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  • Writer's pictureDan Wagner

Hiking into the Past: Exploring Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park

Nestled within a detached unit of Canyonlands National Park, Horseshoe Canyon showcases arguably the most remarkable ancient rock art ever uncovered in North America. A must-visit for rock art enthusiasts, the canyon hosts four expansive panels of Barrier Canyon style pictographs dating back to the Archaic Period, alongside numerous petroglyphs from more recent eras. The hunter-gatherers who once frequented the canyon left behind an open-air museum that has captivated global interest for decades. At the heart of this wonder lies the Great Gallery, a visually striking 200-foot-long panel adorned with countless pictographs, notably featuring the revered image known as the Holy Ghost.


Horseshoe Canyon Holy Ghost

Trailhead elevation 5,337'

Water None

Don't miss the three dinosaur tracks along the route, including an inverted track


History of Horseshoe Canyon

The archaeological record of Horseshoe Canyon encompasses millennia of human activity. Artifacts unearthed from sites in the region trace back to as early as 9000-7000 BC, when Paleoindians pursued large mammals such as mastodons and mammoths throughout the southwestern landscape. The existence of the earliest inhabitants of Horseshoe Canyon is evidenced by discoveries in at least two nearby caves, including Cowboy Cave and Walters Cave. Artifacts unearthed from within these caves include clay figurines, dating back to the Early Archaic period (8500-4000 BC).


Rock markings attributed to Native American cultures in Horseshoe Canyon predominantly exhibit the distinctive Barrier Canyon style. This artistic tradition is thought to originate from as far back as the Early Archaic period to as recent as the Late Archaic period (2000 to 500 BC), when nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers utilized Horseshoe Canyon as a seasonal habitation site.


Subsequent periods, including the Fremont era and Ancestral Puebloan cultures, also left their marks on the canyon walls, albeit for shorter durations. Their presence waned by 1300 AD, marking the definitive abandonment of the area.


During 2005, two hikers in Horseshoe Canyon stumbled upon a small antelope hide bag emerging from the sand. Within the pouch lay a collection of marsh-elder seeds, 40 chipped stone flakes, a hand axe, and a flaking tool crafted from antler. Following its submission for radiocarbon dating, analysis revealed that the pouch was utilized between 770-970 AD, likely by inhabitants of the Fremont era.


Although Horseshoe Canyon is renowned for its rock markings, its historical narrative comprises diverse epochs. Following the passage of indigenous peoples over centuries, European Americans ventured into the region. Notorious figures like Butch Cassidy sought refuge in Horseshoe Canyon during the late 1800s, capitalizing on its labyrinthine network of canyons.


In the early 1900s, ranchers erected multiple stock trails into Horseshoe Canyon to facilitate livestock access to water and forage in the canyon's depths. Subsequently, they established a pumping system to replenish water tanks on the canyon rim. During the mid-1900s, prospectors explored the area, enhancing stock trails to accommodate vehicles and drilling equipment. Despite their endeavors to extract oil and other minerals from the rock layers, no lucrative wells or mines materialized around Horseshoe Canyon.


Following its incorporation into Canyonlands National Park in 1971, grazing and mineral exploration activities ceased in Horseshoe Canyon. Today, park visitors descend the historic ranching trail, immersing themselves in the rich tapestry of the awe-inspiring canyon's history. Although not a trek for everyone, those who venture through Horseshoe Canyon are treated with views of the largest and best preserved collections of Barrier Canyon style rock art in North America.


Hiking Horseshoe Canyon

Getting to the trailhead at Horseshoe Canyon presents the primary challenge. Hikers face a 32-mile journey along a frequently neglected dirt road, suitable only for high-clearance vehicles. The initial twenty miles pose minimal difficulties under dry conditions, however, the final twelve miles entail rough sections reminiscent of Hole-in-the-Rock Rd in Escalante National Monument. Around two-thirds of the way to the trailhead, a small dune field lines the right side of the road, often depositing sand onto the path, creating sand bars.


Horseshoe Canyon road

Standard SUVs generally fare well in dry conditions, however, after heavy rain it's best to save the trek for a different day. Along the route, glimpses of the Abajo and La Sal Mountains occasionally punctuate the scenery, yet overall, the drive lacks noteworthy views.


Horseshoe Canyon road

Upon arriving at the trailhead parking area, hikers will find a trail register and an information kiosk lending valuable insights to the area and ensuing hike. From the trailhead, the first 1.1 miles follow a predominantly slickrock path, gradually descending through an area with very little shade.


