In a sense, the genesis for this trip was a report I read here on ExPo about a year ago posted by Willman, Moody, and Kcowyo. Their report rekindled a desire I’ve had to visit the Maze that dates back to a long, long time ago when I first read Edward Abbey’s account of his visit to the area in Desert Solitaire. Back then I didn’t even own a truck, much less a 4x4, and my backcountry adventures usually involved lugging a backpack around for a week or two in the Sierras. Thoughts of visiting the Maze were tucked away for some time in the future.
I emailed a link to the trip report to our fellow off-road adventurers Mike & Denny. Up until then our off-road adventures had all been of a shorter and more local variety; two to three days at a time in the Inyo Mountains, Big Bear, or the Anza Borrego desert. I wasn’t too sure if they would be up for a long trip that required this level of commitment. It’s not an expedition across the Sahara, but it still would be a big step up from our previous adventures.
Mike’s reply was simple and to the point: “When are we going?”
And so began several months of pouring over maps to develop an itinerary, discussions about menus and logistics, and consultations with the experienced folks here on ExPo about matters large and small for a trip to the Maze. We ended up settling on an itinerary where we would camp for two nights at each of three locations, which would allow us to see Horseshoe Canyon, as well as giving us time to explore a couple different locations in the Maze on foot. Leaving aside travel to and from Utah, we’d need to be self-sufficient for 7 days/6 nights, while covering about 185 miles through some of the most remote terrain in the lower 48. Definitely not a long weekend in the familiar San Gabriel Mountains!
On our departure day Mike & Denny arrived with their TJ loaded to the gills. We dealt with a few last minute packing arrangements, moving some cold food items they had brought into our fridge. We double checked our lists one last time, and hoping everything was accounted for we were finally on our way to Utah.
Our plan was to have a relaxing drive from So Cal to the Horseshoe Canyon trailhead over the course of most of a couple days. We arrived in Cedar City on Friday night having driven the last hour or so in blustery rain. I’d been watching the Utah weather all month hoping for the rains to stop. I don’t normally think of October as being a month of pretty much solid rain in Utah, but I don’t think there was a completely dry week in the first three weeks of the month.
Saturday dawned with gray skies and intermittent showers as we continued up the 15, but the weather cleared somewhat as we headed west on US70 towards Green River. Even though it was a few miles out of our way, we detoured through Green River for the sole purpose of having burgers at Ray’s Tavern. We discovered the excellent fare on offer there on our trip to the San Rafael Swell last year, and couldn’t pass up the chance for a second visit while we were in the neighborhood.
Great burgers here!
From Green River we headed down to Hanksville to top off our gas tanks at the Hollow Mountain gas station, definitely one of the more unique gas stations you are likely to visit.
Hollow Mountain gas station, complete with dinosaurs
Heading back north a short distance we finally arrived at the turnoff to Horseshoe Canyon, and the Maze. The weather was still holding for us, but barely. We could see storms dumping to the west over the sandstone bluffs of the San Rafael Reef, but skies in the direction of Horseshoe canyon were a little brighter. We quickly aired down and began the drive to the Horseshoe Canyon trailhead. We did find a few patches of mud along the way, and periodically passed through gullies cut across the road, both testimony to the unsettled weather that had been lingering over Utah for most of October.
Finally, we're in the dirt!
Arriving at the trailhead for Horseshoe Canyon we were surprised to find 6 or 7 parties camped in the area already. We found a clear and mostly level spot and after setting up camp relaxed over a few beers and some snacks. After the long drive, this finally felt like vacation. We talked to a couple of our neighbors and it sounded like many were “locals” who were there for a quick weekend getaway and would probably be heading out the next morning. Before sundown we did have a brief shower, but were able to wait it out huddled under the trailer awning. After the rain stopped we built a campfire, a luxury we would not be able to enjoy once we entered the Maze district itself. The full moon rose as the clouds were clearing treating us to some interesting nighttime skies.
Threatening weather at Horseshoe Canyon
The plan for Sunday was to hike into Horseshoe Canyon to see one of the most outstanding examples of Barrier Canyon style rock art found in North America. Jodi and I had hiked the canyon last year, but were up for another visit and wanted give our friends a chance to see the Great Gallery as long as we were in the area. Just as we were gathering up the last of our hiking gear and stuffing lunch in our packs, Canyonlands park ranger Lily pulled up in her NPS pickup and announced she was available to lead a hike down to the Great Gallery. After a quick conference amongst ourselves we agreed to make the hike with her.
