Horseshoe Canyon

Torrey, UT

For our final adventure during this visit to the Torrey area, we drove a long (we’re talking long) way east for a visit to the Horseshoe Canyon.  Horseshoe Canyon, formerly known as Barrier Canyon, is in a remote area west of the Green River and north of the Canyonlands National Park Maze District.  It is known for its collection of Barrier Canyon Style rock art, which was first recognized as a unique style here.  A portion of Horseshoe Canyon containing a panel of art called The Great Gallery is part of a detached unit of Canyonlands National Park.  The Horseshoe Canyon Unit was added to the park in 1971 in an attempt to preserve and protect the rock art found along much of its length.

To get to the trailhead we drove 50 miles east on UT-24 to the tiny community of Hanksville.  We continued past Hanksville, still on UT-24, for another 18 miles to a right turn, marked with a sign, onto a well-maintained dirt road called Lower San Rafael Road.

Lower San Rafael Road

After driving about 30 miles on Lower San Rafael Road we came to another right turn, again well marked with a sign, that lead the final two miles to the parking area for the trailhead.

Do you remember the movie “127 Hours?”  The movie was based on the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place, which tells the story of hiker Aron Ralston’s experience being trapped in nearby Blue John Canyon, which feeds into Horseshoe Canyon, and how he was forced to amputate his own right arm with a dull multi-tool in order to free himself after his arm became trapped by a boulder.  Ralston had parked his truck in this parking area before setting off on his mountain bike. His plan was to park his bike down the road and hike back through Blue John Canyon and return to the truck through Horseshoe Canyon.

Horseshoe Canyon Trailhead

For most of the way this trail is an easy hike along a wash.  The challenging part is getting down to the wash and then getting back up out of it at the end (about a mile and a half in each direction), as there is a 750 foot elevation change between the trailhead and the wash.

In the final section leading down into the wash the trail goes through deep sand.  It is easy to hike through the sand on the way down, not so much on the way up!

Heading down into the sand

The sandy trail leading into the wash

At three different spots along the trail you pass a small circle of rocks that surrounds a dinosaur track in the slickrock.  Two of the tracks are right on the trail on the slickrock section as you head down toward the wash.  The third is in the wash on a shelf along the creek.  We missed that one on the hike in but the volunteer we met later told us how to find it.

Once down in the wash the trail winds its way up the canyon along a shallow creek.  After a  short hike up the canyon, about two miles from the trailhead, a panel of artwork called Horseshoe Shelter appears along the canyon wall on the right.

Horseshoe Shelter

About a half mile further up the wash at a sharp bend in the canyon the trail goes by a large amphitheater on the right.  Inside it is another panel of artwork called the Alcove Gallery.

Approaching the Alcove

Inside the Alcove with artwork along the wall

The Alcove Gallery

The area in front of the Alcove is where Aron Ralston finally was able to get help.  As he hiked down the wash he met a family just getting ready to leave the Alcove and return to the trailhead.  The father stayed and helped Aron while the mother and child hiked back down the wash.  They were spotted by a rescue helicopter searching for Aron, which was able to land in the wide area of the wash where the trail turns up into the sand.  The helicopter then took Aron to Moab where he was admitted in remarkably good condition, considering the five day ordeal he had just endured.  After reading this, you must get the book or see the movie.  We’re reading the book as this blog is being written!

OK, enough about Aron Ralston, let’s get back to the hike.  After hiking almost four miles from the trailhead we came to the end point of our journey, the Great Gallery.  The Great Gallery is one of the largest and best preserved collections of what is called Barrier Canyon Style rock art in the country.  The panel itself measures about 200 feet long and 15 feet high. The panel contains about 20 life-sized images, the largest of which measures over 7 feet tall.

The Great Gallery

We were pleased to find a park volunteer at the Great Gallery.  While he was there to provide information about the artwork, we suspect his main function was to protect the panel from any vandalism.  Nevertheless, he was very helpful in pointing out interesting things related to the panel.  One of the interesting things we learned from him concerned the main figure in what is called the Holy Ghost Panel.

