Mysterious beauty in Utah's Horseshoe Canyon

  • Article by: DAVE PETERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 20, 2014 - 1:33 PM

Ghostly paintings on rock walls bring an eerie air to Horseshoe Canyon, a remote parcel in Canyonlands National Park.

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A full moon rises over the La Sal Mountains in southeastern Utah. Seen from the lip of Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park.

Photo: Dave Peters • Special to the Star Tribune,

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Big rains had just hammered parts of Utah and Colorado last September, and I was calling from Minnesota to the remote Hans Flat Ranger Station in Canyonlands National Park. I wanted to know the status of the route to Horseshoe Canyon.

A 32-mile dirt road, whose quality varies with the mile and the season, leads to what on the map is a little chip of land northwest of and unconnected to the main park in southeastern Utah.

Mention the beauty of southern Utah and most people think quickly of the rock spires and canyons of Zion and Bryce Canyon. And lots of people have visited Arches National Park and the desert of Canyonlands, where the Colorado and Green rivers meet in the wilderness.

But not many get to Horseshoe Canyon, site of one of the most impressive examples of rock art in the United States.

If you time it right and have a little determination, you can stand by yourself in front of the Great Gallery, a collection of giant, ghostly images — painted onto sandstone walls thousands of years ago — that still have the power to send shivers up your back. I was planning a trip to Utah and wanted to spend an extra day exploring it, but it didn’t look like I was going to time it right.

“The road is covered with mud. We’re not advising that anybody go in there,” the voice from the ranger station said.

I tried again a few days later.

“Good to go if you have four-wheel drive. Look out for the quicksand.”

I made one more call when I landed in Salt Lake City, after days of sunny weather and the opportunity for the Bureau of Land Management to get a road grader in. “Perfectly fine for two-wheel drive.”

Buoyed by the news, I stocked up in Price with grocery deli cold chicken, a $9 camp chair from Big 5 Sporting Goods and a bottle of Utah-made Outlaw Red “ranch table wine.” Five hours south of Salt Lake City, the road ended late in the afternoon in a wide spot at the lip of the canyon.

The wide open area serves as a no-frills campground, so I pitched my one-person tent. A park service volunteer climbed up the trail out of the canyon, congratulated me on getting the best room in the house and left me alone for the night.

To the south rose the Henry Mountains, the last named range in the Lower 48 states. To the east were the La Sals, and as the sun set behind me, a massive orange full moon seemed to leap from the mountain range, supposedly named by Spanish explorers who mistook the snow on top for salt.

Alone in the Great Gallery

All night long, a silver, silent landscape of rock lit up, and before the moon fell onto a ridge to the west, I was on my way down 800 feet toward the canyon floor.

This was, by the way, the place where Aron Ralston was rescued in 2003 after a desert misadventure forced him to saw off his arm with a dull knife and then yielded the book and the movie “127 Hours.” I didn’t realize that at the time, but I wasn’t going quite as far as he went anyway.

It took about 45 minutes to hike to the bottom, where the trail ran, still wet from the torrents and even pocked here and there with remnants of quicksand. The sticky pull can be a little unnerving when you step in it, but quicksand isn’t the movie deathtrap it’s typically portrayed to be. As Edward Abbey wrote in “Desert Solitaire,” you can walk across quicksand if you keep moving. If you stop you can sink a ways and get stuck, but it doesn’t pull you down and drown you.

Sheer red and tan sandstone walls rose on either side of the narrow canyon. Rabbitbrush and an occasional aster and sunflower lined the sand-and-rock creek bed, and mule deer stood silently in the shade. Here and there I saw examples of odd-shaped purple figures, almost human, seeming to emerge from the rock they were painted on.

After a couple of hours, I came to a cluster of cottonwoods filled with flycatchers flitting up for an unending meal of insects. Behind the trees stood the Great Gallery, and for now, it was mine alone.

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