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  • Brian Johnson

Canyonlands National Park: Horseshoe Canyon

Today was the day I had been waiting for. We have hiked some amazing trails, and seen some awesome sights, but the Horseshoe Canyon Trail is the cherry on the Sunday. I woke up excited to go, but Nick pointed out the daunting logistics. Our camping destination was Capitol Reef National Park, a little less than a 3 hour drive. Fitting in a 5 hour hike was one thing, but getting to Horseshoe Canyon was quite another.

Horseshoe Canyon is a detached unit of Canyonlands National Park, and it is close to, well, nowhere. It's over 60 miles from the nearest town, and the last 31 miles is a dirt road. You really have to want to go to Horseshoe Canyon to get there. And I did want to go, in the worst way, so Nick graciously recognized the inevitable and we packed up camp and left at 9 am. I had been to this special place many years ago, and wanted very much to show Nick, and to see it one more time myself. It was noon by the time we reached the trailhead. The 31 miles of dirt road wound across seemingly endless expanses of desert. Some of it was shrub brush but some of it was a series of rolling sand dunes. It was all desolate and we passed not a single vehicle. A sign warned of an impassable road after storms.

The trailhead was a large flat area with room for maybe 20 vehicles. Ours was the only one. A small sheltered board had a map and some information, and told us the trail had been rated the dreaded “very strenuous”. We set off down the trail and soon came to the canyon, a deep, jagged gash in the world in the midst of a vast expanse of flat desert. Our route was to drop us 750 feet down to the canyon floor in about a mile, and then another 2 1/2 miles up a sandy wash, all of which would have to be retraced. By now you’re probably wondering, “why?”. To be honest, the smallest shadow of doubt might have crossed my mind. Would Nick be able to do this? Could we make it back in time to drive back out before dark? What if one of us got hurt? Would those dark clouds coalesce into afternoon storms and close the road? And gas. The drive across the dessert had sucked more out of the Jeep than I had expected, and we were down to an eighth of a tank. What if we ran out of gas on the way back? There was of course zero cell reception. So maybe more than a shadow of doubt. So, again, why? Read on.

We dropped off the edge of the canyon and ate up the 750 foot drop. The trail was indistinct in places, and only a guess in others, but we only made a couple of short wrong turns and soon made it to the bottom. Most of the route was over rock and the way forward was indicated only by small rock cairns left by kind previous travelers. Nick remarked how much easier it was than he expected, and I thought “up” but held my tongue. We set off through the canyon, hiking mostly in the sandy bottom, with towering sandstone cliffs rising hundreds of feet above us on both sides. It was early enough in the season that there were still seeps of water to be found, and the canyon floor supports some scattered stands of cottonwood trees. The sun sparred with the clouds, drifting in and out, and the only sound was the wind and our boots on sandy gravel. We had this immense place all to ourselves, and the hiking was pleasant.

Within a mile we came to the first glimpse of why we were here. On a small, flat expanse of rock in the cliff face to our right, here in this lonely place, were a series of painted figures. It was the first, and smallest, of several panels of these pictographs. Now you know the why: we had come to Horseshoe Canyon because it is the Louvre of prehistoric Native American rock art.

We took some pictures and moved on, eager for what was to come. After the canyon took several turns we arrived at another panel, set in a deep alcove with an immense amphitheater of rock overhead. This panel was larger than the first, and more varied. Most of the figures seemed human, with a few animals. I say “seemed” because they were otherworldly, and may as easily have been gods or spirits. We studied the panel for a bit and moved on. After another mile or so we rounded another bend of the canyon and there it was ahead of us: the Grand Gallery, a 200 foot long panel of rock art set on a ledge a few feet above us.

This is supposed to be the showpiece of the canyon, the Mona Lisa, so to speak. Truthfully though, I’ve seen the Mona Lisa, and this is more impressive, by orders of magnitude. Arrayed before us were dozens of figures, in a variety of poses, telling stories known only to the artists. These pictographs were created by an ancient people that predate the ancestral Pueblo peoples (Anasazi). They are apparently very difficult to date, and estimates as to their age range between 2000 and 7000 years old. Many of the figures look like mummies. Some have what appear to be crowns. One is known as the Holy Ghost. One looks like an angel, with a supplicant praying next to him. One looks like a dog, another looks like he’s playing a flute. Some, to my modern eye, look like space aliens. Why they were created and what they actually represent is a mystery, maybe never to be known.

I sat for a while on a rock and contemplated the panel as Nick took some pictures. Who were these people, who had come to this remote and desolate place to create these pictographs? Why here? What were their stories? As I pondered these questions I felt a kind of kinship with the artists, connected to this place while separated by thousands of years, their creations living on for those who follow to contemplate. I marvel at the unlikely set of circumstances which allowed for these people to create these drawings and allowed them to survive in this place for thousands of years, for me to be here at this moment in time to ponder their mysteries. I know that when I go home I will return to a world gone mad, full of fear and turmoil. I only hope that in the troubled times ahead I will remember the lesson of this place and time, that the universe is a truly wondrous place, and I feel blessed to be a part of it.

After our fill of photos and philosophizing we headed back toward the jeep. We made good time and soon reached the start of the path back up to the top of the canyon. The climb slowed us down a bit, but we pressed on. Nick did a great job and certainly earned his hiker’s badge on this trip. We reached the top just after 4 pm, having made the entire trip, including stoppage time, in right at 4 hours. Considering the climb we had I was well satisfied.

Now back to that gas thing. The fuel light came on about 15 miles from the end of the dirt road.    About here I started clenching my jaw. We made it to the pavement and turned toward Capitol Reef. We still had no cell service, and the nearest town was 35 miles away. This area of Utah is just completely without human habitation, much less services. After a few miles the last bar of the fuel gauge went blank and it was white knuckle time. But God smiles on fools and we coasted into the gas station in Hanks in time to avert disaster. We even ended up making it to Capitol Reef before dark to set up camp.

If you ever want to join the Adventurers Club, this trip will punch your ticket. Or you could just opt for a guided tour with Big Daddy Tours.

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