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Cave Springs Cowboy Camp

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1880s–1975. Needles District, Canyonlands National Park.
  • (Photograph by Tricia Simpson, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Cave Springs Cowboy Camp was a line camp located in what is now the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Since the 1880s, pioneering cattlemen settled in this region, and ranchers developed a network of trails and camps that were vital for moving herds across a challenging landscape in the winter months. The camp at Cave Springs particularly gained prominence in the early twentieth century, with the establishment of the Scorup-Sommerville Cattle Company in 1926, which grew to be the largest operation in Utah. The cattle industry was a critical part of the economy as the area was colonized and transformed by the large-scale settlement of Mormons and others into the region.

The camp is situated in one of the larger natural alcoves in a rock outcropping next to the opening of a small canyon, which could be roped off and conveniently used as a cattle pen. Cave Spring is adjacent to the alcove, providing a reliable water source. The main alcove is roughly 30 feet deep and 40 feet wide, and would have been the area where food was prepared and consumed. The only built structure was a wooden fence sectioning it off from the rest of the area. Several smaller alcoves would have provided sheltered sleeping quarters.

Canyonlands was designated a national park in 1964, and in 1975, cattle ranching was outlawed within its boundaries. Left behind at the camp were several artifacts still found at the campsite today: three prep tables, a dining table with benches, a storage cupboard, and remnants of a stove. There are also several leftover cans, cups, utensils, Dutch ovens, and other basic tools strewn about the camp on the tables and ground.

Prior to Anglo settlement, this area had once been an important seasonal shelter and water source for the Fremont people, as well as a strategic hunting site. Petroglyphs can still be seen on the rock walls near the spring and in the smaller alcoves. In addition to smoke-blackened ceilings from open fires, there are also grinding stones (manos and mutates) that allude to the previous occupants. The Cave Springs Cowboy Camp is thus a significant reminder of the ongoing balance that is negotiated between native populations, local industry, and a public interested in preservation. When ranching was outlawed in the 1970s, it also became one of the many sites in the American West to represent an often bitter struggle for control between commercial interests and federal preservation initiatives.

Nevertheless, the Cave Springs Cowboy Camp serves as a reminder of the ways in which both native occupants and settlers utilized areas such as this to make living in hostile environment possible. Visitors to the area can follow a 0.6-mile loop trail that leads to a cowboy camp, rock paintings, the spring, up two wooden ladders onto slickrock sandstone, and back to the parking area.


“Cave Spring Trail Guide.” Brochure. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.

“Lost Canyon Cowboy Camp.” Classified Structure Field Inventory Report, July 8, 1988. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C. “Miners and Ranchers: Canyonlands.” National Park Service. Accessed February 9, 2017.

Writing Credits

Elpitha Tsoutsounakis
Shundana Yusaf



  • 1880

  • 1975



Elpitha Tsoutsounakis, "Cave Springs Cowboy Camp", [Moab, Utah], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

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