Updated: Mar 2, 2021
You might think Utah's best art Gallery is in Salt Lake or Park City, but truth be known Utah's most famous art gallery is in a red rock canyon near the San Rafael Swell. How could Utah's best gallery be there you might ask? Turns out Horseshoe canyon contains the best example of Native American rock art in all of North America. Boasting 4 different panels of art that contain both pictographs and petroglyphs, Horseshoe canyon also provides a gorgeous 3.5 mile gallery stroll through a beautiful red rock canyon. The panels range from 1,500 to 3,500 years old and provide a glimpse into the mysterious peoples that called this canyon home.
Horseshoe canyon can be accessed a couple of different ways, the most popular being a dirt road from highway 24 also known as Lower San Rafael Road. If you are traveling south on Highway 24, soon after you pass the turn off to Goblin Valley on the right, you will see a dirt road with a sign for Horseshoe canyon and a few other places on the left side of the road.
You will take this road for about 27 miles until you arrive at the Horseshoe Canyon Trailhead, this is the most common and well maintained entrance into the canyon.
You'll come to a few crossroads along the way but stay on the main road. At about mile 15, you come to a split that is well signed, stay left to go to Horseshoe canyon, right will take you to Hans Flat ranger station. The road to Horseshoe is accessible by most 2 wheel drive vehicles, however conditions can rapidly change in wet weather to the point the road may become impassable so be alert for changing weather conditions. The canyon can also be accessed from the east rim by a 4x4 road from the Hans Flat ranger station. Check the park service site for road conditions here for The Maze section of the park.
The hike to the Great Gallery and back is approximately 7 miles and you'll pass by 3 other art panels on your way to the Great Gallery. The trail begins right next to the information kiosk and descends about 750 feet into the canyon over about a mile. About halfway down the canyon you'll come to a horse gate. Horses are allowed in the canyon by permit only, so without a permit you won't have the key to unlock the gate for horses, however hikers can use the narrow fenced walkway adjacent to the gate.
Once you hit the bottom of the canyon you will come to a wash that you will cross several times on the hike. Rock cairns mark the path through the canyon and will help you stay on the trail and avoid doing any damage to the cryptobiotic soil. The canyon is a mild flash flood risk, so you will want to watch the weather before descending into the canyon.
After heavy rain there can be some quicksand in the canyon. To avoid quicksand stay on the trail and when you have to cut across the river bed you may want to bring a pole to check the ground in front of you, or at the very least hike in a group so that if one person gets stuck you've got a friend to help you out. I hiked the canyon about a week after they got over an inch of rain and encountered a little bit of quicksand, but nothing that was hard to get out of.
Once you reach the bottom of the canyon follow the trail for about another 1/3 of a mile and on the east side of the Canyon you'll find the High Gallery. It is easy to miss as the trail leads you on the opposite side of the wash. If you have a GPS see the list of GPS coordinates at the bottom that will give you the location of the panels so you don't miss them. It's called the High Gallery because it is much higher on the canyon wall than the other panels.
The panel is made using an iron oxide type paint and includes figures of what seem to be people, animals and even a rain cloud. Part of the fun of looking at the panels is trying to interpret what these ancient people were trying to convey with these elaborate drawings. It is recommended you bring binoculars with you on the hike so you can get a closer look at these drawings. I brought just a small 8x magnification set and it was well worth lugging them through the canyon.
Following the trail for only a few hundred yards more you will come to the second panel in the gallery called the Horseshoe panel. This is on the west wall of the canyon and is hard to miss. It is a very diverse panel with all types of figures and symbols. Spend some time here examining the rock as you will find figures that you didn't notice at first or second glance. It is thought that these figures were made by the Fremont or ancestral Pueblo-an people who inhabited the canyon around 1,500 years ago. On sunny days this panel catches a lot of sun, so bring some sun glasses with you so you can admire the panel without the sunlight bouncing off the rock and irritating your eyes.
Hike another 1/3 of a mile and you'll arrive at Alcove Gallery. As you might have guessed this gallery is found in an alcove on the west side of the canyon. Like Horseshoe Gallery the art is at eye level and includes various drawings. This panel was damaged by ranchers and oil exploration crews that explored the canyon in the early 1900s. Despite the damage, Alcove Gallery is still worth the walk and is often a good place to find a little shade in the heat of the day.
About 70 feet to the right of the main drawings are some faded drawings that look to be quite elaborate, but are a little difficult to see. You can tell by the rubble that seperates these two panels that there has been some erosion since this panel was made, leaving what might be underneath all the sandstone rubble to the imagination.
About 1 mile from the Alcove Gallery you'll arrive at the grand daddy of them all, the Great Gallery. It is the oldest and most elaborate of all the rock art panels in the canyon. Many of the figures are 5-6 feet tall and sport color and intricate patterns when compared to the other panels. Pay attention to the designs within the figures and you will find smaller images of people, animals and other patterns inside them.
There are benches under the trees just in front of the panel along with some old ammo cans the National Park Service has generously stocked with information about the panel. As you relax and maybe eat your lunch you'll likely notice the unique acoustics of this panel. We were lucky enough to be in the canyon while there was still a little bit of water running in the wash. While we saw the water behind us, it sounded as if it was flowing right out of the panel. A ranger told us they thought that this unique feature may have been used as part of a ceremony where people hidden behind a group could speak and it would sound as if the figures were talking.
While many of the figures are dark and colored and easy to see, if you walk to the left past the obvious figures you will find additional petroglyphs and pictographs. These pictographs are very faded in comparison to the others at the Great Gallery, but every bit as interesting. You will also find some petroglyphs of what appear to be sheep carved into the rock. The pictographs and petroglyphs at the Great Gallery are thought to be about 3,500 years old, much older than the other 3 panels. Archeologists believe that these drawings were made by archaic people while the other 3 panels were likely made by the Fremont or Ancestral Pueblo.
There are some dinosaur tracks and other side canyons to explore in the canyon if you want to be adventurous, but most choose to end their hike here. This is an out and back hike so you will follow the same way you came in. Unfortunately that means climbing 750 feet out of the canyon at the end. The hike out in the summer can be brutally hot so bring plenty of liquid and try to plan your hike so you aren't exiting in the heat of the day.
Horseshoe canyon is definitely worth the hour plus drive on a dirt road and the 3.5 mile hike to the Great Gallery. Minus the elevation loss and gain on the entrance and exit out of the canyon it is a fairly flat walk. The heat in the summer along with changing conditions in the canyon make this a moderately strenuous hike. I recommend taking all the normal hiking equipment, 10 essentials you would take anywhere, along with a pair of binoculars (to get a close up view of the art) and your camera. The GPS coordinates for the panels are provided below for your convenience and are in a degrees-minutes-decimal minutes format (hddd.mm.mmm').
For those wanting to hike the canyon early, you can camp at the trailhead parking lot since it is BLM land, but you cannot hike down and camp in the canyon. There is a vault toilet provided at the trailhead if you decide to camp there, but there is no running water, so be sure to bring plenty with you. I hope this blog post was helpful and as with all posts if you have any questions, comments or feedback feel free to leave them in the comments section below.
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High Gallery N 38 27.704' W 110 11.866'
Horseshoe Gallery N 38 27.734' W 110 11.966'
Alcove Gallery N 38 27.324' W 110 12.320'
Great Gallery N 38 26.818' W 110 12.778'