Off to the west of Canyonlands National Park proper, Horseshoe Canyon offers a fascinating trip back into prehistory, a time when nomadic tribes would follow the washes through the Southwest's canyon country from camp to camp.
Located a five-hour drive southeast of Salt Lake City, and 119 miles west of Moab via U.S. 191, Interstate 70, Utah 24, and the Hans Flat Road, the canyon is a mesmerizing cleft in southern Utah's canyon country. Trek down into it and you'll find the “Holy Ghost” hovering above a sandy wash. Surrounded by lesser figures, the striking specter nearly eight feet tall shimmers on the canyon wall under the relentless sun.
Ancient nomads created the larger-than-life image perhaps as long as 7,000 years ago by filling their mouths with red ocher-tinted paint and spraying it out with a mighty burst onto the sandstone. The “Holy Ghost” is the focal point of the Great Gallery, a vast mural some 300 feet long and featuring about 80 figures ranging from flitting birds and bighorn sheep to bizarre figurines. No one knows for sure what the images represent or why they were painted.
Horseshoe Canyon once was known as Barrier Canyon. Hence the decision made in the 1960s, during the archaeological surveys performed prior to the flooding of Glen Canyon, to describe this ancient style of rock art as "Barrier Canyon."
From about 7500 B.C. to about A.D. 300, according to Navajo Nation archaeologist Phil R. Geib, small bands of people traveled this harsh landscape, surviving on vegetation and whatever small mammals, fish and birds they could catch with snares and nets. Spears and atlatls were used for deer.
Some archaeologists who have studied the Barrier Canyon images believe they were created between 1900 B.C.and A.D.300, though Alan Watchman, a research fellow at Australian National University, says radiocarbon analysis dates some of them to the Early Archaic period, from about 7430 B.C.to 5260 B.C. Archaeologist Phil Geib also believes the earliest may date to the Archaic period.
Regardless of which date you feel more comfortable with, these images are old and they're arguably some of the best Native American rock art images still to be found in the backcountry. Unfortunately, time is taking a toll on them. Weathering and erosion slowly is scrubbing them from the rock face.
Visiting them is not one of the easier treks into the national park system. For starters, you have to reach the trailhead. While cruising along interstates and state highways isn't much of a challenge (although it can be time-consuming), covering 30 miles along the Hans Flat Road can be. In late winter and spring the dirt road can be impassible thanks to muddy conditions. In summer, winds can blow sand across the road, which features a washboard bed that can be tough on your suspension and your bones as you bump along.
While sedans probably can make the drive under the best conditions, I'd recommend a rig with four-wheel, or all-wheel, drive.
After you've covered the 30 miles, you'll find a turnoff to the Horseshoe Canyon Trailhead, which actually is located on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property. The trailhead is a wide open space with plenty of room to toss down your sleeping bag or set up your tent. There's also a vault toilet here; not the most luxurious bathroom facility, but it serves the purpose. Bring plenty of water, as there's none to be had here.
The views from the trailhead down into the canyon are incredible, as are the sunsets, which justify a decision to camp out and head down the trail early the next morning.
From the trailhead, the walk to the Great Gallery is an easy three-and-a-quarter miles one way through a sandy wash. There are several other rock art panels worth examining on your walk to the gallery, and the Park Service has them well-marked.
In the past rangers have led walks to the Great Gallery every Saturday morning at 9 a.m. from April into October, but I fear budget cuts have brought an end to those. You might check with the park -- 435-719-2313 -- before you go, but you can easily handle this walk on your own. For interpretation of the gallery and other rock art panels, you might want to download a copy of The Archeology of Horseshoe Canyon.