Hiking into the Past: Exploring Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park
Home to arguably the most spectacular ancient rock art ever discovered in North America, Canyonlands' Horseshoe Canyon is dazzling, wrapped up in astonishing, covered in mind-blowing, and finished off with hot damn. A bucket list hike for any rock art lover, the site features four large panels of Barrier Canyon style pictographs from the Archaic Period, as well as several petroglyphs from more recent times. The hunter-gatherers that made the canyon their seasonal home thousands of years ago left behind an outdoor museum that has drawn worldwide attention for decades. Highlighted by the Great Gallery, a visually stunning 200' long panel of pictographs, including its most celebrated image, the Holy Ghost, Horseshoe Canyon is nothing short of spectacular.
Trailhead elevation 5,337'
Don't miss the three dinosaur tracks along the route, including an inverted track
Hiking Horseshoe Canyon
The greatest challenge of Horseshoe Canyon is just getting to the trailhead. Hikers must drive 32 miles along an often poorly maintained dirt road that is only suitable for high clearance vehicles. The first twenty or so miles are very easy when conditions are dry, but the last dozen miles feature sections of rough washboard road similar to Hole-in-the-Rock Rd in Escalante National Monument. Two-thirds of the way through the drive there is also a small dune field on the right side of the road where sand is often blown onto the road forming sand bars.
Standard SUVs generally fare well, but sedans should not attempt the drive. Regardless of the type of vehicle, the drive should only be attempted in dry conditions. The drive is actually quite scenic, with the occasional view of the La Sal and Abajo Mountains.
Upon arriving at the trailhead you'll find a trail register next to an information kiosk to the left of the trailhead. The first 1.1 miles of trail gradually descend into the canyon over slickrock.
At 0.5 miles you'll find a dinosaur track along the left side of the trail near coordinates 38.4670089, -110.1986787. The track is usually surrounded by rocks to help hikers identify.
There's another dinosaur track twenty feet to the left and slightly downhill from the trailside track.
At 1.1 miles, you'll walk through a gate and continue to descend into the canyon. A few hundred feet after the gate, the trail turns into deep sand, which is generally the most challenging section of the trail when ascending back out of the canyon.
At 1.5 miles you will have descended 650' from the trailhead and find yourself at the wash that runs through Horseshoe Canyon. Here you'll hang a right and proceed up the wide, sandy wash. Your pace will undoubtedly slow from here on out.
At roughly 2 miles you'll arrive at the first panel, known as High Panel. It will be on your left behind a row of cottonwood trees, about 30' up and will be in the shade through late morning.
The panel is best viewed from a distance and binoculars or your camera's zoom can be helpful in picking up the finer details.
The panel has some interesting images, including at least eighteen human-like depictions, a bird, centipede, and more.
After viewing High Panel, head to the right side of the wash where roughly 200' later you'll encounter a sandy trail on the bank of the wash, which leads to the second panel, known as Horseshoe Panel. This panel is in full sun until the evening hours. If you were to stay on the left side of the wash after High Panel you'll miss Horseshoe Panel.
Near the center of the panel you'll find several human-like depictions, as well as what appears to be a basket and other images.
The darker depictions below will likely be the first images that you notice when approaching the panel.
Several other human-like depictions, including a very tall, thin figure.
When viewing the panel you'll notice a trail leading to the right of a rockfall. Following this for a couple hundred feet will lead you up to a panel hidden behind the rockfall that depicts a hunt scene.
You'll also find a faint handprint and an indistinguishable figure above and to the right of the hunt scene.
After viewing High Panel, follow the sandy trail back to the wash and follow it for another 0.75 miles or so and at roughly 2.8 miles you'll arrive at the third panel, known as Alcove Panel. This panel is on the right side of the canyon and shaded into the afternoon. The photo below is approaching the alcove where Alcove Panel is located.
Many of the images at Alcove Panel are faded and there is a considerable amount of graffiti dating back to the early 1900s.
There are pictographs to the left and right of a rockfall in the back of the alcove. The images on the left side are all at ground level and shown in the photos above and below.
More images from the left side of Alcove Panel, also showing some of the graffiti.
The images to the right of the rockfall are at eye level and higher, and are more faded than those to the left of the rockfall.
There are at least twenty-two human-like depictions on the right side of Alcove Panel, some with greater detail than others.
Most of the depictions on this side of the rockfall are similar in appearance with some variation in height and taper.
After viewing Alcove Panel, continue hiking through the wash until you reach the ledge shown in the photo below. It will appear on the right side of the wash near coordinates 38.4523741, -110.2074834 and for most will be chest high.
On top of the ledge you'll find an inverted dinosaur track that many hikers pass by not knowing that it's there. How it got there is a bit of a mystery. The track consists of Navajo sandstone, which is different from the surface around it. Some believe that it may have been on a slab of sandstone that fell into the canyon, was later eroded, deposited here, and formed to the stone that it sits on today.
At roughly 4.9 miles into the hike you'll arrive at the showstopper, the Great Gallery. It will be located on the right side of the canyon about twenty feet above the canyon floor and impossible to miss. The panel is in partial sun through late afternoon. The photo below shows the middle of the panel, but it stretches well left and right of this.
The most famous of the more than sixty images at the Great Gallery is the Holy Ghost, which is located center left of the 200' long panel, and to the left of the photo above. It's closely surrounded by other human-like depictions, something that is quite rare in Barrier Canyon style rock art. According to the NPS, the Holy Ghost is approximately 5,000 years old.
To the right of the Holy Ghost you'll find a large cluster of human-like depictions, many with exquisite detail.
Below is a section of pictographs which feature some of the best detail on the entire panel. There's also a depiction of a smaller human-like figure harnessing what appears to be a spear or an atlatl.
One of the largest images can be found near the center of the panel with hollowed eyes, a common theme at the Great Gallery.
If you locate the image that has been halved as a result of a slab of the wall falling off, you'll discover a series of six sheep petroglyphs to its left. Most are so focussed on the pictographs that these often go unnoticed.
Below is a zoomed in photo of the petroglyphs.
More interesting human-like depictions with hollowed eyes, as well as several depictions of sheep and another animal.
Below is one of the more unique pictographs in the Great Gallery. The image on the right appears to have two small human-like figures and a snake in its belly.
More large pictographs near the center of the Great Gallery.
After picking your jaw off of the ground, return the way you came. Keep in mind that there is very little shade on this trail and the sun can be fairly intense, so starting early is recommended. There is also a fair amount of petrified wood in the canyon, so keep your eyes peeled. I discovered two decently sized pieces in the wash just before the Great Gallery.
Along the route you'll find sandy trails near several bends in the wash. They look like shortcuts, and maybe they are, but it's so much easier to just follow the more compact wash. Lastly, mileage on this one is going to vary depending on how much exploring you decide to do, but if you visit the four panels each once you'll be right around 8.8 miles.