Holy Ghost Panel

Visitors can’t get up close to the Great Panel, but the volunteer told us that if we could get close, we would see that the central figure in this section is composed of small dots of paint.  The theory is that, while a brush-like tool was use for the other figures, the artist used a small reed to blow the paint on to the rock for this figure.

He also pointed out a few more interesting parts of the panel, including two small figures that appear to be fighting.

The line painted on the left in the photo below lines up perfectly with the sun rise on the Summer Solstice.  A pile of rocks that have fallen from the canyon wall along the left side of the Great Panel are believed to have covered a similar line for the Winter Solstice.

In the viewing area for the Great Gallery there are two old military ammo boxes.  You will often find one of these boxes at interesting sites in the west, and they  usually contain written information about the site.  One of the boxes here does contain information about the Great Gallery, while the other contains an old pair of binoculars.

The binoculars are very heavy and appeared to be WWII vintage.  A closer look revealed them to be US Navy issue from 1943 and they were made in Rochester, NY by Bausch & Lomb!

The return hike is a nice walk back through the canyon along the tree-lined stream.  Then its back up the 750 feet of elevation gain for a mile and a half to the trailhead.

We’re headed for the top of the rocks on the right

Once above the sand the trail continues up the slickrock

We returned to the Jeep and headed back up the dirt road,  passing a large area of sand dunes along the way.

The volunteer in the canyon told us he found a shortcut to Hanksville that cut off about ten miles, so we turned left on to what we though was the road he described.  The dirt road was nice and smooth as we drove through a few buildings used during cattle round-up time.  Our only obstacle was a young calf standing in our path.  When we slowly approached, he would turn and walked further down the road.  If we went faster to pass him, he would begin to run ahead of us.  This little give and take went on for about a mile before he finally got the message and took a right turn into the desert.

We were unsure if we were on the road described by the volunteer, but there were tracks from another vehicle and we were headed in the correct direction so we just kept driving, knowing we could always turn around if the conditions deteriorated.

We came to a few forks in the road,  so we followed the old adage of Yankee great Yogi Berra (“If you come to a fork in the road, take it!).   We knew we were headed in the right direction, and as we neared Hanksville we were able to get a bit of data signal allowing us to look at Google Maps.  At an intersection the map indicated we should continue straight and the road would soon lead to UT-24.  This section of the road showed no sign of any maintenance, but the tracks we had been followed continued, so we did also.

At one point we came to a hill where the wind had completely covered the road with deep sand.  At first we couldn’t get through it, so we backed up a bit, took out our trusty shovel (still in the box since we had never needed to use it) and cleared a pathway.  After scouting ahead a bit on foot we knew the sand only continued for a short distance over the hill.  So we backed up a bit more to gain some speed and the Jeep went up through the sand with no problem.  After charging through a couple more sand dunes we safely reached the highway.  It turned out we didn’t save any distance with our “short cut” but the route just added more excitement to this adventure.  Later research on Google revealed that, you guessed it, we were on the wrong road!  After a total drive of of just a mere 198 miles we returned to Torrey tired but please with this adventure.

We have now wrapped up this visit to Torrey and Capitol Reef NP.  Next up for us is a visit to Bryce Canyon.  More on that later . . .

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27 Responses to Horseshoe Canyon

  1. pmbweaver says:

    Never saw 127 Hours. Sounds like a good one.
    What a great hike. Looking at the vistas, I can just image dinosaurs roaming that area.

    The artwork looks like someone just drew those shapes. Awesome. How cool to have someone to explain the meanings of the figures.

    You two really don’t need more excitement. Every day is an exciting adventure for y’all.

  2. Debbie says:

    Interesting stories

  3. What a fabulous day…but that would be way too much driving for me! I love that you saw another type of rock art. There are so many unique styles.

