THIS IS OUTLAW COUNTRY
On a lonely, dusty highway, west of Kaycee, three amigos stood by the side of the road, eager to locate themselves on a map. They were less than two hours away from home – a short drive from Sheridan, Wyoming, all things considered, about the perfect distance to lend a day trip a significant sense of freshness. None had ever stepped foot in this wild country, this place of towering scarlet cliffs and endless grassland. This was a side of the Bighorn Mountains that they never knew existed, and they were charged with a sense of adventure. They had driven some 20 miles on dirt roads to reach the trailhead to their next great challenge – 20 more miles on unforgiving two track, with ruts deep enough to hide a pronghorn’s powdery white backside. It was about then that they realized that they had forgotten to pack their map.
It made no difference for the three amigos. They were in search of adventure, a hidden cache of riches, and legends of the old west. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had not had a map when they rode out into these lands in search of a hideaway that would burnish them against the prying eyes of the law. Today, this is still remote country – 40 miles from the interstate, it may be the most remote in all of Wyoming. In the 1800s, this may have felt like exploring the far side of the Red Planet itself. The infamous Hole-in-the-Wall remains far removed from civilization.
The amigos rode on deeper into the dust, past great pastoral siren songs of Wyoming’s fabled ranching heritage and its grand agricultural present. They reasoned that the journey could certainly be a more difficult one – those notorious outlaws had not had the luxury of riding this rough route in an air-conditioned mechanical bull. So the amigos pressed on, through one barbed-wire gate and then another, and another, until they reached a lonesome signpost in the otherwise endless badlands.
Three miles to Hole-in-the-Wall.
The vastness of the area overwhelmed the young men. With the sparse signage provided by the Bureau of Land Management, it was no small order navigating the way to the hideout. Of course, that had always been the point. Outlaws had found refuge here for much of the latter half of the 19th century – from the 1860s through the 1910s, as the Old West eroded around them, the Hole in the Wall Gang and Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch would congregate in this country, holding up in spare, small cabins as they waited for the law, and civilized society, to forget all about them. Of course, that never happened. With each nefarious criminal act, with every bold train robbery or wanton bank heist, the legend of Butch and Sundance only grew. While the outlaws remain larger than life characters, their stories carved into the bedrock of Wyoming’s identity, much of their old kingdom has been forgotten. While no structures remain today, an original cabin, built in 1883 by Alexander Ghent, is preserved at the Old Trail Town Museum in Cody, Wyoming.
A foreboding energy permeated the area. The amigos felt it as they edged closer to the massive gap in the fortress-like cliffs; the flat prairie was funneled into the gap, as natural a trap as exists in the whole of Wyoming. Void of tree cover, the Hole-in-the-Wall could be easily defended by but a few armed men. And while the outlaws were long pursued by the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the long arm of the law, the thought of chasing outlaws like Butch and Sundance or Jesse James into this wild country would have struck fear into the hearts of even the toughest of lawmen. When the amigos scrambled up to the very top of the Hole, their reward was an uninterrupted panorama that stretched for miles and miles. They were struck then by the beauty of the harsh, barren landscape, and the sheer gravity of the forces that would have driven men and women to flee to this place. There is a lure to this country that is difficult to characterize. Perhaps it’s the promise of freedom that exists in the sheer vastness of what has always been brutal, unforgiving territory, a place where each step toward some new beautiful space is hard earned. Or perhaps it is the thrill of falling asleep to the sound of coyotes howling at the moon, and watching the stars blitz the sky overhead as you thank the heavens that you survived another day without stepping on a rattlesnake.