Horseshoe Canyon Trail

At the 0.5-mile mark, hikers will discover a dinosaur track situated along the left side of the trail near coordinates 38.4670089, -110.1986787. Typically, the track is encircled by rocks to aid hikers in locating it and represents that of a theropod, which inhabited the region over 150 million years ago.


Horseshoe Canyon dinosaur track

A second theropod track lies twenty feet off the left side of the trail, slightly downhill from the trailside track.


Horseshoe Canyon dinosaur track

At 1.1 miles, the trail reaches the edge of the canyon, then passes through a gate and continues to descend into the canyon. Shortly after the gate, the trail transitions into deep sand, typically presenting the most demanding segment for hikers when ascending out of the canyon.


Horseshoe Canyon Trail

At the 1.5-mile mark, the trail will have descended 650 feet from the trailhead to reach the wash coursing through Horseshoe Canyon. Here, hikers should take a right turn and advance along the broad, sandy wash. From this point forward, hikers should anticipate a significantly slower pace due to the thick sand of the wash.


Horseshoe Canyon Trail

Around the 2-mile mark, hikers will encounter Horseshoe Canyon's first pictograph panel, referred to as High Panel. Situated on the left wall of the canyon, it is concealed behind a line of towering cottonwood trees, resting about 30 feet above the ground and remains shaded until late morning.


Horseshoe Canyon High Panel

The panel is best viewed from a distance. Binoculars or the zoom feature on a camera can help in discerning the finer details.


Horseshoe Canyon High Panel

The panel showcases several intriguing images, featuring at least 18 human-like depictions, a bird, a centipede, and various other figures. Among the intriguing elements on the panel, a particularly fascinating scene unfolds near the center: a 3-foot-tall anthropomorphic figure gazes upward at a soaring bird, seemingly in a gesture of reverence.


Horseshoe Canyon High Panel

After viewing High Panel, hikers should proceed to the opposite side of the wash. Around 200 feet ahead, a sandy trail on the wash's right bank presents itself, leading to the second panel known as Horseshoe Panel. This panel features dozens of depictions and remains in full sun until the evening hours.


Horseshoe Canyon Horseshoe Panel

Towards the center of the panel, visitors will discover numerous anthropomorphic figures, along with what appears to resemble a basket.


Horseshoe Canyon Horseshoe Panel

The darker depictions below are likely to first catch the attention of visitors as they approach the panel.


Horseshoe Canyon Horseshoe Panel

Continuing along the panel, additional human-like depictions emerge, among them a portrayal of a remarkably tall, slender figure.


Horseshoe Canyon Horseshoe Panel

While observing the panel, hikers will spot a trail veering to the right of a noticeable rockfall. Following this path for a couple of hundred feet leads to a hidden panel behind the rockfall, portraying a hunting scene.


Horseshoe Canyon Horseshoe Panel

Above and to the right of the hunting scene, lies a faint handprint and an indistinct figure.


Horseshoe Canyon Horseshoe Panel

After viewing High Panel, hikers can trace back along the sandy trail to the wash, and continue following it for approximately 0.75 miles. Around 2.8 miles into the hike, the trail arrives at the third panel, referred to as Alcove Panel. Positioned on the right side of the canyon, it remains shaded well into the afternoon. The photo below depicts the approach to the alcove housing Alcove Panel.


Horseshoe Canyon

Most of the images at Alcove Panel have experienced erosion over time, and visitors will surely notice a significant amount of graffiti dating back to the early 1900s.


Horseshoe Canyon Alcove Panel

The pictographs of Alcove Panel are divided by a rockfall at the rear of the alcove. The depictions on the left side of the rockfall largely represent anthropomorphic figures adorned with headdresses at ground level.


Horseshoe Canyon Alcove Panel

An abundance of graffiti can be found along this side of the alcove, with dates etched into the rock face as early as 1904.


Horseshoe Canyon Alcove Panel

The cluster of depictions located to the right of the rockfall represent more than 30 anthropomorphic figures, varying in height from 1 to 4 feet, positioned at or above eye level.



Among the multitude of depictions on this side of the rockfalls, only three feature headdresses.


Horseshoe Canyon Alcove Panel

Within a half mile from Alcove Panel, near coordinates 38.4523741, -110.2074834, hikers will encounter a large alcove on the right and a chest high sandstone formation to the left, as shown below.


