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.
Dozens of figures, some larger than life, some small, were splayed across the rock for some 200 feet, painted by some long-ago anonymous artist-shaman-who knows what.
Here was a human figure playing an instrument and there two people seeming to grasp a pole between them. Dancing? Fighting? There were lines and dots and bighorn sheep and a dog.
At one end of the rock wall was a grouping of supremely intimidating anthropomorphs known as the Holy Ghost panel. Legless, armless trapezoid figures floated and somehow beckoned, standing 7 feet tall.
It wasn’t a great leap to think of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Abbey used words like “demonic” and “disquieting.”
Art preserved in arid land
Rock art, found all over the world, is notoriously difficult to date and interpret. The current estimate for these figures is anywhere between 1,500 and 4,000 years old, maybe older. They are the archetype for what is called Barrier Canyon art because that used to be the name of Horseshoe Canyon.
Who painted them is, of course, mostly mystery, although there’s a small industry of academics and others thinking about that question. What is known is that the art was there before the ancient Fremont people thrived in this region and long before the more modern Ute Indians.
Painted pictographs like these and carvings known as petroglyphs abound in the Southwest, preserved in dry, remote deserts. The art is always in danger of being shot up, added to, broken off and otherwise desecrated, so it’s a reward to see a large, mostly undisturbed panel like this.
If you’re familiar with the magnificent bulls and horses of Lascaux and Altamira in Europe, a comparison flits through your mind. Those are much older and, with their perspective and motion and realism, stupendous.
Here, you sit and stare and consider the makers. As the minutes tick by your appreciation grows. These paintings are — I hate to say primitive — seemingly from another planet.
You can picture yourself in this arid land, hunting bighorn sheep with atlatls, predecessors to bows and arrows. Maybe you’re starting to grow corn, squash and beans and thinking about how to bring in water reliably. Maybe neighbors are intrusive and threatening.
You start to wonder what you might have come up with, living in that world and confronted with these massive walls for a canvas.
It’s worth the hike to see what someone else did.
Dave Peters is a Minnesota Public Radio News editor who frequents the West.