I have admired Utah’s canyon country since first visiting Arches National Park with my brother almost six years ago. After moving to Colorado in 2017, this love deepened; I made annual trips to the Moab area for New Years, exploring new places in southern Utah, from Canyonlands to Capitol Reef. My first visit to the Needles District in Canyonlands left a big impression on me, placing the park as “number one” on my list of favorites. Something about its maze-like sandstone spires felt like an endless playground, and each time I return I am reminded of this feeling.
It wasn’t until May of 2022 that an entirely new dimension of the region was made apparent to me. After a backpacking trip in Salt Creek Canyon (in the Needles District), I recognized yet another element to canyon country that makes it so special – remnants of past civilization – known as Ancestral Puebloans – that used to call these canyons home. I soon became obsessed with finding ancient ruins, cliff dwellings, and especially rock art.
Of all the things left behind by the ancient ones, it is the pictographs that intrigue and mystify me the most. I began to notice similarities in style among different pictograph panels, separated by vast distances across the Colorado Plateau. After some research, I found out that there is an actual rock art style, called Barrier Canyon Style (BCS), which is common throughout this region. To me, BCS style is marked by various features such as ghost-like figures, prominent shields, and elongated anthropomorphic beings.
I soon learned that this kind of rock art is often compared to a panel called the Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands National Park. For Barrier Canyon Style rock art, the Great Gallery is the type site – the site used to define a particular archaeological culture or feature. I only recently realized that the canyon where this gallery is found is actually the namesake for BCS rock art, as Horseshoe Canyon used to be named Barrier Canyon. The tributary within this canyon, which flows into the Green River, is still called Barrier Creek.
A big reason I had not visited the Great Gallery earlier is because of the uncertainty I had surrounding the roads that lead there, and whether or not my Subaru was well-equipped for the journey. However, after meeting an older gentleman at a tower ruin near Cortez one evening, he talked about the Great Gallery and how incredible it was. This got me interested, especially since he recalled the road being gentle enough for a vehicle like mine. This is ultimately what prompted me to call the Hans Flat ranger station and inquire about the road conditions. After talking to a ranger on the phone, I felt confident enough that I would have no trouble making it to the trailhead. So the next free weekend I had, I booked a few nights at a hotel in Green River, and made the decision to head out to Horseshoe Canyon.
After talking with the ranger, I learned about two routes to the Horseshoe Canyon trailhead. The first – a true 4×4 road – leaves from Green River where I was staying, and is the most direct route to the trailhead. The other, while longer, leaves closer to Hanksville and is suitable for most vehicles. Avoiding as much risk as possible, I decided on the second road.
Each time I have driven to Hanksville and the Capitol Reef area, I have noticed this road as a turn off of Highway 24. I had always told myself “one day” I would take that road into the Maze District. The road winds through classic Colorado Plateau terrain: high bluffs line the road edges, with sweeping views of the San Rafael Swell, and mountains of southern Utah in the distance. I had to stop and photograph one of these views, as beautiful orange sand dunes stood in the foreground of the snowcapped Henry Mountains far off in the distance. The Henry Mountains always evoke feelings of adventure and mystery within me, especially knowing that they are the one of the country’s youngest mountain range, and the very last to be mapped in the US.
The weather forecast called for mostly cloudy conditions, which I welcomed. Pictographs are best viewed under indirect sunlight, for both the naked eye and the camera. I have also found that patchy clouds create some of the most dynamic views within canyon country. As I hiked, however, I reminded myself to be content with whatever weather nature showed me that day.
I arrived to the trailhead surprised to see a decent amount of cars parked – around eight; maybe less than ten. I had gone on three other hikes that weekend, and two of them were completely solo. This time of year is admittedly colder than the rest, and as a result the trails are less crowded (which is often a blessing). However I welcomed the company on this trail, as everyone there seemed to have a clear respect and admiration for the wonders in the canyon (more on that later).