Horseshoe Canyon

Perched atop the formation rests an inverted theropod track, often overlooked by hikers, its origins shrouded in mystery. Composed of Navajo sandstone, it stands out from the surrounding surface, which consists of a distinct sedimentary rock. Speculation suggests it might have once been part of a sandstone slab that tumbled into the canyon, underwent erosion, and eventually settled here, becoming embedded in the stone where it now lies.


Horseshoe Canyon dinosaur track

At approximately 4.4 miles into the hike, the trail arrives at the canyon's centerpiece, the Great Gallery. Perched about twenty feet above the canyon floor on the right side, it stands out unmistakably. Partial sunlight bathes the panel until late afternoon. The photo below captures the middle section of the panel, but its breadth extends considerably to the left and right.



Among the over eighty images at the Great Gallery, the most renowned is the Holy Ghost, situated towards the center-left of the 200-foot-long panel. The nearly 8-foot-tall figure is closely accompanied by other human-like depictions, a rarity in Barrier Canyon style rock art. The colossal image was crafted by ancient nomads around 7,000 years ago, as they filled their mouths with red ochre-tinted paint and with a mighty burst expelled it onto the sandstone surface.


Horseshoe Canyon Great Gallery Holy Ghost

Anthropologists propose that the artwork found at the Great Gallery originates from prehistoric shamans who operated on the fringes of society, dedicated to spiritual practices, visions, healing, and prayer. These depictions may represent the visions experienced by shamans under the influence of hallucinogenic substances as they sought to connect the spiritual realm with the physical world. Or, perhaps they served as protective or guardian symbols for a region regarded as sacred.


Horseshoe Canyon Great Gallery

The figures in the Great Gallery exhibit grand proportions, detailed torso adornments, and lack extremities. Several possess oversized bug eyes, square-shaped heads, or regal crowns, while one resembles a bird with its beak-like feature. Many observers liken them to mummies or specters, and their imposing stature undoubtedly adds to their intimidating presence.


Horseshoe Canyon Great Gallery

Near the center of the panel, one of the largest images stands out, featuring two animals perhaps in a fighting scene.


Horseshoe Canyon Great Gallery

The Great Gallery is well-known for its Barrier Canyon style pictographs, but the panel also features Fremont era petroglyphs. To locate them, visitors should first locate the human-like pictograph that has been halved due to a section of the wall falling off. After doing so, six sheep petroglyphs can be found just below and to the left of the pictograph.


Horseshoe Canyon Great Gallery

Below is a zoomed in photo of the petroglyphs.


Horseshoe Canyon Great Gallery

Another area of the panel showcases two bug-eyed anthropomorphs above a herd of animals and a second type of animal, possibly a coyote.


Horseshoe Canyon Great Gallery

Below is one of the more distinctive pictographs in the Great Gallery. On the right, there appears to be two small human-like figures and a snake depicted in the belly of a large anthropomorphic figure. Between it and the large red and white anthropomorphic figure, visitors will notice a line of sheep ascending the panel.


Horseshoe Canyon Great Gallery

While we may never ascertain the true intentions of the artists behind the artwork of Horseshoe Canyon, observing the panels today provides a window into antiquity and invites contemplation on the lives of the ancient inhabitants who resided in the canyon millennia ago.


Horseshoe Canyon Great Gallery

After marveling at the sights, hikers can simply retrace their steps back to the trailhead. Remember, there's minimal shade along this trail, and the sun can be quite intense, so beginning early is highly recommended. Moreover, the canyon holds a fair amount of petrified wood, so keep an eye out for it. It's illegal to remove, but fun to look for.


Petrified wood

It's worth noting that throughout the hike, hikers will encounter sandy trails near several bends in the wash running through Horseshoe Canyon. While they may seem like shortcuts, it's often simpler to stick to the wash. Lastly, the total mileage for the hike will vary depending on how much exploring each person opts for. However, if you visit each of the four panels once, you'll cover approximately 8.8 miles.

2 Comments


Guest
Apr 18

Hi Dan, Just a note of thanks. I'm hiking to the Great Panel next week and your article is by far the best one I've read. I'm a photographer, and your hints, details, and observations have been incredibly helpful in my planning.

Jeff Stamer

Firefallphotography.com

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Dan Wagner
Dan Wagner
Apr 18
Replying to

Thanks for taking the time to read, Jeff. Incredible photos on your site! Enjoy the hike and artwork!

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