Key Saddle Route to Outlaw Peak

Key Saddle Route to Outlaw Peak

Page Type Page Type: Route
Location Lat/Lon: 40.50760°N / 108.9133°W
Additional Information Route Type: Hiking, Mountaineering, Trad Climbing, Scrambling, Canyoneering
Seasons Season: Summer, Fall
Additional Information Time Required: A few days
Additional Information Rock Difficulty: 5.4 (YDS)
Sign the Climber's Log


The Key Saddle Route is quite easy (comparitively) once you know where it is. There is some exposure and much scrambling, but the crux pitch is only 5.4, making Outlaw Peak one of the easiest and most accessible of the peaks in the area. Luckily, the hardest parts of the route aren't too exposed and the exposed parts of the route aren't too hard. This is a fantastic little adventure.

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.

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.

Crux chimneyThis is the upper part of the crux chimney used to access the summit of Outlaw Peak.

Maps (click on map for larger image)

Map of Approach RoutesMap of Approach to Outlaw Peak, outlining three possible routes.
Outlaw Peak MapMap of the climbing route up Outlaw Peak.

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.

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 teh 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. Breifly 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. 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.

Wading the Yampa RiverWading the Yampa River on the approach to Outlaw Peak.

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.

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.

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.

Exposed scramblingOne of the exposed scambling sections.

Climbing Route to the Summit of Outlaw Peak

From the saddle, you must drop down the brushy couloir to the southeast. Drop down until you can follow a brushy bench around to the drainage to the north (see map). Follow the bench all the way into this drainage. Just follow this fault line drainage to the rim. The crux chimney is at the top, and has two little pitches. It is 5.4 in difficulty, but not too exposed, so it can be done without a rope.

From the top of the rime, you will see your goal. Contour around to the southeast side of the summit block and climb to the top. The summit is flat on top and you can explore around visiting many fantastic viewpoints. This is a very spectacular place so take some time to soak in the views of all the wild country that surrounds you.

Peak 7071 and Outlaw Arch CanyonSummit view from Outlaw Peak.

Descent Options

Besides returning the same way, two other options for descent will be discussed below:

Outlaw Canyon

This rugged and spectacular route is marked in yellow on the map above. The route requires much scrambling to get into the canyon, a few down climbs, and a 37 foot rappel, and is a nice narrow canyon in places. Once out of the canyon it is a short walk and wade down to the suggested camping area. A canyon page will be added on Outlaw Canyon soon, and will be linked to this route page.

Outlaw CanyonThis is Outlaw Canyon, one of three descent routes off Outlaw Peak that will be covered here.

Outlaw Arch Canyon

This is the most spectacular descent route, and is marked as the green line on the map. The route descends the rugged Outlaw Arch Canyon, has several down climbs and rappels of up to 90 feet, and passes the newly discovered Outlaw Arch, one of the largest known arches in the world. Once out of the canyon, it is a fairly long wade up river to the suggested campsite. You can avoid some wading by climbing up to the bench on the east side of the river if the weather is cool (the river feels good in hot weather!). A canyon page will be added on Outlaw Arch Canyon soon, and will be linked to this route page.

Outlaw ArchSide view of Outlaw Arch in fading light.

Time Needed for Climb

You should plan on taking a minimum of 1.5 days for the trip, and preferably more. You could possibly do it in one very long day, 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 Canyon that same day (or the next morning), but I would try to hike from the car park and use the descend down the longer Outlaw Arch Canyon in one day. It would be better to do that one in one full day campsite to campsite, and then hike out on day 3.

Plan on a 2-3 day trip, depending on what you plan to do in the area. Our 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.

Essential Gear

Climbing harness, one 60 meter rope, and several slings and rap rings.

Final RappelThis is the final rap in Outlaw Arch Canyon.



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