Holy Ghosts in Horseshoe Canyon, Utah

by Jan 19, 2016Travel Reports1 comment

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.



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


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 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.


Hiking in 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’.

Hiking within Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands National Park in Utah.


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.

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.

Part of the Great Gallery of 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.


Slideshow of a hike into Horseshoe Canyon

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