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Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands National Park

Where the shadows on the sandstone offer lessons from the past and there's not a soul to be found.

by: Tim Browning

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Little-Known Fact: Native American rock art found in Horseshoe Canyon is believed to date to the Late Archaic period (1700 B.C. to A.D. 500).

A hiker. It was just after sunrise when I spotted him moving over the slickrock along Deadman's Trail, one of the three established routes into Horseshoe Canyon. I'd spent three days exploring the canyon's length and this was the first person I encountered. After a brief greeting we continued on our separate courses. Hikers you run across in this area haven't come seeking the company of others. They're after the solitude found in this pristine desert canyon.

Horseshoe Canyon winds through an isolated region of central Utah. The canyon is bounded by the Green River to the north and extends south to Hans Flat. In 1971 Congress designated a six-mile stretch of the canyon as a detached portion of Canyonlands National Park.

Horseshoe Canyon houses some of the most impressive examples of prehistoric rock art found anywhere in North America. There are both petroglyphs, designs etched into rock, as well as pictographs, designs painted on the rock face. The Great Gallery, with its imposing figures stretching 100 feet across the canyon walls, is arguably the premier rock art panel of the entire Canyonlands region. There are human-size pictographs as well, broad-shouldered figures with large hollow eyes, numerous animal shapes, and an excellent example of Kokopelli, a humpbacked, flute-playing character from Pueblo lore.

Archaeologists are unsure which prehistoric culture created the rock art. For centuries, the canyon was an area of cultural overlap for both the Fremont and Anasazi tribes. While the Anasazi, which translates from the Navajo as "enemy ancestors," and the Fremont left extensive ruins and rock-art sites scattered throughout the Canyonlands, these pictographs are unique in appearance.

History aside, the canyon offers striking natural beauty. Barrier Creek is an intermittent ribbon of life that flows through the canyon. The shimmering green canopies of cottonwood trees provide a striking contrast against the towering sandstone walls. At times, the canyon seems like an open-air sanctuary of sandstone, where the all-encompassing quiet is broken only by the occasional cry of a Kestrel overhead or the petulant squawking of ravens in a cottonwood.

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