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

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.

Contact Information:

Canyonlands National Park

446 Main St.

Moab, UT 84532

(801) 259-7164

Location:

The canyon is part of a detached portion of Canyonlands National Park and lies north of the park's primary area in central Utah. The nearest accommodating town is Green River, 50 miles away.

Getting There:

Horseshoe Canyon is reached by a turnoff road on U.S. Hwy. 24 almost midway between Hanksville and I-70. The unpaved road continues south for about 30 miles, ending at a trailhead lying just north of the canyon. You can also take the fork that continues on to the Hans Flat Ranger Station. From Hans Flat, the canyon can be reached via a four-wheel-drive road of about 20 miles. This road forks south of the canyon, where the Horseshoe Canyon Road takes you directly to the canyon floor. The other fork takes you to Deadman's Trail, which requires a steep descent to reach the canyon bottom.

Seasonal Information:

The park is open all year. Summer days are hot (highs in the 90s) and the nights are cool (lows in the 60s). Spring and autumn have milder temperatures and are best for hiking, but stay alert for flash floods in spring. Winter temperatures range from 20 to 40 degrees F.

Wildlife:

Birds are the most likely signs of life you'll see. There may also be mountain lions.

Insects:

No information available.

Plant Life:

Cottonwoods and willows characterize the region.

Facilities:

The canyon is designated for day use only. There is a backcountry vehicle campsite maintained by the Bureau of Land Management on the west rim of the canyon.

Parking:

No information available.

Permits:

Free permits are needed for horseback riding and can be obtained from the Hans Flat Ranger Station ((801) 259-2652).

Policies:

No pets are allowed in the canyon.

Hazards:

  • When hiking, carry a gallon per person per day. There's a spring in Water Canyon but treat or filter the water.
  • Heat and elevation changes can easily exhaust.

Leave No Trace:

Rock-art sites and artifacts are protected by federal law. The sites are extremely fragile, so don't touch. If you see others defacing the sites, report it immediately.

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

A 7.5-minute Sugarloaf Butte quad topo of the region. Topos, guidebooks, and information can be obtained from the visitor center at park headquarters (see address above).

Other Trip Options:

Arches National Park is just northeast of Canyonlands.