on the Horse Thief Canyon Trail so it’s wise to hike this trail on a cool spring day.  The best time of year for wildflower viewing and photography in this area is (typically) the middle of May.  HIking the canyons, washes and slickrock of the San Rafael Swell can be fun—just don’t get lost.
The San Rafael Swell is a remote desert region in southeastern Utah.  You can learn more by visiting these websites:  http://www.sanrafaelswell.org/indexnew.html

            Enjoy these flower photos from a subsequent visit to Horse Thief Canyon:

Hedgehog Cactus.

Lavender Evening Primrose—so named because the yellow flowers
fade to shades of orange or lavender upon drying.

Dwarf Evening Primrose.

Yellow Plains Prickly Pear.


  1. Horse Thief Canyon! Oh my . . . what a name! It's so representative (at least in my mind) for a location in the far west region of the U.S.

    Your photos of the desert flowers are beyond stunning! And your report overall was packed with very interesting information and links. And speaking of links, I especially liked the link relative to Wyoming and the Town of Baggs.

    There's so much more that could be said, but I'll conclude by adding that I loved your statement: "Everything looks familiar and nothing does." From personal hiking experiences, I can relate to that!


    1. Thanks for your comments John. I'm happy to hear that you enjoyed the photos and the links.

      As for losing the trail while hiking... I suppose that a good GPS and modern technology could compensate for poor navigational skills but when I'm out in the natural world I like to leave the modern world far behind—so far I haven't embraced bringing "high tec" gear along on my hikes. And luckily, in this story, we found our way back and everything turned out all right!

  2. Hi Rita,

    I'm so glad you guys made it back to file this report and share your photos. This is my favorite time of year for viewing desert blooms and you sure captured some stunners!

    I enjoyed the link about cryptobiotic soil. I'd always wondered about the turf the Huntington Gardens use for their Desert Garden (one of my favorite places to wander and view the succulents in bloom), and, thanks to you, now I know!

    P.S. As much as I prefer to leave the high tech world behind, I've started bringing my cell phone when hiking these days. And I've just bought a snakebite kit. Mainly because I keep spotting rattlers on the trails outside of L.A. Something John and I don't have to worry about when we hike in N.H.!

  3. Vickie,
    I appreciate your feedback (and John's) on the links I provide. It's nice to know that you're looking at them, and also nice to know that you've learned something from them!

    I agree that it's probably a good idea to carry cell phones on hikes. Until recently, Tim and I couldn't get reception in some of the places we go and so we never got in the habit of taking them along. I guess that as long as the phones are turned OFF and only used in an emergency... I can accept that little bit of technology in the wilderness!

  4. The cactus flowers were beautiful, and the place that can have such beautiful flowers must be rugged and tranquil.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Manikchand.
      I love the way you refer to Horse Thief Canyon; both words—rugged and tranquil—describe the place and the hike perfectly!

  5. These are such beautiful pictures, makes me want to take a little vacation! I'm a little jealous that you go to go to the Old Smith Homestead! I grew up watching westerns with my grandpa so Butch Cassidy always holds a special place with me. In fact, I just read a book called He just got done reading this book called “Legends Lost” by Charlie Mac http://www.charliemacbooks.com if you're interested. It's all about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, so it might be a great book to go along with your recent visit!

  6. Thanks for your comments, Amanda.

    I'm always happy to hear that my posts have inspired someone to want to take a vacation, and this is the place to visit if you want to follow in Butch Cassidy's footsteps.

    "Legends Lost" sounds like an interesting account of this notorious gang's legacy. I'll check it out—thanks.