Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Horseshoe Canyon

Anthropomorphic pictographs of the Great Gallery
7 miles round trip, 750 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, but bring lots of water
Access: Long gravel road to the middle of nowhere, no entrance fee

Hidden in the remote Canyonlands of Utah, Horseshoe Canyon contains one of the most significant and haunting collections of rock art in the United States- the prehistoric Great Gallery, a panel of dark red, limbless anthropomorphic pictographs silently guarding these desert canyon walls. Painted over a thousand years ago, this is the largest and best preserved collection of Barrier Canyon style pictographs in the Southwest. The day hike to these pictographs is not too difficult, but be prepared to travel to the middle of nowhere- hours from any towns or cities, this is the landscape where Aron Ralston found himself trapped for 127 hours, inspiring the movie of that name.

In summer, the Canyonlands can get hot. It is absolutely essential to carry enough water, as there is usually none in the canyon. You may see that this is not a strenuous hike and assume you can get away without much water, but the sun here is relentless and the sandy bottom of the canyon can be tiring to hike through. Bring at least two liters of water per person.

I hiked Horseshoe Canyon on the last day of a weeklong fall trip to the Canyonlands region with my mom. The Horseshoe Canyon of Canyonlands National Park is about as close to the middle of nowhere as you'll get- 4.5 hours away from Salt Lake City and still an hour and a half from Hanksville, the nearest available services to the canyon. My mom and I came from Hanksville as we finished up a clockwise driving loop around the Canyonlands via Arches and Bears Ears. From Hanksville, we headed out early, taking Utah Highway 24 north until reaching a sign for a dirt road on the right for the Hans Flat Ranger Station. We turned here and started the long drive on unpaved roads to the trailhead. The dirt road initially headed east but soon came to somewhat of a T-intersection, where we headed to the right and followed the road south. The road made a sharp left bend after reaching a ranch at the foot of a hill and swung east, crossing a saddle between two buttes. The road continued across a flat stretch of desert before climbing a bit up a hill; at the top of the hill, a spur road broke off the to the right towards a house. We ignored that spur and continued taking the main road, which followed the top of the hill with views of the San Rafael Swell to the west until swinging east again. Soon, we passed a set of Sand Dunes on our right, which caught the morning sun and appeared quite dramatic with the Henry Mountains as a backdrop. Continuing past the sand dunes, the road came to a fork at a Canyonlands National Park info board; the road to the right led to Hans Flat Ranger Station and the Maze, so we took the left fork here to continue towards Horseshoe Canyon. We followed this road for about another five miles before we finally came to the turnoff for Horseshoe Canyon on the right. Taking this turn, we drove two miles to the end of the road and arrived at the parking lot for Horseshoe Canyon.

Sand dunes and the Henry Mountains
We were the only people in the parking area. Signing in at the trail register, I noted that a few groups per day made it out to the canyon on weekends but that the trail was often untouched on weekdays.

From the trailhead, the trail began a gradual descent into the canyon (it's important to remember that you'll have to ascend on your return!). The trail was quite rocky in places as it made its way downhill. The open terrain provided nice views of the surroundings; the La Sal Mountains were visible in the distance to the east and the flat mesa tops on the other side of Horseshoe Canyon gave no clue of the gaping Green River canyonlands that lay beyond.

Horseshoe Canyon
After about a half mile, we arrived at one of the points of interest in the hike: a fossilized dinosaur footprint. The footprint would not have been obvious to spot had there not been a a ring of rocks surrounding it. Many sedimentary layers of the Colorado Plateau were laid during the Mesozoic Era, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the area that is today the Colorado Plateau was instead sandy beaches, a shallow sea, or great sandy deserts. The Colorado Plateau thus preserves not only dinosaur footprints but also has yielded a treasure trove of paleontological finds.

Dinosaur footprint
Short after passing the dinosaur footprint, we passed a water tank that was used by ranchers in the past who once grazed livestock in the canyon. After the water tank was a stretch of descent across slickrock. The Navajo Sandstone layers that defined the top element in Canyonlands stratigraphy formed series of domes and buttes here that added interest to the landscape.

Navajo Sandstone domes and buttes above Horseshoe Canyon, La Sal Mountains in the distance
Continued descent brought us to the edge of the cliff above the inner canyon. Here, the trail first descended while hugging the walls of the canyon before then taking a sandy ridge down from the canyon walls to the bottom of the canyon. This is the steepest part of the hike- the most difficult uphill during the return hike- and placed us at the bottom of Horseshoe Canyon about a mile and a half from the trailhead.

Horseshoe Canyon
Arriving at the sandy wash of the canyon floor, we followed the canyon south; from here to the Great Gallery, the trail was essentially flat. Around us rose the sandstone canyon walls. The trail danced in and out of the wash itself, often going through stands of cottonwoods on alternating sides of the canyon floor. Soon, the trail brought us to the foot of a high sandstone wall on the left side of the canyon adorned with the first of this hike's pictograph panels. Known as the High Gallery, this panel is indeed high up on the canyon wall- in fact, it's not intuitive how anyone could've painted these as the panel is well over ten meters above the bottom of the canyon. The pictographs show a collection of anthropomorphic figures, most of which have legs and some of whom have arms, differing slightly from the limbless figures at the Great Gallery later in the hike. One of the most notable figures in this panel is a pregnant woman in the bottom right of the panel.

