From deep religious symbolism to mere graffiti, their meaning has been the subject of endless speculation. Images have been reproduced as fine art, on tacky refrigerator magnets, car window stickers and plastic light switch covers in faux-adobe, southwestern condos. Ubiquitously scattered on cliff faces throughout the desert southwest, the chipped and painted figures of bighorn sheep, shamanistic figures, and large phallused flute players inspire in many, a sense of mystical reverence for a long vanished culture. Other reactions range from mild curiosity to semi-indifference, while still others responded to the images with contempt, riddling them with bullet holes and scrawled initials that proclaimed their culture’s superiority over another.
After seeing hundreds of rock art panels in my Colorado Plateau explorations over the past 25 years, I will admit to an occasional feeling of blasé when encountering yet another string of sheep or a “crudely” rendered hunter fading away beneath a coat of varnish. I know I shouldn’t feel that way, and I feel guilty about it. I should be amazed yet again by an early people’s expression of the trials and tribulations of life, and their search for meaning in a strangely beautiful, if not hostile landscape.
But the Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon never fails to revive in me, that sense of awe with the crazy and magnificent strangeness of it all, and I visit it every few years for that purpose. The scale alone knocks you out. Ghostly, alien figures, six to seven feet tall act out the drama of life across a canvas several hundred feet long. It’s all there – the hunt, life and death, love and sex, plants, animals, birds and bees – the whole psycho cycle in vivid, if not symbolic detail.
Horeshoe Canyon, formerly named Barrier Canyon, is named for the abandoned meander at its mouth on the Green River. Originating as a shallow wash near Hans Flat, it runs north by northeasterly for a course of about 30 miles. Approximately 10 miles down, the tributary fork of Blue John Canyon, of Aaron Ralston and 127 hours fame, enters from the west. In fact, it was ultimately visitors to the Great Gallery whom Ralston first encountered after freeing himself from a fallen boulder by sawing through his arm. Just below the confluence with Blue John is the boundary for Canyonlands National Park and the “detached Horseshoe Canyon Unit.” This is where the art is. Scattered along within a 5 mile section of the canyon can be found several panels of what has come to be known as the Barrier Canyon style of indigenous rock art.
Barrier Canyon style art is generally accepted to be the most sophisticated in the region dating back at least 3000 years and maybe as much as 8000. Its artists are known as the Desert Archaic people, nomads who traveled the region in search of big game and harvest-able native plants. In spite of their nomadic ways, they devoted considerable time to producing intricate art panels filled with strangely clad, often horned anthropomorphs, using paint pigments derived from soil and plants. Examples of Barrier Canyon style artwork can be found throughout the region with fairly high concentrations in the San Rafel Swell, but the Great Gallery is widely considered to be one of the finest ancient rock art panels in North America.
The first time I visited Horseshoe Canyon was with my Dad 25 years ago. Back then, I was a fired up young river guide on the Green and Colorado rivers, obsessed with unlocking the secrets of the canyon country, and I drove, hiked, biked and boated into the furthest recesses of the region with wild abandon. Anxious to share my newfound religion with the old man, we spent several days ambling around in the big empty space south of I-70 and west of the Green River and Canyonlands National Park. We drove a hundred miles of dirt road south of the town of Green River to the Hans Flat ranger station. From there we bumped along the increasingly rough road to Lands End, stopping periodically to peer off the rim down into the land “under the ledge” where lower Cataract Canyon slashes its way through the rocky plain at the base of the Orange Cliffs.
I can’t really say that Dad was a convert to all that bouncing around in the middle of nowhere under the still hot September sun. But on the way back, we turned off the Green River Road at Mailbox Junction, and took the just under two mile spur to what was then, a very lonely trailhead down into Horseshoe Canyon. The canyon isn’t impressively deep by area standards, but it requires about a 700′ descent to the floor. The route goes down the remains of what was originally an old stock trail put in by ranchers near the turn of the century. The trail was later improved into a “road” by Phillips Petroleum back in the early days of oil exploration. It crosses the canyon and then cuts switchbacks up the far side before heading south on the Spur, following the rim of Millard Canyon to Hans Flat.
From the trailhead, the old road cuts down through ledges of Navajo sandstone before fading into a fine, red sand dune that extends for 200′ down to the floor of the canyon. Several years later, on a trip back to the gallery as a guide, I thought I was going to kill a couple of clients on that sand dune. And not for the reasons one usually thinks of in the guide/client relationship. It was mid August, and the company I was working for at the time had just imported a new young manager from Jackson Hole. He called me the night before and told me I was taking two clients to Horseshoe Canyon the next day and that they would be at the office at 7:30 a.m. Never mind the fact that it had been 106 degrees in Moab that day, and that the next day’s forecast was for 103. I asked him if he was crazy, and told him to have them there by 6:00.
