There’s no doubt that the fascination with the Wild West lives on today. And for those looking to travel in the footsteps of the region’s storied denizens, writer Mike Bezemek has penned Discovering the Outlaw Trail: Routes, Hideouts, and Stories from the Wild West.
The recently released book is a hybrid of historical storytelling and adventure—part narrative nonfiction and part guide book—with gorgeous photographs to illustrate the iconic stories of the era, including the real-life exploits of Butch Cassidy, Queen Ann Bassett, and the Wild Bunch. Bezemek, a passionate history buff and former kayak and backpacking guide originally from the Bay Area, highlights a variety of activities suited for various levels of accessibility, including hiking, biking, paddling, and driving routes. There are also historic sites, parks, museums, viewpoints, campgrounds, and Old West hotels. In other words, there’s something for everyone. Which is a good thing, because despite the passing of time, collectively, society is still very much fascinated by the idea of the Wild West.
“The Outlaw Trail is a figurative concept. There was a network of routes, and these trails led in and out of the hideouts,” he says. “These weren’t caves; these were regions that were considered to be OK for an outlaw to go.”
Naturally, many of these regions are removed from bustling cities and congested areas, meaning they’re not only historically interesting, but beautiful to explore, even in present time. “These outlaws were living off the grid and debunking societal conventions in a way that popular culture still seems to gravitate towards, as exemplified by the popularity of hidden history and true crime programs,” says Bezemek.
“Even the people in the towns [they terrorized] couldn’t look away,” he says. “The violence and defiance, they’d look at it and think ‘I could never do something like that.’ But man it’s thrilling to think about getting people their comeuppance.”
Here are some of Bezemek’s top spots to explore along the Outlaw Trail in the Western U.S., complete with his descriptions of what makes them a worthy trip.
San Juan Mountains (Colorado)
“In the early 1890s, the San Juan Mountains were booming with mining activity, which served as the backdrop for the earliest exploits of Butch Cassidy and a nascent Wild Bunch. Today, this rugged subrange of the Rocky Mountains is an excellent destination with fascinating history, plenty of outlaw connections, and many awesome adventures. The 235-mile San Juan Skyway follows scenic highways to link up mountain towns and historic sites, like the Old West towns of Telluride, Ouray, Silverton, and Durango. The Telluride of today is a mountain ski town with a national historic landmark district to explore, but in 1889 it was the site of Butch Cassidy’s first robbery. A pair of linked trails allows visitors to walk up the canyon from downtown Telluride to the base of a plummeting waterfall.”
Uinta Basin and Eastern Uinta Mountains (Utah)
“There are plenty of highlights on the Utah side of Dinosaur National Monument [featured in Chapter 6 of Discovering the Outlaw Trail,] from a few short hiking trails with nice scenery that link up around the Split Mountain area to many excellent petroglyph sites throughout the park, including the famous Fremont Culture lizards.
The most popular attraction is the Quarry Exhibit Hall where visitors can view thousands of fossilized dinosaur bones left embedded in the original rock face. There are also two outlaw highlights in the park, one you can drive to and the other requiring a boat. The Josie Bassett Morris cabin is a well-preserved structure located on Cub Creek that was built by the famous Josie Bassett of Browns Park, sister of Queen Ann.”
Grand Staircase and South Lake Powell (Utah/Arizona)
“A massive series of sedimentary rock layers, the Grand Staircase stretches across 100 miles of dramatic landscapes in southwestern Utah. From top to bottom, the staircase starts with plateaus like the Aquarius and Paunsaugunt, where you’ll find Butch Cassidy’s boyhood home. Next, the staircase descends through the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park, the dizzying canyons of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the sunken slots around the Paria River Canyon, and the sheer cliffs of Lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
The final hurrah is a precipitous drop into Arizona’s Grand Canyon southwest of Lees Ferry. Lees Ferry is a National Park Service unit that is often overlooked by travelers. Originally called Pahreah Crossing, it was once the main crossing on the Colorado River for miles. Many outlaws passed through, aided by ferry operator and fugitive John D. Lee. Here you can find several worthy hikes and a remarkable paddling trip.”
Red Wall Country (Wyoming)
“In the foothills of the southern Bighorn Mountains, Red Wall Country is a stunningly scenic region with plenty of outlaw history worth exploring. The name comes from a series of sheer red sandstone cliffs that extend for more than 25 miles. The outlaw highlight of this region is Hole-in-the-Wall, an infamous and isolated hideout in a small valley eroded into the Red Wall. The best part is the emptiness of the area, and just getting there is an adventure. If you don’t join a tour (options are available in Buffalo and Kaycee), you’ll need a high clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle for the rough clay-dirt road.”
Spurs of the Outlaw Trail (New Mexico)
“In central New Mexico, the roughly 75-mile Billy the Kid Scenic Byway takes in a variety of excellent Old West sites, including the 19th-century military outpost of Fort Stanton, in Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area. Other stops include the Lincoln Historic Site, with exhibits covering the bloody Lincoln County War and its most famous combatant, Billy the Kid.”
This story originally appeared on Sunset.com.
Discovering the Outlaw Trail
Routes, Hideouts & Stories from the Wild West
by Mike Bezemek, Mountaineer Books, 2023
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