Guide to Horseshoe Canyon and the Great Gallery pictographs
Horseshoe Canyon contains rock art pictographs that are considered to be the finest display of prehistoric Indian rock art in the United States
The Great Gallery and the Holy Ghost pictographs
Horseshoe Canyon has four distinct rock art pictograph galleries including the Great Gallery, which is the most famous and the largest at 200 feet long, and 15 feet high, and contains dozens of fascinating ghost-like pictographs in red, brown, and white pigments.
What makes the rock art in this canyon so interesting is it is almost all pictographs that are painted on the rocks instead of petroglyphs that are chipped into the rock.
The actual age of the rock art is up for discussion, some archaeologists believe they may date from as far back as 5000 BC, due to their resemblance to clay figures found at nearby Walters Cave. However more scientific research is now pointing toward a time period from 0 AD- 1100 AD.
Horseshoe Canyon was once known as Barrier Canyon, and the canyon’s old name has been given to the style and period of artwork found here (Barrier canyon style). A common characteristic is figures usually lacking arms or legs. Plants like wild grasses, snakes, dogs, and birds are sometimes painted near the anamorphic human figures.
History of Horseshoe Canyon
This canyon was thought to have been a primary migration route for ancient people coming from the Green River canyon. The significant amount of rock art through the canyon indicates how important this place was to them.
Europeans arrived centuries after the artists had disappeared. Outlaws like Butch Cassidy made use of Horseshoe Canyon in the late 1800s, using the confusing network of associated canyons, especially those around Robbers Roost to the southwest to avoid the law.
In the early 1900s, ranchers built trails from the canyon rim to the canyon bottom so livestock could be moved seasonally. Eventually, constructed a pumping operation to fill water tanks on the canyon rim. Many of these modifications are still visible today.
Prospectors explored the area in the mid-1900s, improving many of those early trails to accommodate vehicles and drilling trucks. However, the canyon was never mined or drilled successfully.
Horseshoe Canyon was annexed to Canyonlands National Park in 1971.
Getting to Horseshoe Canyon
While is only 35 miles southwest from Moab as the crow flies, driving to the trailhead requires a trip of 120 miles and about 2 1/2 hours from Moab, with the last 20 miles or so on dirt roads.
From I-70 take Exit #149 to Highway 24 south for 25 miles.
At 1/2 mile south of the turn-off to Goblin Valley State Park at mile maker 135.5 ( 38.623333, -110.571111 ) turn left onto a well-maintained dirt road that is signed Rooster Flats and Hans Flat Ranger Station.
Continue for 24.3 miles until you come to a signed fork in the road with an information kiosk ( 38.472500, -110.280556 ).
Take the east (left) fork for 5.1 miles to a smaller road, departing to the south (right) that is signed Horseshoe Canyon Foot Trail ( 38.495556, -110.208056).
Follow this road for 1.7 miles to the trailhead.
Along the way, once you turn off of highway 24 onto the paved road, about 1/2 way to Horseshoe Canyon is an interesting section of sand dunes on the right side of the road, worth planning a stop there either on the way or on the way back.
A very hot hike in the summer, bring lots of water
You are walking in a sandy wash for most of the time
The mileage on the park sign of the hike is incorrect, it is longer
7 miles total out and back, 1500 feet of elevation gain
The trail begins near the information kiosk and descends into Horseshoe Canyon along a cow trail originally built to allow the cows to descend and ascend into the canyon for seasonal water and grazing.
Dinosaur Tracks ( 38.466944, -110.198611 )
About 1/2 mile in you will spot an old round watering trough that was used in early area ranching. 100 yards before you reach the watering trough there are several dinosaur tracks located adjacent to the left side of the trail.
The three-toed tracks are approximately 12″ in length. The tracks were made by an Allosaurus. The best and easiest to locate track is only one foot from the main trail in a layer of gray shale which stands out from the surrounding sandstone. Other faint tracks can be located with a keen eye.
Past the water trough, you descend to the right and continue descending gently downward toward the canyon following the path marked by cairns and rocks outlining the edge of the path. Until you come to a gate that marks the final stage of descent into the canyon along works that were obviously installed long ago during the building of the trail including blasting rock to enlarge a ledge and then a final sandy trail down into the canyon bottom.
High Gallery ( 38.461389, -110.198333 )
The trail reaches the canyon bottom 1.25 miles from the trailhead and follows Barrier Creek south. As you near Water Canyon entering on the left, the trail passes by the first pictograph site, and the only gallery on the left or east canyon wall, it’s named due to its high location on the wall. If you reach Water Canyon you have missed it.
Horseshoe Gallery ( 38.462500, -110.199444 )
The second site, known as Horseshoe Gallery is slightly upstream on the west (right) canyon wall.
There is more rock art than the obvious ones on the main panel. There is a trail that circles into the huge rock pile to the right of the main panel, follow this up to the right side and up onto these rocks to find an obvious and interesting set of pictographs depicting a hunter, a buffalo, and two elk as well as some other images and then another set of images if you follow the trail up higher onto the boulders.
Alcove Gallery ( 38.456111, -110.205833 )
0.5 miles further on the right is the third site known as the Alcove Gallery which gets its name from the large cave-like alcove it sets in.