It’s close to three hours from Moab no matter which way you go. One route goes directly south from the town of Green River, and another comes in from the west off of Hwy 24 near the turn off for Goblin Valley. I like to make a loop out of it starting in Green River. Turn off the main drag at Ray’s Tavern and head south, bearing slightly east at the railroad tracks. Cross the tracks heading south again and go under 1-70 and then out into the Big Empty. In less than two miles take a left fork, and then it’s about 40 miles through the desert to Mailbox Junction. For the return trip, continue south past Mailbox junction to a fork that goes to Hans Flat, and the Maze. Stay right and head west out through the Flat Tops and on to Hwy 24.
The road from Green River starts out in gray, Mancos Shale. You catch occasional glimpses of the river and its Cottonwood lined shores as the desert rises up around it. More interesting outcroppings of purplish-gray and turquoise hills of the Morrison Formation appear, followed by the dark and edgy Dakota Sandstone, with eventual tan and red mounds of Navajo and Carmel sandstones gracing the skyline. You cross several shallow washes that eventually become some of the major side attractions on a float trip through Labyrinth Canyon such as Trin Alcove and Keg Spring Canyon. The views are big and you’re pretty much out in the middle of nowhere when you get to the signed turn off for Horseshoe Canyon.
So there we were, my two clients and I, standing on the rim of Horseshoe Canyon at 9:00 am. Already close to 90 degrees out, the bottom of the canyon was still well shaded, the Cottonwood trees looked lovely, and there was a slim stream of water flowing in Barrier Creek. We managed to have a very pleasant hike for the 3.5 miles it takes to get to the Great Gallery, and we spent a little time looking at the other panels along the way. On the way out is when things started to fall apart. The sun was high in the sky, and shade patches were farther and fewer between. The sand was hot, and they wanted to rest – a lot. It was all I could do to convince them we could only stop in the shade, and I urged them hurriedly on from shade patch to shade patch knowing full well that we still had a 700′ climb and a giant sand dune to surmount in full sun ahead of us.
At the last shady place, we rested for a good long time. They were hot, tired, and out of shape. We drank a lot of water, and I gave them a pep talk. Once we started, we needed to keep moving, however slowly it might be. To stop and rest in the direct sun would only deplete us more. In hindsight, the best course of action would have been to just wait it out in the shade at the bottom of the canyon. But in our canned and busy world, things like that don’t often strike us as an option. We were on a guided excursion for the day and they’re planning on getting back for dinner. Convincing someone that they need to spend an unplanned six hours laying low in a cave, or they might die in the sun, isn’t something that people want to hear. They’re on vacation after all. As guides, we have to make some hard decisions. I could see the situation, and a heat and exertion induced heart attack wasn’t out of the question. But they wanted out, and I wanted out of there too. Was it a good decision to press on up that hill for the cool comforts of the air-conditioned Suburban? Maybe not. Fortunately, I wasn’t proven that it wasn’t.
My dad and I spent the night at the blustery trailhead, and hiked down into the canyon bottom in the morning. The air was cool, and the morning light filtered through the Cottonwood leaves. We walked along the stream shooting the breeze, mostly me continuing my proselytizing about the virtues of wild country and desert landscapes. Dad wasn’t a big hiker. He was fit enough, but he came from the old school where if you weren’t carrying a gun or a fishing pole, why would you walk anywhere? The idea of taking a hike just because wasn’t his regular MO, “But here,” he said, “there are so many things to look at.” We stopped and checked out the other three panels on the way in. The first is called the High Gallery located up on the east wall, the Horseshoe Gallery immediately follows on the west, and then the Alcove Gallery, also on the west side a little further on.
Each of those sites are worthy examples of an ancient people’s artistic expression, but somehow they don’t quite compare to the main attraction. As you round the last bend in the canyon below the Great Gallery, if you are observant, you will notice something through the trees on the slightly overhanging cliff face a quarter mile away. What at first appears to be the streaks of desert varnish, is revealed to be the commanding, and almost ominous presence of the so-called Holy Ghost, and it stops me in my tracks every time. And as you get closer, you see that the ghost is flanked by others, and then still more images extending for a hundred feet in either direction.
We approached the panel in silence and stood at the base in awe. There was so much to take in that it was difficult to find a resting point for the eyes. The ghostly spirits stared back at us. Smaller figures seemed to dance around in and among birds and sheep and other unworldly creatures. Abstract shapes and intricate patterns conjured up cosmic references to other dimensions in time and space. Closer examination revealed fine details – bird feathers on a wing, design-laden torsos on armless anthropomorphs, and heads with delicate antennae. Lost in our own world of discovery, we studied the images mostly in silence with only an occasional “hey look at this,” or “what were they thinking here.”
After maybe an hour or so of intense scrutiny, we sat down under the Cottonwoods at the base of the cliff to drink some water and have a snack. The old man didn’t say much, he just kept looking up at the panel, eyes darting back and forth, resting on different images here and there. He took another swig of water and sighed and then turned to me, “Pretty good kid. Pretty good.”