Round Trip Distance: 7 miles
Elevation: 4671 - 5337 feet
Cellphone: 0-3 bars
Usage: Hiking - Equestrian - No Dogs
Usage: No camping within Horseshoe Canyon
Time: 5 hrs.
Facilities: Vault Toilet
Trailhead: Horseshoe Canyon
View Horseshoe Canyon in a larger map
Horseshoe Canyon, formerly named Barrier Canyon, lies within an annexed section of Canyonlands National Park. The canyon is home to one of the most spectacular collections of rock art in the world. The early inhabitants of the canyon, as dated by the rock art and artifacts that have been collected, date back to a time 7,000 - 9,000 years ago. And, as if that isn't enough to attract your attention and wake up your inward explorer, there are also dinosaur tracks and fossils.
Approach: Horseshoe Canyon is located in east central Utah within an annex of Canyonlands National Park between Moab and Hanksville. The last 30 miles to the trailhead is on a dirt road that is normally accessible to passenger cars. The trailhead can be found by driving west on Interstate 70 from Green River, Utah, to exit 149. Turn left after exiting the interstate on UT-24 W toward Hanksville. Continue on UT-24 W for 24.8 miles and then turned left again. This turn is just past the turn for Goblin Valley State Park. This is where the 30 miles of dirt road begins. There is a sign that mentions Horseshoe Canyon so that you know you are on the right road. Follow this road for about 23 miles before coming to a kiosk at a fork in the road. Take the left fork and follow it for 5.8 miles to the turn off for Horseshoe Canyon. There is another sign at this turn to let you know I you are still on the right road. Follow this road for 1.7 miles to the trailhead.
Note: I was able to average about 40 MPH on most of the dirt road. The entire drive, once I left UT-24 W took just under 1 hour. The last mile of the road was the roughest and was blown in with sand in a few spots. If you click on the Google Map link, above, and click on the trailhead, you can select 'Get Directions' and make your own map that begins wherever you like.
According to the sign the trail descends 750 feet into the canyon. My GPS readings showed the change in elevation to be more like 650 feet but regardless I found it to be one of the most pleasant slopes to descend in a long time. It takes 1.54 miles for the trail to reach the wash where the travel levels off.
There was a circle of rocks in the middle of the trail, about a half mile from the trailhead, that encircles a dinosaur footprint. Most people were missing this on the way down. It is probably because the views are so spectacular that they aren't looking down at the trail that much. It is pretty easy to notice while hiking back out though.
Get a load of these spectacular views.
Most of the first mile of trail leading down into the canyon is on slick rock. For the last half mile of the descent the trail is a beautiful orange-brown sand. While it is pretty to look at it is a lot tougher to hike in.
Once the trail reaches the seasonal stream bed of Barrier Creek it is all sand and much like walking on the beach. The length of the hike from this point is about 2.25 miles one-way to visit all four sites including the 'Great Gallery'.
Just under one half mile up the wash is the first rock panel named the 'High Gallery'. I put each of the sites into their own slideshow to make them more distinguishable.
After the trail leaves the High Gallery it crosses to the other side of the canyon and just a little up stream to the Horseshoe Shelter site. The kiosk details the excavation of a dwelling that was completed at this location.
Before you get to the next site there is a dinosaur track along the way that is easy to miss. The trail crosses an expanse of slick rock on one of the bends. There is a ring of rocks encircling a track but it can be blown over with sand. There is a prominent rock that is hard not to notice so you can use it as your marker. The canyon was narrow enough at this point that my GPS wasn't getting enough satellites to get accurate coordinates so I couldn't really create a waypoint to mark the location.
I could probably do a little research and find out what species they attribute these tracks to.
The Alcove Site is the next stop along the way. If you walk all the way down to the far end of the alcove there is an easy path that leads up onto the bank so you can get a closer look at the drawings.
The Great Gallery is the last site on the trail. Keeping in mind bad GPS reception I'm putting the Great Gallery Site at about 1.1 miles past the Alcove Site. The figures at the Great Gallery appear to vary between a pantheon of various god figures to more hauntingly stoic genealogies of 'carrot' people. I took a lot of head shots of the more prominent figures and zoomed in on some of the objects painted on their bodies. I'm hoping to put together a page of rock art from various locations with panoramas and high resolution pictures.
This approximately 8 foot tall figure is dubbed the 'Holy Ghost'. It is believed that this figure was created by the artists putting the paint in their mouths and blowing it onto the rock with pressure to give it it's unique textured effect.
There was shade readily available in most parts of the canyon and a nice breeze that was not only refreshing but also adequately dispersing the bugs. I don't think there were any mosquitoes and I wasn't bothered by gnats. There were a few flies but I think they were mainly following a couple on horseback.
Just to drive home the advice to never pitch your tent in a wash, even though it's not allowed here anyway, you can see the high water line from previous flash floods. The water occasionally can run 6-8 feet deep through the canyon in the narrow sections.
The above picture shows a section of a vertebrae that was exposed in some Dakota Sandstone within a half mile of the trailhead. I could follow it for about 8 feet before it disappeared. There were also other fossils nearby. None of the fossils were marked and none of them were being protected. Maybe they are too common place to warrant any additional care. The vertebrae almost exactly resembles an exhibit at The Trail Through Time in Rabbit Valley.
Horseshoe Canyon contains a treasure of rock art with a touch of Jurassic Park. The canyon by itself is a great place to hike and explore. You might want to bring a pair of binoculars and you should definitely bring a whole lot of water. I went through 100 ounces of water and 80 ounces of Gatorade during my 5 hours of hiking with the temperatures in the low 90's F. If you would like to see Horseshoe Canyon for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.