By Michael Lanza
Here’s how you reach the best prehistoric Indian rock art in America: From Utah Highway 24, a remote two-lane bisecting the inhospitable desert between the rugged spine of the San Rafael Reef and the deep and isolated canyons of the Green and Dirty Devil rivers, turn east onto a dirt road at a small, easily overlooked sign for Horseshoe Canyon. (Reference point: It’s a tenth of a mile south of the turnoff for Goblin Valley State Park.) Drive about an hour on that sometimes rocky, sometimes sandy road—which can become impassable in heavy rain or when wind piles sand drifts across the road, and where a few roadside signs are the only indicators of civilization—to the West Rim Trailhead.
Then hike down into Horseshoe Canyon and nearly three miles up canyon to a panel of rock art that will reduce even the most seasoned pictograph and petroglyph hunters to awed silence.
My family and another did just that on a weeklong trip to southeastern Utah. The nearly seven-mile, out-and-back dayhike of Horseshoe Canyon, a district of Canyonlands National Park, features red rock walls rising up to about 200 feet tall. But the hike’s main attraction are four pictograph panels, including one widely considered the “most significant” preserved example of prehistoric rock art in America.
We passed actual dinosaur tracks hardened into rock on the switchbacking trail that drops 800 feet from the canyon rim into Horseshoe Canyon. In the canyon bottom, where a shallow stream nourishes a few stands of cottonwoods, we stopped at the first three panels of rock art on the hike, known (in order) as High Gallery, Horseshoe Gallery, and Alcove Gallery.
Then, about three-and-a-half miles from the trailhead, we walked up to a pictograph panel of colorful figures spanning some 200 horizontal feet beneath an overhanging canyon wall: the Great Gallery. Created by people who used pigments made from powdered minerals to paint on stone—as opposed to more-common petroglyphs, which are produced by chipping away the weather-darkened surface of rock to reveal lighter stone underneath—the Great Gallery consists of a row of mummy-like figures with heads but no limbs, as well as some human-like images and others that resemble bighorn sheep. The largest figures measure over seven feet tall.
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A volunteer ranger gave us an impromptu lecture about the rock art in Horseshoe Canyon, which dates back at least 2,000 years to the Archaic people, who predated the Anasazi and Fremont Indian cultures. Archaeologists are still studying the rock art of Horseshoe Canyon and trying to date it, but no one really understands the meaning or message the art was intended to convey, if any.
For information about hiking Horseshoe Canyon, see nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/horseshoecanyon.htm.
See all of my stories about Canyonlands National Park, hiking and backpacking in southern Utah, national park adventures, and family adventures at The Big Outside.