High Gallery
The pictographs here are painted in what's known as the Barrier Canyon Style, which includes a series of rock art sites around Utah's San Rafael Swell and Canyonlands that exhibit similarities in the colors and the forms of anthropomorphic figures. Horseshoe Canyon has the largest and most significant collection of these pictographs- indeed, the name of the style actually derives from the name of the canyon, as Horseshoe Canyon had been earlier named Barrier Canyon. The Barrier Canyon Style pictographs were left by the Archaic culture, an early hunter-gatherer culture in Utah that preceded the later Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan cultures. Paleo-indians were the first humans to inhabit Utah, arriving over 10,000 years ago during a wave of human migration from Siberia in the last ice age. The extinction of ice age fauna in North America brought about the Archaic culture, hunter-gatherer societies that inhabited Utah until about 500 CE.

The next panel of rock art came soon after the High Gallery, this time at eye-level: the Horseshoe Shelter Gallery was on the opposite (right) wall of the canyon and displayed another set of figures, which included a dog. This panel lacked the unsettling, haunting visages of the High Gallery or the Great Gallery.

Horseshoe Shelter Gallery
Horseshoe Shelter Gallery
The trail continued along the sandy bottom of the canyon past Horseshoe Shelter Gallery. The sand made this flat canyon-bottom hike substantially harder that it seemed that it would be: the sensation was similar to walking on a beach, requiring more exertion for flat ground than would usually be expected.

Horseshoe Canyon
A half mile of hiking past the Horseshoe Shelter Gallery brought me to a massive rock overhang on the right side of the trail. An arched alcove was cut into the sandstone walls of the canyon.

The Alcove
Entering the alcove, we spotted the third rock art collection of this trail- the Alcove Gallery. This panel was in the worst shape of the four panels in the canyon: some of the figures had become a bit washed out and part of the panel had been vandalized. Nonetheless, it was interesting for displaying some horned figures quite different from the anthropomorphic forms in the other panels.

Alcove Gallery
This should really go without saying, but it's both against federal law and just morally offensive to deface archaeological sites like these. These pictographs and the other rock art and ruins left by the cultures that once inhabited southeast Utah are priceless artifacts linking us to the past. Don't vandalize or touch these panels- oils from human contact can cause degradation of fragile ancient artifacts.

Past the Alcove Gallery, we continued to trudge another mile along the sandy bottom of the valley. Beautiful buttes and domes above us on the canyon rim, a reminder that this hike isn't just about pictographs.

Horseshoe Canyon
A mile from the Alcove Gallery- and 3.5 miles from the trailhead- we came to the Great Gallery, on the right side of the canyon. This is certainly the most awesome spot of the hike: eerie ghost-like forms floating on the canyon walls, their eyes gazing out from their otherwise featureless faces.

The Great Gallery
This is one of the most significant and best-preserved rock art sites in the United States. Reproductions of this panel have been displayed at the MoMA in New York and the Natural History Museum of Utah. Many of the figures show intricate detail: one of the larger and more notable figures has two sheep painted on its torso along with some intricate patterns. Others exhibit multiple colors of paint in the patterns that make up their torsos, although many others are simply a dark red hue throughout. Most of the figures here lacked limbs, although a unique contorted figure who almost seems to be dancing had arms and legs.

The Great Gallery
The most interesting part of the Great Gallery is a panel of dark silhouettes surrounding an outlined form that's been named the Holy Ghost. There has been considerable scientific research into the age of this panel and a good amount of that research has concentrated on this panel. Some anthrolpologists and archaeologists have pinned the age of the pictographs to the Archaic Period, between 8000 and 1500 years ago, due to the similarities between these pictographs and clay figures that have been found which date up to 8000 years. A more recent analysis based off a cracked portion of the Holy Ghost panel, however, suggests that the panel was likely painted in the first millenium CE.

Holy Ghost panel of the Great Gallery
Regardless, the panel is an extraordinary communication between prehistoric peoples who lived on the Colorado Plateau and the people of today. We spent nearly an hour at the pictographs before retracing our steps, this time climbing uphill back to the trailhead. We saw just one other group on the trail all day.

Be prepared if you travel out here as this area is very isolated. Bluejohn Canyon- a tributary to Horseshoe Canyon- is the remote location where Aron Ralston's arm was trapped beneath a boulder during a canyoneering accident on a solo trip. Ralston survived by cutting his arm off, a story documented in the movie 127 Hours. There's no cell service anywhere nearby, so come with maps and directions and be sure to bring sufficient water and gas. If you come prepared, you'll be rewarded with one of the country's most fascinating and evocative hikes.

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