As adventures go, this one didn’t start off very auspiciously. Long planned, constantly delayed, it seemed I would never make it into Horseshoe Canyon of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. And today, of all days, yet another roadblock loomed before me. But today, I would have none of that and pressed forward. I’m glad I did. It all worked out. Let’s back up and start more at the beginning.
Horseshoe Canyon is home to one of the, if not the, most significant rock art panels in the Southwest: the Great Gallery. Significantly, its sixty figures are six feet tall, and the gallery stretches almost three hundred feet long. It is impressive, to say the least. This panel contains both pictographs and petroglyphs. Pictographs are painted on the walls, while petroglyphs are carved or etched. The panel called to me across the years.
I’ve photographed many rock art sites over the year. However, this one, in particular, was always in the back of my mind. I knew I had to visit it, and the need to do so became more urgent as time passed.
Rock Art and the Barrier Canyon Style
The rock art of the Great Gallery is in the Barrier Canyon style. This style is exemplified by long panels with heroic figures. These figures are life-size or larger and feature several variations, particularly among the figures we consider sprit-like. And the Great Gallery is regarded as the prime example of the Barrier Canyon style.
The panel is relatively accessible, although it does require a seven-mile round-trip hike, the last part of which is straight up. However, I also wanted to be at the panel by myself, as I often do, to be alone and silent without interruption. This meant going in the offseason to lessen the likelihood of seeing other people. Also, the hot summers make the strenuous hike all the more challenging. Winter is ideal, but the snows also increase the difficulty, if not making getting there impossible. For me, spring and fall are my best bets.
I planned the trip several times, but a scheduling issue would arise each time, usually at the last moment. I was beginning to think that I should not make this journey. Finally, this fall, a window of opportunity popped up, and I went to Utah without a second thought. My thought was to get there while I could. I put my backpack together, gathered my gear, and was gone in a flash. No one could stop me now!
Previously, and I am unsure how I did this, I managed to twist my knee. The injury wasn’t enough to stop me from walking on it. Well, no, that’s not true. It was enough to stop me from walking normally. For weeks it had been bothering me, on and off. Some days it was OK, more or less, and other days it was decidedly not OK. Each morning was a little different, and I knew it would be fine sooner or later.
The Journey Begins
I drove to Green River, Utah, and stayed at a hotel there, providing a comfortable night before my hike. I woke up bright and early, and I do mean bright early. Not even the alarm clock was awake before me. I sprang out of bed and immediately discovered that my knee had decided that today was a good day to not bear any weight on it. This was a dilemma. The sensible option was to head back home.
Yeah, we both know that didn’t happen.
Limping around the hotel room, I gathered my backpack and ensured it was ready to go. I miraculously found a hot cup of coffee in the lobby. With that one discovery, the day was brighter already. I crawled into my SUV, started it up, and realized that even pressing the accelerator was painful. This was really not a good idea. I have had many adventures that were not a good idea, so why should this one be any different?
Ignoring my discomfort, I headed down the road to Horseshoe Canyon and the Great Gallery! I had reasonable directions, but it was dark out, meaning the world beyond my headlights wouldn’t exist for many more hours. That’s OK. I figured I knew where I was going. All I had to do was make one critical turn onto a sketchy dirt road, and I would be fine.
Once I missed the turn onto the dirt road I was expecting but didn’t see, I realized that my plan could have been more foolproof than it was. I thought there was a sign, but the darkness hid it if it was even there. I’m not admitting that I drove in circles for a few minutes hunting for that road, but I did turn around several times. I eventually found a likely candidate and decided this was the right road. Time to find out if my hunch was correct.
I was expecting a long, slow ride to the trailhead, and I wasn’t expecting the road to be marked. Meaning it would work out and I found the road, or it wouldn’t, and I took an aimless drive in the pre-dawn desert. I would know in about an hour. Either way, I headed off into the darkness and possibly into oblivion.
The road was rutted, bumpy, full of washboards, sandy, and everything a desert dirt road is supposed to be. Unexpectedly, after about a half hour, I found a sign and knew I was on the right road. My knee was no better, but neither was it any worse. I pressed on, now enjoying the ride and thinking about the hike ahead.
I made it to the trailhead as the sun was beginning to rise. So, parts of my plan were working out quite well. I was pleased as I wanted to be on the trail at first light. I stepped out of the SUV, realizing my knee would still not fully bear weight and would be a problem. But hey, what’s a strenuous seven-mile hike on a bad knee?
I changed into my hiking shoes, slugged my pack onto my shoulders, drank the last of my coffee, and locked the SUV.
Off I went into Horseshoe Canyon. I was committed now to seeing this journey through.
Into Horseshoe Canyon
I was worried that I might be unable to find my way, but that was an unfounded fear. It was easy to locate the trail, and I began my descent into the canyon, every step reminding me this was not ideal. I’ve done worse, although this one is right up there. Quickly, I made a beeline toward the Great Gallery. I knew there were other panels in the canyon, but I wanted to make my primary goal, then slowly work my way back.