For conquering the 40-mile drive and 6-mile hike to and from the Hole-in-the-Wall, the amigos rewarded themselves with one of the most remarkable sunset drives that the Great State of Wyoming has to offer. They cruised out to the Outlaw Cave Campground, a chunk of Bureau of Land Management earth in the Middle Fork of the Powder River Recreation Area. What’s remarkable about this area is that the campground sits high atop flat canyon walls that drop off dramatically toward the river below. Millions of years of erosion has exposed stunning layers of red, orange, brown, gray and black earth and rock, while pine trees cling precariously to ledges and sheer cliff faces. The area has been known to humans for thousands of years, and some evidence of early habitation can still be seen today – Rock Art Cave features petroglyphs carved and painted on rock walls, while an ancient cairn line can be found adjacent to Outlaw Cave Road. More modern history includes the nearby Dull Knife Battlefield, where, during the Dull Knife Fight on November 25, 1876, General Ranald S. Mackenzie’s Fourth Cavalry raided the winter encampment of the Northern Cheyenne. A deeper dive into these, and other tales and trails of this area, can be found in an excellent article on geowyo.com – click here.
The amigos continued their search for gold and ancient artifacts but came away stumped in their efforts. But they did find something even more rewarding – a 12-mile stretch of the Middle Fork of the Powder River, known for epic blue-ribbon trout fishing. This is a popular area among anglers, but it is not difficult to find a fishing hole to call your own; 12 miles of river affords plenty of opportunities for privacy.
Privacy is what this outlaw country is all about, in a way. Even today, when most folks come to recreate rather than hibernate, the rough roads and long hikes make the solitude found at the end all the more rewarding. And that Hole-in-the-Wall and Outlaw Cave Campground, these two vestiges of frontier history, are just a day trip away from the bustling town of Sheridan makes the experience that much more remarkable.
WHEN TO GO:
BLM recommends that you do not venture out into these areas during periods of inclement weather. Additionally, Outlaw Cave Road is closed during the winter from January 1 through April 14.
HOW TO GET THERE:
From I-25 take Exit 249 TTT Road. Head southwest on TTT Road off the interstate. The road then turn southeast. Go about 11 miles and veer right (TTT Ranch is to the left). TTT Road becomes Natrona County Road 112/Lone Bear Road. Veer right at the next Y-intersection onto Willow Creek Road and go about 3.5 miles. Veer right towards Hole in the Wall and go about 4 miles. Veer right at the elevated white grain bins and go another 6 miles. Turn right onto Natrona County Road 105 towards Hole in the Wall. Natrona County Road 105 is a 4WD unmaintained road suitable only for high clearance vehicles during dry conditions. Stay straight on the two-track and go through 6 gates, about 9.5 miles to the trailhead. Please remember to leave the gates as you find them.
Click here for data on our hike in; you will be able to see info on our average speed, topographic data, and more.
Outlaw Cave Campground
From Interstate 90, take exit 254 for Kaycee. Head west on Highway 191 for about 1 mile. Turn left onto Highway 190W for about 16 miles to Barnum. Turn left onto Bar C Road (sign for Middle Fork Powder River Management Area). This road is an improved all-weather access road and travels directly through the headquarters of the Hole-in-the-Wall ranch. The road will continue west another 2 miles past the boundary to the Middle Fork Management area, and then another 5 miles to the campground.
The campground is a no-fee site and is first come, first served. It includes 12 rustic camping spaces and one vault toilet. There is no water and no trash collection; please pack out all garbage.
Consider gearing up at one of our local shops or outfitters to keep Sheridan County’s outdoor industry thriving. Local outposts include Rocky Mountain Discount Sports, The Sports Stop, Sportsman’s Warehouse, Shipton’s, Tractor Supply Co., and Big Horn Trading.
WHERE TO STAY:
Not keen on spending a night in the woods? Consider one of the fantastic lodging options available in Sheridan County, and make a long day trip out of your Hole-in-the-Wall or Outlaw Cave Campground adventure. Visit sheridanwyoming.org for a full listing of local lodging properties.
For our full album of photos from this adventure, visit our archive here.
For all of our short films, videos, and other film-related content, follow us on YouTube by clicking here.
STAY SAFE AND HEALTHY:
At this time, there are no health and safety restrictions related to COVID-19 along this route. But please note that some retailers in Sheridan and Johnson Counties have implemented mask requirements (those that do offer masks for guests at the entrance). Click here for up-to-date COVID-19 information and resources. Observe Bureau of Land Management regulations when exploring these public lands.