Horseshoe Canyon is a detached unit of Canyonlands National Park, located just north of the Maze District. Most famous for its well-preserved prehistoric rock art—some of the best in the U.S.—Horseshoe Canyon also made history as a notorious outlaw hideout in the late 1800s (think Butch Cassidy). The 1900s brought ranchers and prospectors to Horseshoe Canyon. In 1971, it was added to Canyonlands National Park in hopes of preserving its legendary rock art and history. Today, both history buffs and adventurer-seekers come here to hike and horseback through the canyon’s winding maze of sandstone walls for a descent into the prehistoric past.
Hiking through Horseshoe
The trail through Horseshoe Canyon is about 7.5 miles roundtrip from the west rim trailhead, with a 750-foot elevation change. It’s pretty well-marked but reaching the Great Gallery will require stamina—and you’ll be heading up at the end so reserve some energy for the climb. The trail is great for horses, and free permits are available for groups of up to ten people and ten animals from the Hans Flat Ranger Station. Ranger-guided tours are available on weekend mornings from April to October, and are a great way to learn about the canyon’s interesting history without missing a thing.
Spring and fall are ideal seasons for hiking through the cottonwood groves on the tranquil canyon floor. Horseshoe Canyon is accessible year-round but scorching summer temps can be brutal so bring plenty of water and rations, and check weather conditions for flash flood warnings. Overnight camping is not allowed in the section of Horseshoe Canyon located within the Canyonlands boundaries but campers can settle in for the night on the BLM public lands at the west rim trailhead.
The trail descends into Horseshoe Canyon along an old 4WD slickrock trail. Easy-to-spot rock cairns guide the way. About a half-mile into the canyon—a hundred yards or so before you reach an old watering trough—you’ll catch your first glimpse of prehistoric interest on the east side of the trail where three 12-inch, 3-toed Allosaurus tracks are visible in a patch of gray shale. You’ll reach the canyon floor after a 1.25-mile descent, then follow Barrier Creek south. The first pictograph site, The High Gallery, will be on an east wall as you approach Water Canyon. Next up: Horseshoe Gallery, located slightly upstream. Spend some Where’s Waldo time searching for hidden pictographs on the west wall. The Alcove Gallery is a half-mile upstream, and shows some graffiti damage from early 20th century cowboys and prospectors.
The Great Gallery
About 1.25 miles from the Alcove Gallery (roughly 4 miles from the trailhead and two to three hours of hiking) you’ll finally reach Horseshoe Canyon’s masterpiece, The Great Gallery. As impressive as a visit to any of the world’s brick and mortar museums—in fact, there are reproductions from The Great Gallery in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and in the Denver Natural History Museum—nothing beats the sense of awe from seeing the real thing right where its prehistoric artists created it. The 200-foot long x 15-foot high panel depicts about 20 life-size anthropomorphic figures, with the largest figuring standing over 7 feet tall. The work of the Desert Archaic Culture, this massive mural dates back between 1,500 and 4,000 years ago and is one of the largest and best preserved examples of Barrier Canyon Style rock art (native to Utah and Colorado) in the U.S. The Great Gallery was likely created over hundreds of years and contains mostly pictographs (painting) and some petroglyphs (etchings). Clay figurines of a similar style, estimated to be about 5,000 to 7,000 years old, have been found in nearby Cowboy Cave.
How to Get There
Horseshoe Canyon is located west of Hanksville, Utah and north of the Canyonlands’ Maze District. You can reach Horseshoe Canyon from Hanksville via a graded dirt road accessible from Highway 24. A signed turnoff leads to Horseshoe Canyon. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended for the 47-mile drive along a dirt road from Hans Flat Ranger Station to the east rim. Both roads may be impassable during inclement weather, so plan accordingly.
Read more about Horseshoe Canyon here.