Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

          A day at an art gallery can be inspirational.  But adventurous?  Unlikely, unless you’re considering a trip to The Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon, Utah.
          Horseshoe Canyon lies in a remote section of Canyonlands National Park.  The trailhead is accessed by traveling 32 miles of dirt roads from Utah Highway 24 and then it’s a 3.25 mile desert canyon hike to the gallery.  This hike, described as moderately strenuous, involves a 750 foot climb out of the canyon and much of the trail is soft sand, which can be tiring but is well worth the effort.

I'm heading into the canyon.  The 6.5 mile round trip hike
features stunning desert scenery.

This photo shows the immensity of the rocks
in Horseshoe Canyon.  Can you spot me in
the picture?  Look for the black arrow on the
bottom left—it's pointing right at me.

            The Great Gallery's pictographs—or rock paintings—span a hundred foot rock wall in a protected alcove and it’s the type of art that leaves one speechless—an archaeologist's dream.  The drawings are believed to be from 2000 to 7000 years old and were made by The Ancients, a group of hunter-gatherers (pre-ancestral Puebloans or Anasazi) who traveled this canyon for 7500 years.  Many of the figures on the wall are life-sized and some are pigmented.  Can you imagine a dye that lasts for thousands of years? 

         This collection of pictographs has endured for millennia due to its location under an alcove in a hard-to-access area.  While safeguarded from the elements, rock art is still vulnerable to vandalism by modern humans; to combat this problem park rangers and volunteers are stationed at the gallery.  Rangers and volunteers educate visitors and answer questions about the gallery as well.

          Archeologists are at a loss to interpret many of these renderings in stone. These images lead to endless speculation about the history and culture of a civilization far removed from our own.

The most famous panel in The Great Gallery.
Named "The Holy Ghost Panel" this artwork showcases a larger-than-life
mystical figure who appears to be a deity.  Are the other figures his followers?

What could these two life-sized figures represent?
One appears to have a crown, the other houses two fighting
ungulates inside his chest. 

Isn't this figure fascinating?  A healer?
A mother (or Mother Nature)? A cannibal?
Why is a bird perched on her right shoulder? 
Let your imagination run wild.

Is this a couple with the animals they've hunted
or are tracking?
Or are these ghostly figures "gods" of the hunt?

Before visiting The Great Gallery I thought all rock art was the same—a few etchings in the rock, some interesting, some not, maybe a couple intricate drawings thrown in among the stick figures.  And then I saw the artwork of The Ancients and was transformed into an admirer of this archaic artwork.  
After viewing this exhibit I think you’ll agree that rock art is neither boring nor all the same.  And I guarantee that even if you’re not an art aficionado you’ll never forget a day spent at this astonishing art gallery. 
How about you?  Have you seen rock art that captured your imagination?  That left you wondering—who were these ancient peoples and what were they trying to say?


          Interested in visiting The Great Gallery?  Read more about it by visiting this website:  http://www.utah.com/nationalparks/canyonlands/horseshoe_canyon.htm
A valuable resource when planning a rock art viewing tour is this book: Guide to Rock Art of the Utah Region: Sites with Public Access by Dennis Slifer.


  1. Hi Rita,

    I love this stuff! I'm such an archeology geek. Thanks for bringing back these terrific images and the details of your hike and talk with the rangers.

    As you say, it's thrilling when you realize how old these images are and that even a few have been lucky enough to be preserved for us to see them. I've managed to see some pictographs in the Valley of Fire outside Las Vegas. The rangers let you get up close to them, which is a treat. I also saw some in the Jordan desert, near the Seven Pillars of Wisdom rock outcropping (Lawrence of Arabia name this), though, sadly, a lot of modern humans had added their own (far less compelling) scratchings to the wall there. It always makes me wonder how much has been lost over the millennia.

    Another way to view ancient art is by renting Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" documentary. These caves in France can't be exposed to air (or tourism) for long, so his film is probably the only way to see these spectacular images by our not-so-distant ancestors!

    1. I'm happy to hear that you're an archeology geek, Vickie!

      I've never been to the Valley of Fire but it's an area I'd like to visit sometime.

      It is sad that modern humans have managed to deface and destroy so many ancient cultural relics. I wonder how many treasures of the past have been lost to bulldozers?

      Vandalism is everywhere, it seems. In the photos above, to the right of the figure with two animals in his chest you can see a black smudge running the length of the pictograph—evidence of a charcoal fire set by a father and son on a visit to The Great Gallery 20 years ago.

      I suppose we should be grateful that any pictographs and petroglyphs have survived into the 21st century!

  2. Now that is truly my kind of art gallery! Not only is it outdoors (my favorite place!), but it illustrates aspects of the lives of humans who walked this good Earth thousands of years ago. As you say, it is indeed "the type of art that leaves one speechless"!

    There were so many aspects of your posting that grabbed my attention, such as the fact that you need to drive 32 miles of dirt road to reach the trailhead! And yes, it is hard to fathom that the "ancients" concocted a dye which has endured over thousands of years. Simply amazing! And last, but certainly not least, what a humungous rock! Having a person (you, in this case) included in the photo really provides great perspective to its immensity!

    An exceptionally awesome posting, Rita!


  3. I appreciate your comments, John.

    It's nice to hear that many aspects of this post grabbed your attention!
    Horseshoe Canyon is definitely an attention-grabbing type of place and I feel fortunate to have been able to visit it twice.

    If you're ever in southeastern Utah, this amazing canyon and its treasures are worth a visit.


  4. These pictures were absolutely amazing. I can only imagine what it must have been like to have been there.

  5. Thank you for commenting, Meandu.
    I'm glad that you appreciated the pictures; it's one way to introduce this awe-inspiring place to others. Being there is person is, indeed, amazing!