Horseshoe Canyon (originally Barrier Canyon) is a detached unit of Canyonlands National
Park that was added in 1971. Its intriguing rock art is often considered to be the most
significant in North America.
Horseshoe Canyon contains one of the finest displays of prehistoric Indian rock art in the United States. The famous Great Gallery, largest of several Horseshoe Canyon sites, is 200 feet long, 15 feet high, and contains dozens of fascinating red, brown, and white pictographs. The barrier canyon style paintings are at least 2,000 years old, and possibly as old as 8,000 years. The work was done by the Archaic People who lived in the area before the arrival of the Anasazi and Fremont Indian cultures.
Archaeologists have struggled to interpret the strange figures that are depicted on the Great Gallery. In addition to many smaller figures, the huge panel contains about twenty life size human shapes, all of which have a strange mummy-like appearance. They lack arms or legs, and often have huge insect-like eyes and skull-shaped heads. Most interesting of all is the figures known as the "Great Ghost and Attendants". This seven-foot-high painting stands out among the others because of its size and its alien appearance.General Information:
Horseshoe Canyon is a wonderful desert hike. This route is 7 1/2 miles round trip and will require 5 to 6 hours to complete. This route is accessible year round but you are warned that it would be extremely hot in summer. This is a desert environment and your party should plan to bring two or three liters of water per person.
Navigation for this hike is easy and a GPS is not required, but tech geeks like me have to play with our toys so I have included the important GPS coordinates. All waypoints and maps for this route use the WGS84 datum. The USGS 7.5' Map titled "Sugarloaf Butte" shows the area you will be hiking in. Horseshoe Canyon is rated 1A III using the Canyon Rating System. Check the local weather report before entering this canyon. The entire drainage and a clear view of the western sky are visible before committing to this route.
I prefer to hike this canyon in winter. Only three or four groups hike this canyon each month during winter and the hiking is always cool, solitary and pleasant. As always when hiking desert canyons, be on guard for flash floods. Horseshoe Canyon has a mild flash flood Danger.
Ranger Guided Tour:
A carefully driven passenger car in good weather can usually reach the trailhead. However, the roads in this area are subject to the whims of the local road grading crew. Go prepared for rough roads and pack a shovel.
From Green River, Utah take I-70 westbound for 11 miles to Exit #149 and Highway 24. Follow Highway 24 south from I-70 for 25 miles to mile maker 135.5 (1/2 mile south of the turn-off to Goblin Valley State Park). The well-maintained dirt road on the east side of highway 24 is signed Rooster Flats and Hans Flat Ranger Station, turn east onto this dirt road (N38° 37' 24", W110° 34' 16"). This area is criss-crossed with roads. Stay on the road described until told to turn off of it.
Follow the well-maintained dirt road for 24.3 miles until you come to a signed fork in the road with an information kiosk (N38° 28' 21", W110° 16' 50"). The south (right) fork leads to the Hans Flat Ranger Station and the east (left) fork leads to Horseshoe Canyon. Take the east (left) fork for 5.1 miles to a smaller road, departing to the south (right) that is signed Horseshoe Canyon Foot Trail (N38° 29' 44", W110° 12' 29"). Follow this road for 1.7 miles to the trailhead.
An information kiosk, primitive camping and a vault toilet are located at the trailhead. Camping at the trailhead is really poor. I would suggest nearby Goblin Valley State Park for a more pleasant camping experience.
The trail begins near the information kiosk (N38° 28' 25", W110° 12' 01") and descends into Horseshoe Canyon along an old jeep road originally built for oil exploration. The descent into the canyon is made on a slickrock trail with rock cairns (easy to spot stacks of rocks). Barriers have been erected to keep recreational vehicles and cattle out of the canyon.
Approximately 1/2 mile from the trailhead you will spot an old round watering trough that was used in early area ranching. 100 yards before you reach the watering trough there are several dinosaur tracks (N38° 28' 01", W110° 11' 55") located on the east side of the trail. The three-toed tracks are approximately 12" in length. The tracks probably belong to an Allosaurus, which was the most common carnivore during the period in which these tracks were formed. The best and easiest to locate track is only one foot from the main trail in a layer of gray shale which stands out from the surrounding sandstone. There is often a small cairn next to the track made of the same type of gray shale. Other faint tracks can be located by looking is the same gray shale formation in this area.
The trail reaches the canyon bottom 1 1/4 miles from the trailhead and follows Barrier Creek south. There is intermittent water in the canyon, but it is usually stagnant.
As you approach Water Canyon the trail passes by the first pictograph site called the "High Gallery" (N38° 27' 41", W110° 11' 54") on the east canyon wall. The second site, known as "Horseshoe Gallery" (N38° 27' 45", W110° 11' 58") is slightly upstream on the west canyon wall. Search around Horseshoe Gallery and you will find plenty of pictographs that are hidden. This is my favorite pictograph site in the canyon. I always seem to get really good early morning photographs of this site for some strange reason.
The third site known as "Alcove Gallery" (N38° 27' 22", W110° 12' 21") is 1/2 mile upstream from Horseshoe Gallery on the west side of the canyon. Alcove Gallery has sustained both natural and gringo damage. Oil drillers and cowboys from the early 1900's have carved their names into this site. I always wonder what treasures are buried under the debris from the falling roof.
The "Great Gallery" (N38° 26' 49", W110° 12' 47") is 1 1/4 miles upstream from the Alcove Gallery. This gallery is considered the most outstanding display of pictographs in the world. This is the site that all other pictographs are measured by. Dozens of intricate human and animal figures decorate the panel.
Note: As of January 2001 the dinosaur trackway noted in the next paragraph is buried under several inches of mud and sand. The trackway could reappear after the next flood or remain buried for centuries.
If you hike 300 to 400 yards upstream from the Great Gallery you will find a dinosaur trackway (N38° 26' 41", W110° 12' 57"). The tracks are located where Barrier Creek flows over a small slab of flat sandstone that appears darker than the surrounding sandstone. Look carefully at the dark, flat surface near the west side of the creek, and you will see the tracks of a three-toed dinosaur. There are three tracks spaced about four feet apart. The tracks are approximately nine inches in diameter.
On the return trip, you can explore Water Canyon, which usually has a reliable water source upstream. Unfortunately, the hardest part of this hike is at the end when you must hike out of Horseshoe Canyon. This can be brutal in mid-day heat during the summer months so plan accordingly.
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