Friday, October 15, 2010

Horseshoe Canyon - A Division of Canyonlands

Although the title of this post sounds suggestive of a business relationship with Canyonlands National Park, the reality is that Horseshoe Canyon is simply a piece of real estate detached from the main body of the Park. Contained within this small but beautiful tributary is some of North America's most significant rock art.

Once called Barrier Canyon, this remote and rugged area was home to people as long ago as 9000 B.C. These first inhabitants were nomads who hunted large animals such as mammoth and mastodons, and they left scant evidence of their daily lives. Only after later cultures such as the desert Archaic peoples arrived around 2000 B.C. do we have a more significant record of human presence.

Horseshoe Canyon was added to Canyonlands NP in 1971 to protect outstanding examples of prehistoric rock art left by these early humans. Rendered in a style called Barrier Canyon after the place where they were first studied, these otherworldly images have even been used by some to suggest that ancient peoples were visited by space aliens.

The area sees little visitation primarily due to the remoteness. Just reaching the rim of the canyon requires driving 30 miles on a dirt road subject to washouts and drifting sand. Additionally, the art panels are located deep in a canyon where a fair amount of effort is required to see them. It's easy to understand why only the most determined explorers make the journey.

The easiest route for those willing to make the trip begins off Utah Highway 24 between Hanksville and Green River. Referred to as "Hans Flat" road, this usually graded dirt track travels through the open high desert where wind swept dunes often obscure the road.

At about 22 miles in, the road splits with the southeastern leg leading to the Hans Flat Ranger station found at the remote west entrance to the Maze District of Canyonlands. There is an information kiosk at the junction with useful information for travelers heading in either direction.

Six miles later you'll arrive at the parking area, where visitors will find little in the way of amenities other than a nicely maintained pit toilet and information board specifically about Horseshoe Canyon. Although the canyon itself is administered by the National Park and no overnight camping is allowed below the rim, the area adjacent to the trailhead is managed by the BLM, and car camping is permitted.

The actual canyon is well camouflaged by the folds and wrinkles of the terrain, and not until one begins hiking does it become apparent that a deep chasm lies ahead. The trail begins at the parking area, and is 6.5 miles round-trip to the Great Gallery panel. The way into the canyon utilizes an old road, a legacy of the ranching and mining history of the last century.

The elevation change from rim to canyon bottom is 750 feet, however the grade is moderate as the trail was improved in the 40's to accommodate motor vehicles. As I hike down the unbelievably rough and uneven surface of the slickrock, I marvel that any kind of automobile was able to negotiate the ledges, drops, and twists.

The picture below shows the road continuing on the opposite side as it climbs back out of the canyon. When Horseshoe Canyon was added to the Park in the 70's all mining and ranching activity ceased, leaving old roads to live on as foot trails.

Soon the dry streambed at the bottom appears, although the presence of cottonwood trees and other green vegetation reveals water must be nearby, even if it is underground.

When the trail reaches the wash bottom, it turns south following the bed of the canyon. When I visited in early 2010, notices were posted warning of extended periods of difficult hiking in deep sand due to extended drought. While there were stretches where it was an decided effort to trudge across loose and shifting terrain, I did not find it especially arduous.

The weather was very pleasant during my visit, although I can see where in summer high temperatures, lack of water, and little or no shade might make the hike more of an ordeal. Like much of canyon country, spring, fall, and mild winters are the best times to explore the high desert.

The first panel is located along the east wall, and though not signed there are obvious side trails leading to it. This panel is called "High Gallery".

The Barrier Canyon pictographs are notable for stylized figures like those seen here. Although there are variations and embellishments, the majority of images feature anthropomorphic beings with long torsos and wide shoulders, often with no arms. Paleontologists have theories about the symbology, but no definitive answers to the actual intention of the artists.

Continuing down canyon, there are a variety of beautiful scenes as sheer walls of sandstone painted with desert varnish in stark patterns are framed by vibrant green spring leaves and soaring vaults of blue sky.

The next panel has some of the most striking images of all, barring the Great Gallery. Here are a variety of human and animal shapes including one called the "curly tailed canine". To my eye, it actually looks more like a cat, but I don't believe prehistoric people were in the habit of keeping mountain lions as pets.

Some of the figures depicted here are so bizarre it's easy to see how some people might conclude that early cultures were visited by extra-terrestrials, but I think the human imagination is fertile enough to conjure up outlandish beings without a celestial influence.

The third panel is located deep in an alcove, and is called appropriately enough Alcove Gallery. The pictographs found here have suffered more than others from the elements, and also from ignorant visitors who in their thoughtlessness have added meaningless graffiti. Even so, there are some interesting figures to be seen.

Once again the trek resumes down canyon, and vigilant hikers may spot evidence in the wash bed of another ancient inhabitant of the area.

The last panel is the grand-daddy of the four. Known as the Great Gallery, the figures found here approach life size proportions, and the pictographs stretch across a wide tapestry of sandstone.

Perhaps the most widely photographed figure of all the images found here is the Great Ghost. This somewhat supernatural looking being is clearly an important figure, but what does it signify?

There are many other interesting pictographs, and one petroglyph of what appears to be bighorn sheep.

Modern humans have no reference or context to understand what life was like for the earliest inhabitants. Even so, I believe the surroundings must have inspired those people the same way it makes me feel today. Soaring cliff walls, blue sky checkered with white clouds, and stillness broken only by the rustle of leaves in a gentle breeze or the drip of water from a canyon seep all combine to leave me with reverence and awe for the world.

At times like these, I can sense the presence of mystery and feel the forces that shaped how early peoples might have seen their home.

No comments:

Post a Comment