I also worried that there might be others, but that did not come to pass. Although there were other cars already at the trailhead, they were camping and not on the trail. I was alone in the canyon, which was a magical experience. Although it was painful to walk and the descent into the canyon was difficult, I was also keenly aware of this incredible experience. The significance was not lost on me.
I enjoy hiking in the wilderness. There is something about having your pack on your back, a trail or even no trail, before you as you trek onward. Hiking in the early morning is even more enjoyable as I wander through the land as it is just waking up.
As I continued, the sun was still low on the horizon, and the autumn morning crisp. Eventually, the sun’s rays began to light up the top of the sheer sandstone walls of the canyon, and I enjoyed watching the sun slowly make its way down toward the canyon floor.
Sometimes I enjoy companionship on my adventures. But for others, I prefer to be alone with my thoughts to go deeper into the experience. To me, Horseshoe Canyon is one of those times best experienced without companionship.
I continued on the trail, wending through the canyon, drawing closer to the Great Gallery. I saw the other panels I needed to visit along the way and noted their location for exploration on the way back.
Eventually, there it was! The Great Gallery! It was everything I hoped it would be, and the moment I saw it, I simply stopped and stared. How could I not? I don’t know how long I stood there. My watch also stopped, and the moment was timeless.
Once I could breathe and time flowed again, I shrugged off my backpack and marveled at the panel. I examined it from left to right, then back again. I looked at every figure and then looked again, wondering what the message was. But I knew that the answer was not mine to understand. That’s OK. Some answers will never come.
The Great Gallery
I made the photograph I longed for all these years: the Great Gallery.
The left side of the panel is colloquially known as the Holy Ghost. I spent a lot of time staring at this section and made Holy Ghost, another photograph I had dreamed of. I could not be more pleased with how it came out. There are more details about this section, too, in the link.
My goal was accomplished; I journeyed into the past and marveled that the figures have survived until today. The experience remains etched into my mind. The photographs turned out even better than I had hoped, and I am beyond pleased. The reward was well worth the effort, and I breathed a sigh of relief at accomplishing this photograph.
Eventually, it was time to leave. That was not easy, both mentally and physically. My knee reminded me this was still not a good idea, and I knew the remaining three and a half miles would not be comfortable. I put my backpack on again, felt its weight on my knee, and headed back to the other panels.
High Gallery is another spectacle panel. Named for its location—high up on the canyon wall—it contains figures in the same style as the Great Gallery. As before, its message remains unclear and unknown to me. In this photograph, I stepped back to include the cottonwood tree in peak fall color, which I think adds to the scene.
There is a question of why this panel is so high up the wall. At a guess, it is a good fifty feet off the canyon floor. It could not have been easy to create this, leaving us to wonder why there, of all places? Why not put it closer to the canyon floor, just as all the other panels are?
And High Gallery contains a secret, too! Look very closely at the left side just above the cottonwood. Do you recognize the woman’s face in relief? And do you see what she is looking at?
Now the placement makes perfect sense. The woman is looking directly at the gallery, and now more of the meaning becomes clear. Not to rain on my own parade here, though, this is only one interpretation, and it may be sheer coincidence. However, it is the interpretation that I choose to go with.
I want to highlight another panel that I particularly like. The Horseshoe Gallery has similar enigmatic figures in the same Barrier Canyon style. As with the other panels, the meaning is not mine to know, yet I still enjoy the experience of staring deep into the past.
This was the last panel I photographed, and I carefully repacked my backpack for the hike out. I knew I had a steep ascent ahead of me, and it would not be easy, given my knee. I also knew there was nothing for it, so I set out, slowly aching step by slow step.
No sooner had I left the last panel than I heard voices coming from further up the canyon, and soon enough, I saw the hikers attached to them. We exchanged hellos, and they headed off searching for their own adventure. I soon encountered a larger group and then a small one. It’s as if the canyon knew I met my goal and deigned to let the rest of the world in.
I silently gave thanks for my solitude and wished my fellow hikers well.
The Final Ascent
I approached the steep ascent with trepidation, yet met it as I always do—via a single step forward, followed by all the rest. My knee did not appreciate the extra effort, and let me know that. But, I have, quite literally, crawled out of a canyon before, and this time I would walk on two feet, so I counted it as a victory. It was only a seven hundred feet ascent, but it took me a while.
I exited Horseshoe Canyon and returned to the SUV, grateful for the opportunity to sit down and rest. Eventually, I readied myself for the trip home, and the trailhead receded in my rearview mirror. It was past midday, and easy to find my way back to pavement and civilization and then home.
Today, as I write this just over a month later, my knee still hurts off and on, although it is slowly healing. The pain will eventually fade to nothing, but this experience will always be bright inside me.
Bring home Holy Ghost
You can learn more about the Holy Ghost panel, and even bring it home for yourself!