In search of rock art around the world I am lucky to have hiked through some pretty spectacular landscapes. Hiking through Horseshoe Canyon in Utah and coming on the Great Gallery and seeing the ‘Holy Ghosts’ floating above the canyon floor has, without doubt, been one of the best experiences I have ever had. No photograph, no matter good or how evocatively taken, can replace actually seeing these ghostly depictions looming up in front of you as you walk towards them.
As if floating above the ground, it is not difficult to see how this group of figures became known as the ‘Holy Ghost Panel’. They are just a part of the Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon. Photograph © PDTillman/Wikimedia
Horseshoe Canyon has one of the finest and most well known rock art sites in North America. On a rock shelter wall at the bend in the canyon creek is the largest panel of the Barrier Canyon style pictographs (or rock paintings). Here there is a panel that is over 60 metres long and about 4.6 metres high – commonly referred to as Horseshoe Canyon’s Great Gallery.
Painted on the rock shelter wall are about 20 life-sized human-like images, the largest being over two metres in height. On the far left of the Great Gallery are a handful of strikingly shapeless figures. As they seem to ‘hover’ on the rock face, these figures are said to have a ghostly appearance, and are sometimes called the ‘holy ghosts’.
Besides this strikingly impressive panel there are a few other smaller rock shelters with rock art in the canyon. Horseshoe Canyon is a relatively small parcel of land just west of the northern tip of Canyonlands National Park, of which it is part. The Great Gallery pictographs is 3 miles from the trailhead, a perfect opportunity for a gentle, easy hike along the bottom of the canyon.
Hiking in Horseshoe Canyon
This photograph was taken in May 1990, during my first, memorable trip to Horseshoe Canyon.
Leaving your car at the trailhead, you zigzag down into the canyon following an old stock trail. Although not that deep or wide, the sandstone walls of the canyon are sheer, and create their own dramatic, natural atmosphere. The cottonwood tree-lined creek along the canyon floor, more often than not dry, provides for a pleasant hike of just over three miles each way. Remember to bring your own water, as water in the canyon is not reliable.
Along the way there are a number of alcoves and rock shelters with images painted on the walls, so if you have time look out for these too. But, it is the Great Gallery that you are heading for. And you will know it when you get there. You may miss the other sites, but you will not miss the ‘main attraction’.
Although the slideshow flips from one slide to the next quite quickly, it does give you a good idea of what to expect on a roundtrip hike from the trailhead to the Great Gallery. The photographs give you an idea of what the trailhead is like, the path into the canyon and the walk along the canyon floor. There are also many photographs showing the various rock art sites along the way to the ‘jewel in the canyon’s crown’, the Great Gallery.
Location & Directions to Horseshoe Canyon
Horseshoe Canyon is a relatively small part of the Canyonlands National Park, just west of the northern tip. This park was formed and added to Canyonlands National Park in 1971 to protect the rock art found in the canyon. Before this, ranchers used the canyon for sheep and cattle, and there are still signs of this activity in the canyon.
The most frequently used, and more accessible, trailhead is situated on the western rim of the canyon, on public land managed by the Bureau for Land Management. The trailhead is accessed via a dirt road off Utah Highway 24, and is about and hour and a half from Green River, or two and half hours from Moab. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is not necessary. More details about the park is available in the link to the website, and brochure included below.
Day-Trip to Horseshoe Canyon from Moab
Getting to Horseshoe Canyon and the hiking down into the canyon and to the Great Gallery is not difficult. If you prefer, you can take a day-trip from Moab, allowing you to site back, relax and enjoy the day. This trip starts and ends in Moab, takes about 10 hours and includes a picnic lunch. Besides getting to hear about the recent colonial history of the area (apparently this is where the notorious Butch Cassidy learned to rustle cattle), your guide will lead you on the seven hour hike into the canyon to see the Barrier Canyon rock art.
You can book online through the GetYourGuide website, which allows you to cancel your booking with no charge up until 24 hours before the start of the tour should you require to. More Information and Book Online >>
Horseshoe Canyon at a Glance
Archaeology: Archaic period rock paintings, or pictographs, in rock shelters
Facilities: parking and a vault toilet at trailhead. There is no water supply at the trailhead, so bring your own as water sources in the canyon are scarce if not dry.
Accessibility: from the trailhead there is a 780 feet steep and rocky, drop into the canyon. The Grand Gallery is 3.5 miles from the trailhead. A roundtrip takes about 5 hours.
Open: all year
Entry fee: free admission to Horseshoe Canyon
Camping and Pets in Horseshoe Canyon
As wonderful as it would surely be, camping is not permitted within the canyon itself. Visitors are, however, allowed to stay overnight at the trailhead, which is managed by the Bureau for Land Management. Besides the vault toilet, there are no facilities at the trailhead. But if you do not mind camping rough, sleeping under the stars and great sunrises, there are few better places to spend the night!
Pets are strictly not permitted in the canyon – and as a roundtrip hike it the Great Gallery is about five hours, leaving your pets in the car would not be wise.
The Great Gallery and Barrier Canyon Style Rock Art
The Great Gallery (above) in Horseshoe Canyon is the largest and finest panel of this style of rock art. So if you enjoy hiking in the canyons of the American southwest, and want to see one of the most remarkable panels of archaic rock art in that region, this is certainly one not to miss. Photograph © Surfsupusa/Wikimedia
This particular style of rock art is found mainly in the south-east of Utah and into western Colorado, in the American southwest. Horseshoe Canyon was formerly known as Barrier Canyon, after the creek that runs through the Canyon. And it was with the few sites in this canyon that this style of rock art was descried, with the figures painted in the ‘Great Gallery’ being the most typical. This is why this style of rock art is still called the ‘Barrier Canyon style’ by archaeologists.
The human-like figures were painted using a dark red pigment. The bodies of the figures are tapered, lacking in legs and arms – although there are some known examples that do have arms. Some of the figures’ bodies are solid red, others have simple geometric designs, and a few even have animals painted in the body. These features are clearly visible in the photograph below.
Dating Barrier Canyon Style Rock Art
Dating of the Barrier Canyon style pictographs, like most rock art traditions around the World, is very difficult. Traditionally, archaeologists have suggested that the dates range from about 1,500 to 4,000 years ago. Attempts to date the images by radio-carbon methods have not been possible. Recent research examining the geomorphological processes at work in the Great Gallery cave have shown that the art could only have been made in the Late Archaic period, from about 1 AD to 1100 AD, which is much more recent than previous thought. The link for this research is included below.
Links and Resources
- Horseshoe Canyon on the National Park Service website
- Horseshoe Canyon brochure produced by the National Park Service (pdf)
- The Archaeology of Horseshoe Canyon – a collection of essays compiled by the National Parks Service (pdf)
- Age of Barrier Canyon-style rock art constrained by cross-cutting relations and luminescence dating techniques – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2014)