There are two main panels to see, for the one on the left you climb up a ledge to get closer to, and for the much more faded one to the right you see from farther away.
Alcove Gallery has sustained both natural and man-made damage from the 1900s. Oil drillers and cowboys from the early 1900s have carved their names into this site. It receives good light in the morning, and shade in the afternoon.
The much-faded panel to the right
Great Gallery ( 38.446944, -110.213056 )
The Great Gallery is 1.25 miles farther from the Alcove Gallery. This gallery is considered the most outstanding display of pictographs in the world.
Archaeologists have struggled to interpret the dozens of intricate human and animal figures that decorate the large panel.
In addition to many smaller figures, the huge panel contains about twenty life-size human shapes, all of which have a strange mummy/ghost-like appearance.
They lack arms or legs and often have huge insect-like eyes and skull-shaped heads.
Most interesting and the star of the show are the figures known as the “Great Ghost and Attendants“, also referred to as the “Holy Ghost”, which are down on the far left end of the panel.
If you climb up close to the wall, you can see that many of the figures were painted on the canyon wall and then decorated with patterns chipped into the stone surface. They are both pictographs and petroglyphs. The panels of the Great Gallery face the southeast and are in the shade in the afternoon.
With binoculars, you can sit on the rocks at the base of the cliff and take your time studying the artwork. Binoculars really help bring out the details. This is a good place to rest, have a snack or lunch and just soak in the amazing scene in front of you and contemplate their meaning.
Were they a holy shamanistic tribute? Are they a tribute to the passing of ancestors? Could they be a warning or marking of territory?
How old is this artwork?
Barrier Canyon Style pictographs are attributed to the Desert Archaic culture who lived in Utah over a long time period, from 8000 B.C. through 500 A.D.
Archaeologists have long pondered what time period the Great Gallery was painted, but dating pictographs is extremely difficult. Radiocarbon dating is difficult, due to not only have the pigments been weathered, but there also is often not enough material to collect without harming the pictograph.
There has never been a bow and arrow depicted in any Barrier Canyon Style artwork so it is believed it has to be older than 1500AD.
The canyon bottom had flood sediment above the height of the Great Gallery until around 4,000 B.C. So that is the earliest it could have been painted.
A Geologist name Joel Pederson used optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) in 2014 to study a large piece of rock that fell from the face of the gallery. OSL measures the light emitted by quartz sediment to determine the last time it was exposed to light.
They tested the fallen piece, the face of the rock it lay on, and even radiocarbon dated a leaf that was stuck between them. All three came back with the same data pointing to between 0 A.D. – 1100 A.D.
There is a set of binoculars chained in an ammo box at the second viewing area further back from the rock art, and a visitor’s log book
The Hunters Bag
In 2005 a leather bag was discovered at the cliff face at the Great Gallery. It measures about 11 inches in diameter and had been turned into two compartments by wrapping the middle with a leather strap with the bottom portion filled with marsh-elder seeds (which do not grow in the area today), roughly the size of a softball, (seeds were consumed as food by southwestern people). Trace amounts of dropseed, goosefoot, and amaranth were also found in this bag, indicating the use of this bag as a container for previous meals.
The upper section held three small antelope hide pouches, two were empty, but the third contained 40 partially chipped stone flakes (the raw materials for making arrowheads, the flakes came from a Dubinky chert deposit 25 miles to the west across the Green River ), a biface (stone made for an ax blade) made from chert rock, and a shaped antler tool pressure flaker which was used to do fine finish chip work on flaked objects, and a small, round river stone used for sharpening edges of tools.
The opinion is the bag was the possession of a flintknapper and hunter, who had ventured across the Green River to the Dubinky chert source. He may have been on a hunt, but while there he scavenged surface flakes well suited to arrow point production. He collected more than needed for the short term.
Home was to the southwest, perhaps along the Fremont River, and the trip back brought him up Horseshoe Canyon—a natural travel corridor when heading southwestward out of the deeply entrenched Green River gorge. This led directly past the Great Gallery, a sacred place well known to the hunters of his group, so an excellent location for a cache, one easily remembered and described to kin.
His travel bag for food was now almost empty but contained enough seeds to aid someone in dire need. In the pursuit of game, hunters must commonly travel great distances. The caching of tools and emergency rations makes good sense in terms of costs and benefits. The owner of this cache never recovered it, did he never return for it, did he return and couldn’t find it? The few forgotten caches of prehistory likely represent just a fraction of the hundreds or thousands that were retrieved, and that doubtless provided the margin of survival in several cases and a huge relief often.
Dinosaur trackway ( 38.444722, -110.215833 )
If you continue to hike 300 to 400 yards upstream from the Great Gallery you will find a dinosaur trackway. The tracks are located where Barrier Creek flows over a small slab of flat sandstone that appears darker than the surrounding sandstone. Look carefully at the dark, flat surface near the west side of the creek, and you will see the tracks of a three-toed dinosaur. There are three tracks spaced about four feet apart.
As of January 2001 the dinosaur trackway is buried under several inches of mud and sand. The trackway could reappear after the next flood or remain buried for centuries.