Barrier Canyon-style rock art

Barrier Canyon-style rock art at the Great Gallery. 

In early April I received an email from Jon Horn inquiring about whether I would be interested in hiking into Horseshoe Canyon. Horseshoe Canyon is part of Canyonlands National Park. Within its canyon walls are housed some of the best Native American rock art in the West.

I quickly checked my calendar to see if I had anything that would conflict with an impromptu trip to Utah. I didn’t, so two days later Jon and I, along with Alan Reed, climbed into my Tacoma; destination Green River, Utah. Green River would put us within striking distance of Horseshoe Canyon.

After a truck stop breakfast early the next morning, we drove south on highway 24. Out in the middle of a broad desert we turned off on a well-traveled dirt road. Puffy, low clouds hovered over the burnt orange desert floor, and with the low morning sun peeking through the clouds, we witnessed a spectacular contrasting light show with the snow-covered Henry Mountains on the horizon.

The 30-mile dirt road to the Horseshoe Canyon trailhead was surprisingly smooth. The early morning was cool and partly cloudy — perfect for a long hike. The trail into Horseshoe Canyon is ledgey and sandy — it drops 700 feet in the first mile and a half.

Once on the canyon floor we headed up-canyon. Around the first bend we encountered a rock art panel high on the canyon wall. It consisted of several dozen figures painted with a reddish-brown paint.

The images are like others found throughout southern Utah and western Colorado. The glyph’s style has been referred to as Barrier Canyon Style. Many of the anthropomorphic figures have long, flowing bodies and large bulging eyes. They certainly have an other-worldly feel to them. Some of the figures are of recognizable images such as humans, mammals, birds and plants.

According to archaeologists who specialize in the study of rock art they represent a shamanistic belief system about which we know little. The Barrier Canyon Style is believed to be 1,500 to 4,000 years old.

We continued up-canyon — a short hike brought us to a shallow alcove filled with rock paintings and petroglyphs (pecked figures). These glyphs had a different look to them. Besides being different shades of red paint, the anthropomorphic figures had triangular or trapezoidal-shaped bodies.

This style of rock art has been attributed to the Fremont Culture that inhabited much of central and northern Utah between 700 and 2,000 years ago. One painting was a dead ringer for a mountain lion. Another set of figures depicted a hunting scene complete with a human holding a bow and arrow aimed at large animal figures.

The trail continued up-canyon along a slow-moving creek lined with cottonwood trees. Abundant precipitation this past winter provided a welcomed relief to a normally dry landscape. The wet sand also made hiking just a bit easier.

We stopped several times to observe the bird life in the canyon; early spring brings in the first wave of migrants from the south. We spotted a pair of prairie falcons, black-throated sparrows, Say’s phoebes, rock wrens, ruby-crowned kinglets and Lucy’s warblers.

About three and a half miles from the trailhead we arrived at the prime destination of our trip — the Great Gallery. Dozens of painted Barrier Canyon Style figures grace the wall of a large alcove — many are more than 7 feet tall. These large anthropomorphs are quite ornate with animal figures, geometric designs, head ornaments and large eyes adorning the figures. We all agreed that the rock art is some of the best we have ever seen.

The hike into the Great Gallery was challenging, especially the last leg of the trail — climbing out of the deep canyon. But, we all agreed it was worth the effort.

If you go: Do an online search “Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands National Park” for lots of information.

Bill Harris is a long-time resident of western Colorado and author of “Bicycling the Uncompahgre Plateau.”

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