Hiking to see pictograph art in Horseshoe Canyon, Utah

HORSESHOE CANYON, Utah — In a remote arm of Canyonlands National Park, deep inside a warren of rock and sand, is one of the greatest and most mysterious collections of ancient art in North America.

Towering, enigmatic pictographs, some more than 6,000 years old, stare down from stone walls, their meaning unknown yet their allure universal.

This is Horseshoe Canyon, one of the loneliest places you’re likely to find in this country, nestled amid southeast Utah’s labyrinth of slickrock, arches and desert.

I had explored Canyonlands before but never Horseshoe, notorious for its unforgiving terrain.


But last year I decided it was a risk worth taking and, better yet, a risk worth taking with my two children, who were yearning for a bit of adventure after a long, cold winter.

So on a crisp morning we drove six hours from our home near Boulder, Colo., to Moab, Utah, where we spent the night before heading out early the next day.

We traveled west on Interstate 70 past Green River to the Hanksville exit and then took Highway 24 to a dirt road where a sign pointed the way to Horseshoe Canyon.

Parts of the road were covered in sand that quickly turned to brutal washboard, reducing my two-wheel-drive Kia to about 5 mph.

We were then surrounded by cows — desert cows — staring blankly at us. I honked and they lumbered out of the way, sending my then 10-year-old daughter, Theodora, into gales of laughter.

Three hours after leaving Moab we reached the trail head.

It was 9 a.m. and already hot. We donned hats, loaded our backpacks with water and began the 6.5-mile round-trip hike with a 750-foot descent to the canyon floor.

It was a forbidding place. Yet as the canyon walls closed around us, a streambed appeared with a trickle of water running down the middle. There were rabbit and bird tracks. Cottonwoods sprang up, their spreading limbs shading us from the withering sun.

The stream now widened to more than 10 feet, and the canyon grew lush and green.

“Look up there!” yelled my son, Nicholas, then 15, charging up a steep hill. There were two dozen paintings, or pictographs, high on the canyon wall.

They were strangely shaped with neither arms nor eyes and standing up to 4 feet high. One figure had feathers dangling from his arms. There were insect-like creatures and butterflies. Were they men, spirits, symbols? No one knows, so scientists refer to them as anthromorphs and describe the art as Barrier Canyon style, after the original name of this place.

The National Park Service calls this panel the High Gallery and says it predates the Anasazi and Fremont people who once inhabited this land. That could make it more than 6,000 years old.

The creators are known as the Archaic People, a hunter-gatherer race lost to antiquity. As mysterious as they are, the bigger question is what it all means. Was this perhaps a sacred place to embark on vision quests or perform religious rites?

“We think they traveled in small bands of between five and 15, and at different times of the year they would get together in one place to celebrate their traditions,” said Gary Cox, a ranger and archaeological technician in the Maze district of the national park. “The pictographs are telling their stories. What those stories are and what the pictographs mean is really not known.”

We rushed back across the stream after spotting another set of images beneath a sandstone overhang. There were ocher and pink anthromorphs, bison heads and beetles. The paint, experts say, was made by mixing the iron oxide in the rocks with clay.

A few yards away red, white and yellow handprints appeared, conveying a remarkable sense of intimacy. We resisted the urge to place our hands atop theirs in order to make contact with these people across millenniums.

The pictographs were popping up everywhere now. Despite our excitement, we had begun speaking in hushed tones as if we were in a cathedral — a cathedral of sun, stone and sky infused with reverence and awe.

A deep gash in a giant rock revealed a collection of figures tucked into a dark corner.

The ascending beings, horned creatures and small animals — familiar spirits, perhaps — have led some scholars to believe they were created by shamans depicting mystical journeys into the afterlife. One theory suggests that their art was fueled by hallucinogenic mushrooms or mind-altering plants such as Sacred Datura.

It all felt a bit spooky, accentuated by the fact that we seemed alone in a place that resembled a vast, scattered jigsaw puzzle. It would have been easy to hide out here — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid tried it — and just as easy to get lost forever.

But the major attraction lay just ahead. A series of stone cairns led to a curving 200-foot-long wall covered with anthromorphs, some standing more than 8 feet high.

This was the Great Gallery, a truly astonishing place in the way only a wonderful mystery can be.

There were soaring, box-shaped creatures painted green, red, white and pink. Some were colored in, others were ethereal outlines resembling mummies drifting up and down the wall. Dog-like animals gazed toward them, and a small figure blew a horn. The tallest group had haunted, hollow eyes and made up what is called the Holy Ghost panel.

With so few hard facts, strange theories have evolved about the gallery. Some even suggest these are portraits of extraterrestrials and their interactions with early canyon people.

In his book “Desert Solitaire,” Edward Abbey describes the art as “apparitions out of bad dreams.”

“These are sinister and supernatural figures, gods from the underworld perhaps who hover in space, or dance, or stand solidly planted on two feet carrying weapons — a club or sword. Most are faceless but some stare back at you with large, hollow disquieting eyes.”

Whoever did this planned carefully. They roughed up the surface so the paint would stick and chose a spot away from the prevailing winds that ruin so much rock art. In some cases, they made grooves around the pictographs to keep the paint from running.

“In most cases these rock art panels follow logical travel routes and are found in canyons — canyons have water, shelter and better food resources,” Cox said.

After marveling at all this we began the steep, laborious hike out of the canyon. My children traded theories on what they had seen along the way. They suggested this could be a burial ground or prehistoric hermitage.

The beauty of a mystery is that one guess is as good as the next.

But we were certain of one thing: This was a place of great spiritual significance, a nexus or doorway that let these ancient people experience their gods and spirits in a profound way.

And for a few hours, alone and far from anywhere, we were privileged to peer through that doorway with them.