Key Saddle Route to Outlaw Canyon

Page Type
Colorado, United States, North America
Route Type:
Mountaineering, Scrambling, Canyoneering
Summer, Fall
Time Required:
One to two days
Rock Difficulty:
5.0 (YDS)

Route Quality: 1 Votes

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Key Saddle Route to Outlaw Canyon
Created On: Dec 20, 2006
Last Edited On: Jun 30, 2014


Outlaw Canyon via this route is the quickest way off Outlaw Peak and even if not visiting the peak, a worthy desitination in it’s own right. It's still a tad less spectacular than the route through Outlaw Arch Canyon, but still a good route.

The Key Saddle Route to Outlaw Canyon is quite easy (comparatively) once you know where it is. There is some exposure and much scrambling, but luckily, the hardest parts of the route are not too exposed and the exposed parts of the route aren't too hard. This is a fantastic little adventure.

The canyon itself is fairly easy, but will require technical and natural anchoring skills. Do not underestimate the route through the canyon. It isn’t that easy and is quite challenging for most.

Outlaw CanyonAJ in Outlaw Canyon.

Getting There

Note: Directions are going to be very brief and this is intentional. Pay attention to the landmarks when driving and make sure to use a good map. If you can’t find the trailhead on your own, then this is not the right place for you to go climbing. I would suggest doing something like Longs Peak instead.

Briefly put: To get to the trailhead drive to the park headquarters of Dinosaur N.M., which is a few miles east of the town of Dinosaur, CO (Dinosaur is located on Highway 40 just east of the Utah border). Drive north on the Harpers Corner road for north until the Echo Park Road (gravel) takes off to the right (east). Drive the Echo Park Road to a junction. Turn right at the junction and head east along the Bench Road. Follow this road to the head of Red Rocks Canyon and Park. The road is sometimes too rough for passenger cars after leaving the pavement. Moderate clearance vehicles such as Subarus should do OK, but low slung cars can sometimes have problems.

Mouth of Outlaw CanyonThis is the mouth of Outlaw Canyon at sunset.


Map of Approach RoutesMap of Approach to Outlaw Canyon, outlining three possible routes.
Outlaw Peak MapMap of the route into Outlaw Arch Canyon, marked in yellow.

Approach Route Options

Option #1

The easiest but the longest of the three approach routes is the one down Red Rock Canyon. In my opinion, this is the best route in. From the Bench Road, follow the fence line to the canyon and drop down in. Old cattle trails can be followed for much of the way down canyon to the Yampa River, and there isn't too much bushwhacking. Near the mouth of the canyon is a signature from 1919 and some petroglyphs.

Once the Yampa River is reached, you can follow more game paths down the river to Outlaw Park. There is one section that would be tricky in high water where you must climb around a boulder. Just before the river crossing marked on the map, there is a nice sandy beach to camp on, at least at low water. There are also some very old pictographs as marked on the map above.

SignatureHere is a signature we found in Red Rocks Canyon on the approach to the Yampa River and Outlaw Peak.

Option #2

Another route, slightly shorter than the one above is to hike cross country from the Bench Road to the big bend in the Yampa River north of the mouth of Red Rocks Canyon. The hard part is weaving in and out of all the drainags. If you stay to the north and away from the canyon, you can avoid many of the drainages, but be sure to not go too far north and end up on the wrong point. From the end of the point above the river bend (see map), you can scramble down to the river. Follow the river down to the crossing as mentioned above.

Option #3

The most direct way to the base of the climb is to head to and climb down the gully to the river. This is the most difficult route, and a very hot one when coming back out. Briefly put, from the car park at the beginning of the route marked on the map, head towards the big drainage west of Outlaw Park. Drop into the drainage, but don't follow it down very far. Locate the gully marked on the map. You will pass a small saddle between the canyon and the access gully. See the photo. This is a very steep and rugged route and there is some loose rock and much scrambling to reach the river.

Once nice place to camp is on the sandy beach south of what is marked BM 5144 on the topo map. This is just before you must cross the Yampa to continue down river.

Route to access gullyImportant! Route to access gully to the Yampa River.

Option #4

Just northwest of the divide between Sand Canyon and Red Rocks Canyon, a 4wd road heads to the rim of the Yampa River Canyon at the location below:


From that location, you can head south along the rim and contour around the canyon and into the gully mentioned in Option #3. This is a very rugged route, especially on the return, but it has some great views.

Climbing Route to "Key Saddle"

The description will begin at the river crossing mentioned above. From the river crossing, continue down the Yampa River to the little gully north of the words “Outlaw Park” on the Hells Canyon quad map.

