It’s only been a couple of years that I’ve been wanting to hike into Horseshoe Canyon, in the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park, to view some of the finest pictographs in North America. An hour-plus on paved roads, an hour on mesa-top dirt roads, and several hours of hiking took me there today.
Because we did not get our summer monsoon rains late last summer, and we have had no flash flooding this spring, this 6.5-mile hike feels a lot more like a 10-mile hike as deep soft sand fills the wash now. It’s challenging to hike in, but at least the temps in the 60s and 70s made it more bearable. This hike is brutal in the hot summer months.
Sara and I headed down with anticipation, keeping our eyes open for rattlesnakes that might be sunning themselves on the path. We saw only dinosaur footprints marked by cairns. (This did not disappoint us.) Occasional bird calls from halfway down the canyon enticed us onward. We had the place to ourselves; there was no noise other than our boots on the Navajo sandstone and intermittent puffs of wind rustling the blackbrush. A single primrose along the trail dispensed its perfume as we passed, and I knelt down to inhale deeply of this ephemeral scent. Signs of a higher water table greeted us at the bottom, as Fremont’s Cottonwoods were abundant.
The first panel of pictographs appeared as we stood at a fork in the trail and wondered which way to go. Dashing for the canyon walls, we found a hunting panel with a bow-and-arrow man. In this vicinity, that means post-1100 A.D., the most recent of this canyon’s art. My heart formed an immediate connection with the artist as I struggled to grasp his lifestyle.
We walked, mostly in silence, a couple of miles upstream before the prize came into view: “The Louvre of the Southwest,” a 200-foot panel of life-sized figures painted by Archaic peoples who lived between 2500 B.C. and 500 A.D. I stopped dead in my tracks and my jaw fell open. No matter how beautiful it looked in my books, I was now HERE. Goosebumps rose.
Image after image of elongated, limbless, floating creatures decorate the east canyon wall. Some are solid, some are extravagantly embellished, some are bug-eyed, some are eyeless, but all the torsos are just staring staring staring right back at me as I explore every one in turn. To me, the most riveting is the spectral outline (header photo) surrounded by dark figures. Was this a shaman? An important person? Part of their mythology? How do I interpret this without imposing my own cultural constraints on the artists of thousands of years ago?
We wondered aloud how the ancient people experienced this canyon, and whether it was significantly different thousands of years ago when the rock art was painted. What was the climate like? What water source did they depend on? How many Archaic people inhabited the area? What pigments did they use? Did these hunter-gatherers create incredible rock art because they had time on their hands? And… what were they trying to preserve?
The NPS has fashioned comfy stone benches underneath a stand of cottonwoods, and provides two chained ammo boxes of surprises: one with exquisite interpretive literature and a journal to sign, and the other with a pair of binoculars to view the mural more closely. We plunked ourselves down and pulled out our clementines, almonds, and pretzels… and gazed at, contemplated, scrutinized the Barrier Canyon Style art before us. An entire subset of rock art was named after this type site, as the current Horseshoe Canyon was formerly called Barrier Canyon. It is the epicenter for southwestern pictography, and it had our full attention.
Eventually another human being came into view. Rats. We weren’t the only ones in this canyon on a gorgeous spring day. Vacating the area to give him some private moments with the figures, we headed back downstream a mile to a site with further rock art in it.
This breathtaking alcove might be eight stories tall; the space was magnificent. I can’t describe it except to say that I instantly felt a strong connection with this space/place, and wanted to linger as long as humanly possible to experience its beauty and uniqueness. Very few spaces have had an effect that powerful on me. With great sadness I viewed the 20th-century vandalism incised over some of the pictographs here.
Time to head back to our car; it felt far away in both space and time. Our hearts were full, however, and profoundly changed for having had this opportunity to interact with the images left on porous rock by a nomadic people two to four millennia ago.