The Past Comes to Life in Horseshoe Canyon

Times Staff Writer

After 70 miles of driving over nearly impassable dirt roads, a precarious hike down a steep cliff, then a five-mile walk along a creek bottom in a narrow canyon flanked by towering walls, the Great Gallery was finally encountered.

Haunting, elongated, ghostly, bigger-than-life human figures were etched high on the pink sandstone cliff forming the mysterious mural known as the Great Gallery.

Who were the artists? How long had the figures been standing there? How many centuries had the bug-eyed drawings been staring into space? What is the message the giant sandstone billboard conveys?


Archeologists theorize that the prehistoric mural is the work of ancient Indians dating as far back as 1,500, 2,000 or 3,000 years.

“You can read whatever you want into it,” observed Gary Cox, 30, National Park Service ranger (volunteer) in this seldom-visited slice of Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah.

Cox was resting after the strenuous hike on the hot summer day. He sat on a rock at the foot of an eight-foot-high bug-eyed pictograph, a figure with a huge head and triangular-shaped body surrounded by seven mummy-like creatures.

The Great Gallery, a giant easel with hundreds of eerie human and animal forms is a long-to-be-remembered highlight of a visit to Canyonlands National Park, one of the most remote and inaccessible regions in the continental United States.

Located here are what are considered the finest examples of prehistoric rock art in America.

The surrealistic figures on the sandstone cliffs of Horseshoe Canyon are baffling and enigmatic.


Human figures without arms or legs. Some holding snakes. Some wearing what appear to be shields. Others holding spears. Numerous bighorn sheep. Deer. Bison. Birds.

One huge panel nearby shows figures holding sickle-like implements and bent over as though harvesting grain.

In the Great Gallery are 275-six-inch-tall human forms lined up in two rows side by side in a marching formation.

Francis Ford Coppola visited Horseshoe Canyon and was so taken by the mural on the sandstone wall when producing “Koyaanisqatsi” (Hopi for “life out of balance”), he introduced and ended the one-of-a-kind 1983 film with footage of the Great Gallery.

(“Koyaanisqatsi” has no actors, no plot, just 87 minutes of sound and imagery--clouds racing by mountains, Lake Powell, Black Mesa, skyscraper canyons of New York City, people pouring out of subway shafts, Los Angeles freeway traffic, offices and factories, atomic bomb blasts, the frenzied pace interspersed throughout with Hopi chants.)

A Different World

Horseshoe Canyon is a world of mysterious rock art, of kangaroo rats, bats, deer, whiptail lizards and rock wrens that warble a weird song of descending notes.


It has been Gary Cox’s world since last November. Cox, a 6-foot-2, red-bearded, redhaired bachelor, gave up Chicago’s urban civilization two years ago and set out backpacking through the West.

He hiked the High Sierra, the Cascades of Oregon and Washington and several peaks over 14,000 feet in Colorado, then wandered down into Utah’s Canyonlands.

“I liked it so well here I decided to stay. I tried to hire on with the National Park Service but there were no openings. District Ranger Ed Forner permitted me to be a $3-a-day volunteer ranger.

“I’d rather be making $3 a day out here than $20,000 a year in the city.”

The volunteer ranger is provided housing in a trailer at remote Maze Ranger Station. Cox lives on whole-grain rice, corn, beans, squash and trail mix.

He patrols Horseshoe Canyon in the Maze, a jumble of canyons described as a 30-square-mile puzzle in sandstone. He works 10 days on, four days off. But his four days off are like his 10 days on, hiking through the wild country as much as 25 to 30 miles a day.

“I’m a walking fool,” he admitted. “I provide directions and advice to the few people that find their way to this faraway place. Sometimes I go for days without seeing anybody.”


On the Lookout

He is forever on the lookout for new artwork on the sandstone walls, in hidden caves, and for remnants of ancient Indian dwelling sites, for baskets, pottery, arrowheads and other artifacts.

Recently he discovered three never-before-reported series of pictographs (prehistoric paintings on rocks, cliff and cave walls using mineral and vegetable pigments). One life-sized drawing looked like two humans shaking hands.

Horseshoe Canyon has a number of pictographs and petroglyphs (images cut, pecked or scratched into rocks).

“It is generally believed two prehistoric cultures were responsible for the petroglyphs and pictographs in Canyonlands,” Cox explained, “the Anasazi and the Fremont Indians, both groups mysteriously vanished from this area 800 to 900 years ago. That is the latest dating on artifacts found here.”

Cox said he envisions Indians gathered in Horseshoe Canyon at ceremonial sites and hunting camps. “As I hike alone I feel the presence of the spirits of these departed people. In my mind I see shaman artists painting the figures on the sandstone cliffs. . . .”

Alex Patterson, 62, and his wife, Mary, 50, of Greenwich, Conn., had also hiked to the Great Gallery this day. Both belong to the 500-member American Rock Art Research Assn.


Patterson is currently classifying and identifying more than 3,000 photographs of prehistoric drawings for the Museum of American Indians.

“Rock art is the orphan of archeology, ethnology and anthropology,” Patterson noted. “Scientists pretty much ignore it. There is no accurate way of dating the drawings. Efforts are being made to find a way to date the paint.”

The age of the prehistoric art is generally correlated with artifacts found in the immediate area.

The Pattersons and Cox discussed the rock art they had visited in many parts of the West.

“Have you seen or heard about the petroglyph in Natural Bridges National Monument that is a dead ringer for a dinosaur?” the ranger asked.

“Now how do you explain that one. . .?”