The Ghosts of Horseshoe Canyon, Utah

Date hiked: 03/24/17

Mileage: 11 miles to the overlook beyond the Great Gallery and back

Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): Three or four other groups

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Horseshoe Canyon, a remote and hard to get to stretch in southeastern Utah, is 185 million years in the making.

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Horseshoe Canyon lies at the end of a thirty-one mile dirt road. This is exactly the kind of road I want to see leading to my trailhead.

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Driving in, you’ll find a panoramic of mountain views.

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While the canyon is owned by Canyonlands National Park, the site is free to the public.

Imagine a land ruled by giants; a vast alien landscape of sand dunes pocked by rain-filled lakes teeming with life. Three hundred million years ago, this was southeastern Utah. Much different from the canyon country familiar today.

Most of this history has been erased from the face of the earth. But in Horseshoe Canyon, look carefully, and it hasn’t completely gone away.

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Though it’s right in the middle of the path, this three-toed dinosaur track is too easy to miss.

Over time, as the lakes dried, and the sand dunes lithified, a new kind of beast ruled the land: us.

Our first human ancestors – Paleo-Indians – to inhabit what is today America, called Horseshoe Canyon home more than ten-thousand years ago. These big-game hunters lived with the now-extinct mammoth, bison and mastodon; as well as camel, horse and sloth until they died out in North America.

While some of the artifacts, including spear heads, uncovered from the area date back to this time, the rock art unearthed in Horseshoe Canyon actually dates to a time much later in the human history. And while it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when these pictographs and petroglyphs were created, they’re thought to have first cropped up between four-thousand and twenty-five hundred years ago when the nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Desert Archaic culture used these canyons seasonally.

Archaeologists have also surmised that, though brief, the later Anasazi and Fremont cultures left their own mark in Horseshoe Canyon. Interestingly, the absence of any vandalism on their part could express a spiritual connection these cultures felt towards the earlier rock art.

High Gallery

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At thirty feet above the canyon floor, the shelf that once would have given access to the panel has since eroded away or broken off. Now visitors are left to admire the artwork from afar.

Horseshoe Shelter Gallery

Hidden behind the foliage, and tucked into a corner, this one is a little more difficult to spot. Just as you’re leaving the High Gallery, look for the small alcove about three-hundred feet north of the wash.

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Behind the fallen debris of an ancient rockslide (on the right side of the image) are a few more smaller panels also worth checking out.

Alcove Gallery

About two-thirds of a mile beyond the High Gallery, a massive alcove off to the right side of the wash shelters the aptly named Alcove Panel. Unfortunately, it’s been heavily graffitied over the years.

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Notice the graffiti on the lower left.

Great Gallery

But the most celebrated panel in Horseshoe Canyon is the Great Gallery. Stretching nearly two-hundred feet across the sandstone and upwards of fifteen feet tall, this is one of the largest and best preserved collections of Barrier rock art found in the states.

Painted in monochramatic reds and browns, and marked by life-size humanoids, oftentimes without limbs or eyes but with highly embellished torsos, this type of rock art is considered to be the oldest on the Colorado Plateau.

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The Holy Ghost on the far left is the largest image in the mural, standing nearly eight feet tall.

After a long hiatus of human habitation which left Horseshoe Canyon nearly abandoned, European immigrants arrived in the nineteenth century. Butch Cassidy in particular used the canyons’ vast network to seek refuge while on the run.

But most recently, ranchers of the nineteen hundreds built stock trails to get their livestock to the water. While this all ended once Horseshoe Canyon was added to Canyonlands National Park in 1971, ample signs of their work still litter the area, including the trail itself.

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Ranching relics beyond the Great Gallery. This scramble eventually leads to the 4WD road on the east rim of the canyon.

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Looking back down on the route.

Map

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Directions

(From Green River):Leaving Green River via Main Street west, merge on to I-70. After 11 miles, take exit 149 towards Hanksville. Turning left onto UT-24, head south for another 14.5 miles, then take another left onto Lower San Rafael Road. The turn is easy to miss, but it’s just after Goblin Valley State Park. This 31 mile dirt road ends at the trailhead. There are a lot of off-shoots, and without any cell service I found it very easy to get lost out here, so print a map to bring with you.

Unless it rains or snows, a 2WD, low clearance sedan can make it all the way to the trailhead no problem. The only places I had difficulty were a wide sandy patch about ten miles from the trailhead that took some momentum to get through, and the final two miles after the last turn. It took me about an hour. Be careful – there are free range cattle all over the place.

70.9 miles; 1 hr 51 min

 

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