Holy Ghosts in Horseshoe Canyon, Utah
Visiting the Great Gallery, Horseshoe Canyon
Horseshoe Canyon at a Glance
- Period: Archaic
- Features: 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
- Official Website: Canyonlands National Park | 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 19971 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.
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.
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’.
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 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.
Although the slideshow flips from one slide to the next quite quickly, overall you get an excellent idea of what to expect on a roundtrip hike from the trailhead to the Great Gallery. 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.
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)