  4. Wow, that was quite a drive for a hike! Read the book and saw the movie. Incredible story. Glad you made it out with all of your arms!

    • placestheygo says:

      We probably should have waited til next year and stayed in Hanksville which would have cut the journey in half. But I really wanted to do this hike. The drive passed quickly with lots of fantastic scenery:)

  5. Hats off to both of you. Not only you drove hundred of miles for a hike but you showed us a new kind of rock art we have not seen before. That must have been an interesting drive and glad that you made it out of there safely with both arms. I have seen the movie but not the book.

  6. Laurel says:

    What a fantastic hike — we have to do that one, even though it’s a LOT of driving, as you said. (Maybe we can find a closer place to stay?) The rock art is fabulous — unlike any we’ve seen. Aron Ralston was incredibly courageous, but also unwise in hiking alone and not telling anyone where he was going. A good lesson for all of us who like to explore the backcountry.

    • placestheygo says:

      We will be staying in Hanksville for a few days during our next visit so we can explore the other areas. Much closer:) While it was a long drive, it flew by with all the great scenery.

  7. montanaclarks says:

    Amazing art–I’ve never heard of having a volunteer stationed somewhere–probably a really good idea!

    • placestheygo says:

      I read that there could be a volunteer at the Great Gallery but was very surprised to actually see one. I’m glad he was there to share so many interesting thoughts.

  8. Sherry says:

    I would definitely drive a LONG way for rock art. But are there boondocking sites nearer by? 198 miles RT is a REALLY long way. LOL I sure do prefer my in and outs to have the up on the way in when I’m fresh. Hiking in sand is not bad at first but then….. We hiked the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado and Sleeping Bear dune in Michigan. More tiring than about anything else I’ve ever done. Not sure I would ever recognized the dinosaur tracks. The alcove is gorgeous. What beautiful art! Worth the trip for sure. How cool that there was a volunteer at the Gallery. Bet that was a surprise given how hard it is to get to. Love the solstice lines. Ancient peoples certainly were more aligned with the movement of the sun and the planet. Great hike! Great post!

    • placestheygo says:

      Thanks, Sherry, glad you enjoyed the post:) You can actually boondock right at the trailhead! There is also a decent RV park in Hanksville that would save 50 miles one way. I’m with you…deep sand is definitely the hardest to hike in even when flat. I’m glad the dinosaur tracks had a rock ring because we would have missed them completely even though I knew they were there somewhere:)

  9. Jacquie says:

    Now that’s an adventure! Great hike, beautiful art and dinosaur tracks to boot. I watched the movie – with my hands covering my eyes – for a good part of it… VERY interesting post!

  10. heyduke50 says:

    That’s a cool hike you found and with some great art!

  11. LuAnn says:

    I have never seen rock art like this. Glad you did the long drive and shared it with us. We saw the movie and read the book…both fascinating. Happy to hear your hiking experience was much less exciting.

    • placestheygo says:

      Yes, our canyon adventure was a little less exciting:) What a terrific hike! There are four walls of art with the largest being the Great Gallery.

      I just finished the book and then watched the Dateline special on Youtube. What a story!

    • placestheygo says:

      The artwork was spectacular. The Alcove Gallery was the only strange area. There was a set of pictographs that looked like those in other areas. But there was that one set John is standing in front that looks so primary. Must have been a different group.

  12. Pam and John, You are so adventurous. We had never heard of Horseshoe Canyon. It looks like an amazing hike.

    We saw 127 Hours and find it had to fathom cutting off your own arm. But if you want to survive, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. Great blog.

    TravelBug-Susan

    • placestheygo says:

      Thanks, Susan! Once I learned of the wonderful panels of artwork and then that Aron Ralston came out there, we just had to do this hike. It was a beautiful canyon! If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it. There is no way they could get all of it in a movie. The words and thoughts are so powerful and following his adventures prior to the accident helps explain why he was able to survive.

  13. Pam says:

    I’ve seen the movie but not the panels yet. Someday!

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