The hike down started on some high rocks, and within ten minutes or so the shape of the canyon began to appear – beautiful and monstrous. This sort of terrain is something I would seek, not even knowing about the rock art within. Very quickly the trail made its way to the wash, which even had water (some frozen, some liquid), this late into fall. I wonder what this canyon is like during the spring – I bet it’s magical.
I soon made it to the first pictograph panel called the “High Panel”, and it presented a long stretch of figures that resemble various iconographic designs. These designs include humanoid figures, four-legged creatures, the typical BCS shield (I suspect shield designs were used to identify people/leaders), and snake-like patterns. It’s a beautiful panel packed full of interesting symbols, and I spent a decent amount of time admiring and contemplating its many designs. As I left, the next group of people approached, and I got the impression that we were walking in a large, outdoor art museum situated in the middle of the desert. This “museum aesthetic” was a theme throughout the rest of the hike, and something I really enjoyed about it.
After passing the High Panel, I made my way to the second, which was marked “Alcove Panel” on a few of my maps. Along the way, I walked through serene scenery that had a frozen, lifeless quality. By this time in November I had been on a few other cold hikes where water in canyon washes had frozen into ice. I am always amazed when I find water flowing in the desert, and ice is no exception. I pondered whether this is a usual phenomenon, or if it just so happened to precipitate enough on a warmer day, to then freeze into ice.
As I approached the alcove, I was amazed at how monstrous it was. It looked like an enormous hole removed from a high wall of sandstone. There were several other hikers at the alcove when I arrived, and the sounds from conversations being had bounced around the alcove’s impressive acoustics. The artwork within the alcove had an unusual faded quality to it, as it didn’t look painted brown like other pictographs I had seen. Instead, it appeared to be splattered on the wall like mud, in a slightly darker tone than the wall itself. Again, the artwork repeated the common shield motif, and some of the figures even had devil-like horns.
The section of Horseshoe Canyon between the alcove and the Great Gallery presented sandstone formations sculpted, wicked-like designs. Difficult to describe, the canyon walls rise up in layers of both rounded and sharp rock – like a devil’s land. I bet it would be interesting to travel the entire length of Horseshoe Canyon from its highest point, down to the Great Galley and this section, and farther downstream to the Green River itself. I’ve done some minimal reading online about the rest of this canyon, and wonder if other panels and/or ancestral sites line the canyon walls. It would be a fun adventure, one day!
Finally I arrived at the Great Gallery, and it was every bit as magical and mystifying as I could have hoped. The figures are so impressively large, that you can spot the panel a long ways away before you reach it. It is separated into two main parts: the Holy Ghost Group on the left, and the rest of the panel on the right.
The Holy Ghost Group is a series of about ten figures that look like dark mummies. All except for the largest figure contain a solid brown color, outlined in an elongated, ghostlike shape. The largest figure has a more complex design, with detailed patterns on its head and front-facing body. It is unclear why this one figure sticks out from the others, but they all stir up feelings of mystery, spiritually, and haunt. When I learned that these figures were spray painted, I was dumbfounded; apparently ancient artists would mix paints in their mouth, and blow it out, forming a sort of spray. That’s just incredible.
On the hike back, I notice some scratch-like figures close to the first panel I remember passing on the way in. While they looked random at first, I grabbed the binoculars for a closer look. Lo and behold, it was another pictograph panel! These BCS figures were interesting; containing more rounded shields than the sharp and blocky ones at the Great Gallery. My biggest tip for this hike, and those in other canyons of the region, is to keep a keen eye out for absolutely anything. You never know what you will spot!
It was a surprisingly quick hike back up the canyon, and I made it back to my car in time to catch the sunset on my hour and a half drive back to Green River. While the weather was grey, cold, and dreary on the return hike, the sun poked between a layer of clouds to illuminate the vast expanse surrounding Horseshoe Canyon. It was a beautiful sunset to remember.