Climb up the gully to the end. There is some brush and some cliffs to climb over, and with a bit of exposure, you can climb out of the gully and avoid some of the brush. Cross the drainage to the north and scramble up the rock ribs to the NNE as marked on the route map above.

Stay fairly close to the top of the spur, but keeping fairly close to the deep canyon not far to the right of you. This may take a bit of route-finding. What you are headed for is the saddle right at the head of the canyon. You want to get to a bench at the same level as the saddle. To do this, there are two choices of ledges to follow.

Key SaddleThis is the "Key Saddle" that turned out to be the key to finding the routes up the peak and into the canyons. Click for larger view. The easy bench to traverse is on the left.

Option #1

The higher ledge is above the elevation of the saddle. Look for it and climb up to it. There is a bit of exposure when rounding the corner and a short narrow place in the ledge that might be scary for some. The ledge continues around the corner and above a gully filled with loose rubble; climb down into the gully and follow it down to the ledge (see the “Key Saddle” photo above. There is one tricky traverse to get onto the ledge, but there are several variations. The wide saddle is a nice rest spot. You will notice that bighorn sheep visit this area as well.

TraversePart of the traverse on Option #1

Option #2

Here is the second option for getting to the saddle. There is also a ledge below the elevation of the saddle that can be used. This is overall easier for most of the length, but had one scary little climb to get down to the ledge. If you do use this ledge, you will end up below the saddle, but can climb up the rubble filled gully mentioned in the paragraph above (the one that is climbed down from the higher ledge) and to the ledge that leads to the saddle.

I don’t know which one is the better route, but our group seemed to prefer the upper ledge. I have crossed that one a total of four times and the lower one once, and don’t have a preference.

Step overJeff is stepping over the exposed gap just before Key Saddle. Make sure to not slip here! You can either step over the gap, or do the exposed traverse above as pictured HERE.

Outlaw Canyon

Route to canyon floor:

From Key Saddle, you must drop down the brushy couloir to the southeast. Continue down towards Outlaw Canyon, but search for the rib between two drainages as marked on the map above. Bighorn Sheep use part of this route. At the end of the rib, route-find into the drainage to the south. Follow this very steep drainage to the floor of Outlaw Canyon. Apparently one big horn sheep didn’t quite make it and we found the old remains.

Exploring up canyon:

Just up canyon is a major fork. The left fork is deep and narrow for quite a ways and rather impressive. We explored the canyon for about a mile and I don’t know what is beyond that. The right fork is wider but has one interesting and narrow side canyon to the right. We went a bout a mile up this drainage as well and didn’t go beyond that. There are rocks to climb over and other obstacles in both forks. Either fork could provide some interesting exploring since we didn’t make it to the upper ends.

Continuing down canyon:

There are a few obstacles and the canyon becomes a good narrow canyon. The only real obstacle is a 37 foot high rappel. Below the rappel, the canyon has no major obstacles, but is rather rugged close to the Yampa River with several boulders to climb over before reaching the mouth.

RappingThe 37 foot drop in Outlaw Canyon.

Time Needed for Trip

You should probably plan on taking a minimum of 1.5 days for the trip, and preferably more. You could do it in a long day, at least if you knew the route, but his is not recommended by any means, plus you have to camp away from your vehicle anyway. It will be an easy half day to the river crossing, where there is a good campsite. You could climb Outlaw Peak and camp, and descend Outlaw or Outlaw Arch Canyon that same day (or the next morning).

It would be best to plan on a 2-3 day trip, depending on what you plan to do in the area. Our first trip went like this:

Day 1: We hiked to the campsite and drop our backpacks. From there we climbed to the saddle, doing much backtracking and exploring around the little canyons before climbing to the saddle (we actually climbed to the saddle twice since we left our daypacks down on a ledge). We then descended into Outlaw Canyon, explored the two forks up a ways, and descended Outlaw Canyon back to the river.

Day 2: Day two was spent climbing back to the saddle, to the summit of Outlaw Peak, and descending Outlaw Arch Canyon. We then waded back up river to camp.

Day 3: We climbed up the east gully near the mouth of Outlaw Canyon and to Peak 6540 for some nice views of the canyons and of Outlaw Peak. We then went back to camp and hiked back to the trailhead.

CampsiteNice campsite along the river opposite Outlaw Park.

Essential Gear

Climbing harness, one 30 meter rope, and several slings and rap rings.

AJ and MikeAJ and Mike Kelsey in Outlaw Canyon.

Key Saddle Route to Outlaw Canyon

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