Canyons are inherently risky. Flash floods occur without notice on sunny days. Technical skills & surrounding topography knowledge required yet does not eliminate risk.
Follow in the footsteps of the ancients
Horseshoe Canyon (originally called 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. The petroglyphs here are said to be dated to 1 A.D. based on carbon dating of the surrounding areas and predate both the Anasazi and Fremont cultures, some of them possibly being > 8,000 years old. There are four galleries of petroglyphs to view in this canyon and each one left us speechless. These four galleries are: The High Gallery, Horseshoe Shelter, The Alcove and The Great Gallery. Archaeologists are still trying to decipher just what the figures in each gallery mean.
This is a wonderful high desert hike and we (my cousin Carol and I) did this on May 10, 2009. The drive to the trailhead is an adventure all in itself and required about 1.5 hours to the trailhead and then another 1.5 hours back out. The hike itself takes about 5-6 hours round trip due and while I initially thought we could easily hoof this one off in 3 hours... well... I'll get to that in a bit. Just plan on an all day event but it is well worth the time and the effort. Since we visited in May and it was already hot, I can't imagine doing this one in the heat of the summer so Fall or Spring would be my choices and bring a MINIMUM of 3 liters of water. I originally thought to rate this as a moderate hike but thought twice about that and decided that it was probably more moderately difficult due to the elements. You can camp at the TH but it is very exposed and windy most times with a pit toilet.
Once you find the trailhead (directions to follow) you head immediately across slickrock and start descending into the canyon. The trail in this area is readily marked with cairns and easy to follow. When we arrived at the TH it was already 11:00 AM and very gusty winds blowing. We were dressed in long sleeves and zip offs but once we got 1/2 a mile down we were strippin' off the layers because there was no wind or even a breeze and only relentless sun. You descend 800 feet in a little over a mile and then the lovely slickrock ends and you are hiking in fine sand. There are supposedly dinosaur tracks in this sandy portion as it meets the canyon floor but we were unable to find them. Maybe they were buried under all the sand? Hang a right once you get to the canyon floor and you are on your way to all the galleries and petroglyph heaven. The canyon floor is dotted with dispersed but welcoming shade from cottonwoods but the entire hike from this point on is in SAND.
The first gallery is the High Gallery located on your left (to the east) or at N38 27' 41" W110 11' 54"
The second gallery is the Horseshoe Gallery on your right (to the west) about 1/4 mile down the canyon or at N38 27' 45" W110 11' 58"
The third gallery is the Alcove on your right another 1/2 mile or so or at N38 27' 22" W110 12' 21"
The last and best gallery is the Great Gallery about a mile or so down the canyon located on your right (or west) at N38 26' 49" W110 12' 47"
All the galleries are amazing but the Great Gallery is an immense panel of life sized petroglyphs. The Holy Ghost and companions are here. There is normally a ranger here to give you history of the canyon and will allow you to climb the small ledge to view them closer. We met Ranger Sarah that day who was based in the Hans Flat Ranger Station (gateway to the MAZE) The petroglyphs are almost alien in design as they are armsless/legless mummy looking humanoids and there are obvious animals in the mix also... deer, dogs etc. But I was left wondering... what were the Ancients trying to tell us? Is it a life story? Is it a migration? Is it an alien encounter? The immensity and detail of these petroglyphs just blew me away.
Did I mention this entire hike was in fine sand. Ohhhh and I really dislike hiking in sand. It was at least 90 degrees this May afternoon with a little bit of a breeze and some shade here and there from the cottonwoods. There was a little bit of stagnant water that could be filtered in a pinch but I went through 3 liters in 5 hours. The sand is why I decided to give this a moderately difficult rating. Once you've hiked a couple of miles through the sand and then back out, you then have to trudge uphill 850' climb through MORE sand and then across the slickrock out.
It was an amazing hike and well worth all the sweat and sand. Directions to the TH will follow. I wouldn't even attempt to drive to this TH in bad weather or if there were recent heavy rains due to all the sand. We had cell phone signal from Verizon at the trailhead!
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.