I hustle my way past the edge of the forest and into the frosty winter morning, breath fogging before me. Beyond the edge of the bluffs above Lake Carlton, the San Bois Mountains spill to the horizon in rolling hills of pine, sandstone, and bare-limbed oak, with an occasional jumble of boulders poking out of the forest. Hidden beneath the trees are dozens of caves, once the retreat of notorious outlaws Jesse James and “Bandit Queen” Belle Starr during the late 1800s. As I fire up the stove, the rat-tat-tat of woodpeckers drifting between chickadee calls from the trees, I wonder if those long-ago desperados were more enamored of the scenery than escaping from lawmen. Even without federal marshals on my tail, I’m tempted to stay awhile.
Turn by Turn Start from the Deep Ford Campground
1) Head north on blue-blazed Mountain Trail. Stay left when you reach the first intersection at the shore of Lake Carlton.
2) At mile 1, leave the lake to head up a wooded ravine, climbing to the top of a set of bluffs right above the lake. Follow the bluffs, taking in panoramic views across Lake Carlton and into the San Bois Mountains beyond.
3) Drop back down into the woods for just under a mile before heading up another set of bluffs, this time above much larger Lake Wayne Wallace.
4) Pass the end of the lake, then look for Rocky Top Campground on the west side of the trail at mile 3.2.
5) The next morning, head north on Mountain Trail again, then turn east onto Cattail Pond Trail at mile 4.7.
6) Cross the namesake pond’s outlet stream before turning east again onto Rough Canyon Trail at mile 5.2.
7) When you reach the trailhead at mile 6.2, turn left and head immediately back into the woods on Cave Trail, where .1 mile of switchbacks brings you to the Robber’s Cave itself. The deep hole in the sandstone bluff had great sightlines for bandits on the lookout for their pursuers, which means open views for hikers over the park and the surrounding hills.
8) Continue past the cave for .4 mile to meet up with Lost Lake Trail, following it west for .5 mile to return to Cattail Pond Trail.
9) Turn northeast on Cattail Pond Trail for 1.1 miles, watching for deer and wild turkeys.
10) Return to Mountain Trail at mile 8.3 and reverse yesterday’s route back to the Deep Ford Campground.
Campsite (mile 3.2)
Pitch your tent in one of the impacted camping areas scattered through the trees at Rocky Top Campground, not far from the northwest edge of Lake Wayne Wallace. The sites are sheltered from winds out of the northwest and southwest, though sometimes a breeze comes off the water. The lake is the most reliable source of freshwater, but seasonal streams sometimes run close by the sites in the summer. Raccoons and squirrels are common in the park, so come prepared to hang your food.
Robber’s Cave first gained its reputation during the Civil War, when it became a haven for deserters from both sides. When the war ended and the region sank into chaos, it turned into a meeting point for outlaw groups. Some of the 19th century’s most well-known outlaws used the caves as a hideout, including the former Confederate guerilla fighter Jesse James and his partners. Their childhood friend, Belle Starr, also evaded the law in this section of the San Bois Mountains during her career as an organizer and fence for local criminal groups.
Trailhead Deep Ford Campground (34.9706, -95.3570) Road Conditions 2WD accessible year-round Season Year-round Permit Required ($16 per tent per night); available at park office Contact bit.do/robberscave