Cave Spring Trail
(Needles District)

excerpts from the book
Canyonlands National Park
Favorite Jeep Roads & Hiking Trails

by David Day

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Canyonlands National Park
Favorite Jeep Roads and Hiking Trails

  • access info for 75 roads and trailheads
  • 56 detailed trail and road maps
  • 241 photographs, 58 in color
  • loads of driving and hiking tips

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Distance: 0.6 mile (loop)

Walking time: 1/4 hour

Elevations: 40 ft. gain/loss 
     Cave Spring Trailhead (start): 4,950 ft.

Trail: Well marked, easy to follow

Vicinity: Near visitor center

USGS Maps: The Loop

Cave Spring Trail


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A hundred years ago the cattle and sheep business was probably the most important industry in the West. That was also a time when there were virtually no laws governing where sheep and cattle could graze, and ranchers were constantly seeking new pastures for their animals. It was around 1890 when they first began bringing livestock into what is now Canyonlands National Park.

Canyonlands was extremely remote at that time. Just to get to the pastures often required a 2-3 day ride, and cowboys frequently had to stay in the backcountry with the herd for months at a time. To make life a little more pleasant for the cowboys a series of camps were established throughout the area, and in the Needles District the Cave Spring Camp was one of the most important. 

Today the Cave Spring Camp is still largely intact, and it offers a fascinating insight into what a cowboys life was like in the early 1900s. The camp was first established around the turn of the century, but after 1918 when the Indian Creek Cattle Company was formed it gained particular prominence. Within ten years the company had become the largest cattle operation in Utah, with its headquarters at the Dugout Ranch just 15 miles east of the national park. 

Cave Spring Camp is almost the first thing you will see on this short trail. Bear left at the fork, proceeding around the loop in a clockwise direction, and you will come to the open-air cooking area just a few hundred feet from the trailhead. The kitchen consisted of a simple stove, a few wooden tables, storage chests, and an odd assortment of frying pans, Dutch ovens, and other basic tools. The staple foods were rice, biscuits, canned food and, of course, coffee. Beans were appreciated, but they are hard to prepare without a good stove. Contrary to popular belief, cows were not often slaughtered because there was no way to keep the meat from spoiling. The area was fenced off to prevent horses from wandering into the camp.

Beyond the cooking area the trail passes several alcoves were the cowboys slept, and in the back of the last alcove you will see the spring that gave the camp its name. Look carefully at the soot-blackened walls of this alcove and you will see a few handprints and simple pictographs that were placed there by Indians long before the arrival of the cowboys. Water has always been a precious resource in this dry desert country, and springs like this one were used by Indian residents and hunting parties for centuries. 

A few feet past the spring you will come to the first of two ladders where the trail climbs onto the low slickrock plateau above the alcoves. This portion of the hike is extraordinarily scenic as the trail winds across smooth, white sandstone for the next half-mile with views of North and South Six-shooter Peaks and the LaSal and Abajo Mountains. Finally, just before the end of the hike the route drops down from the slickrock plateau and rejoins the original trail near the trailhead. 

The book includes more text, more photographs, and trail maps.

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If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Cave Spring Trail, we recommend:
Canyonlands, Needles District (Trails Illustrated, map #311)

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