Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/11/2010 (3768 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
HORSESHOE CANYON, UTAH -- At the risk of sounding like a low-grade Canadian Edward Abbey, you could spend a lifetime exploring southeastern Utah's canyonlands and never get bored.
Some of the most amazing scenery on the planet sprawls out across this sparsely populated but spectacular expanse of the U.S. southwest, where arches, needles, spires, slot canyons, gorges and mountains present a bewildering array of options for hikers, backpackers, paddlers, climbers, cyclists and canyoneers.
Given the natural beauty, it almost seems weird to extol the virtues of a piece of this landscape that's been altered by human beings. But a trip through the region must include a day-hike to the Great Gallery, a rock face that contains the largest and most impressive collection of pre-European rock etchings and paintings in North America.
If you've paddled around northwestern Ontario or eastern Manitoba, you may have encountered pictographs, which around here usually take the form of small ochre paintings just above the water line.
The Great Gallery is as wide as a city block and contains an array of humanoid figures that stand up to three metres tall.
I gasped when I turned the corner in Horseshoe Canyon and took my first glimpse of the unearthly, barrel-shaped figures that archeologists associate with the Barrier Canyon style of archaic art. It's hard not to gasp at First Nations graffiti that dates back as far 1800 B.C.
Most of these figures are painted. Some are etched into stone. Several have hollowed-out eyes and three-dimensional patterns within their bodies, created through the use of both etching and painting.
The presence of mountain lion, snake and abstract figures -- as well what appears to be attempts to scratch out some of the paintings -- suggest the people who created the rock art had a lot of time on their hands and a considerable imagination.
Conspiracy theorists see these figures as proof of alien existence. The First Nations of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado see the art as a cultural and spiritual legacy. Hikers are allowed to merely wander in and be awed.
The relatively remote location of this canyon means no more than 50 people ever visit over the course of a single day. And that's probably what has preserved the Great Gallery.
Five years ago, a visitor noticed a leather pouch peeking out of the sand below the gallery. In turned out to be 1,100 years old and full of knife points and edible seeds.
Park rangers say they were amazed the visitor turned it in. But the kind of people who would travel this far just to see the Great Gallery obviously understand the importance of the place.
The Great Gallery
Get there: To reach Canyonlands National Park, you need to make your way to southeastern Utah. From Winnipeg, fly United or Westjet to Phoenix or Las Vegas and spend a week or more touring northern Arizona and southern Utah parks. Crowds are small during the winter, due to what Americans consider cold weather.
The Horseshoe Canyon Unit, a detached section of Canyonlands National Park, is a 2.5-hour drive west from Moab, Utah or a two-hour drive east from Torrey, Utah. The easiest access to the Horseshoe Canyon trailhead is a 48-kilometre dirt road that runs east from Utah Highway 24. The poorly signed turnoff is located halfway between the towns of Hanksville and U.S. Interstate 70.
In dry conditions, the Horseshoe Canyon road is accessible by any vehicle. After heavy rains, you'll need a four-wheel drive. There's a vault toilet but no gas or other services at the canyon trailhead.
On the trail: The walk to the Great Gallery is a 10.5-kilometre day hike - 5.25 kilometres each way. You'll descend 235 metres into Horseshoe Canyon and then walk along the sandy canyon bottom. Along the way to the Great Gallery, you'll pass three smaller rock-art panels. Make sure to stop and check them out. A park ranger is often stationed at the Great Gallery, both to explain the art and to prevent vandalism. Don't be shy about asking questions.
Difficulty: This day hike is rated moderate, but only because of the effort required to walk on sand and ascend the canyon wall at the end of the walk. If you go between April and October, head out in the morning to avoid the midday desert sun. Navigation, however, is extremely easy: Follow the footpath to the canyon bottom and walk south to the Great Gallery.
Where to stay: Camping is not permitted in the Horseshoe Canyon Unit, but you can camp at the trailhead, which is just outside the national park boundary. The nearest hotels are located in Hanksville and Green River. Further away, Torrey and Moab are more built up and better geared for tourists.