Shortly after reaching the canyon floor we came to the High Gallery, so named because it’s currently well above canyon floor level.
The High Gallery
Barrier Canyon style art is named after the canyon in which we were hiking. Horseshoe Canyon was originally called Barrier Canyon by early ranchers in the area because it formed a barrier between the San Rafael desert area west of the canyon, and grazing areas on the High Spur to the east. The creek in the canyon still does carry the name Barrier Creek. The term Barrier Canyon Style was first applied by Polly Schaafsma to describe several rock art sites in Utah, including those we would visit on this hike.
According to the Barrier Canyon Style Project, this rock art style is noted for the following characteristics: 1) Its two dozen or so large rock art sites (galleries of 90 to 300 feet in length) exemplified by the Great Gallery and the Harvest Panel in Canyonlands National Park. 2) The consistent attention given to aspects of visual form and virtuoso painting techniques. 3) Its life-size to heroic scale anthropomorphic figures such as the Holy Ghost. 4) An unusually large number of variations, variety of form-types, particularly spirit figures, within the image-inventory of the style. 5) Compositions apparently representing friendly associations of animal, bird, snake and plant images with anthropomorphic spirit figures.
Barrier Canyon art is thought to have been created by the archaic culture that predated the Ancient Puebloans (what we used to call Anasazi). The archaic culture was a nomadic hunter-gatherer society that predated the development of agriculture in the region. Barrier Canyon style art is typically dated at 2000 to 4000 years old, with some estimates even older. Near Horseshoe Canyon they have found a small clay figurine in a similar style to the art that was dated to 7000 years old, which may give another indication of the age of the art. Lily told us that they recently allowed a scientist to take a small sample of paint from the Great Gallery for dating. The sample was taken from a piece of rock that fell off the wall and landed face down, so it’s not seen by the public. They are still awaiting the results, which may help to improve the accuracy of dating the Great Gallery.
Right across the canyon from the High Gallery is the Horseshoe Gallery. This is the only location in the canyon where archeologists have found remains off a settlement indicating people lived there at one time.
We were lucky enough to catch the cottonwoods at near peak color, which made for an idyllic walk in the canyon.
Hiking in Horseshoe Canyon
The next art is found at the alcove gallery, and then a short walk up the canyon from there one comes to the Great Gallery itself. The Great Gallery is painted over a 200 foot long stretch of the canyon, and contains about 20 life size anthropomorphic figures, along with a large number of smaller figures, animals, and symbols. The art at the Great Gallery clearly shows the characteristic “virtuoso art” noted by the Barrier Canyon Project. Many contain complex designs done in multiple colors, and there are some that are a combination of paint (pictographs) and pecked rock art (petroglyphs). 2000 year old mixed-media art at its best, these images definitely took some time and effort to create.
Great Gallery figure showing use of both painting and pecking techniques
One of the benefits of hiking Horseshoe with a Ranger was that we were allowed to go behind the chains that keep people about 15 feet away from the art, and climb up to the ledge right at the level of the art. Up close you can see a level of detail in many of the figures that isn’t apparent from a distance.
The famous Holy Ghost panel at the Great Gallery
Another section of the Great Gallery
We left Lily at the Great Gallery with some other hikers who had come down after us, and made our way back down the canyon and soon reached the 800’ climb back up to camp. The climb out of the canyon isn’t too bad, and we were soon back at camp were a few adult beverages waited, along with a dinner of grilled steak, skillet fried potatoes, and a fresh salad courtesy of Denny the salad queen.
Men cooking meat
As we sat around the fire after dinner the wind began to pick up. Shortly after we retired it kicked into high gear and remained that way for most of the night. Sleep was near impossible as the wind raged all night long. In the morning we would both recount stories of waking out of a semi-sleep state to a loud whine that sounded eerily like a jet engine readying for takeoff. Around 4:00 AM it started raining, and continued for about 3-4 hours. We would later learn that over at the Hans Flat ranger station they had gusts to 50 mph that night.
We slept a little later than planned waiting for the weather to clear. By about 8:30 the rain had tapered off and we crawled out of our tents to survey the situation. Still lots of clouds, but some bright spots were evident as well. We set about getting some coffee made, and about that time a Ranger arrived. He had just come from Hans Flat, and told us we wouldn’t have any trouble with the road conditions between Horseshoe and there, but whether they would recommend we head down into the Maze that day would depend on how the weather developed. Realizing the weather had set us up for a late start, we gulped down our coffee with some granola bars, packed up the few remaining items we’d left out overnight, and hit the road a little unsure about where we’d end up that night.