• Spires of Cedar Mesa sandstone in Chesler Park (Needles District)

    Canyonlands

    National Park Utah

History of Horseshoe Canyon

photo: Detail from the Great Gallery rock art panel
Detail from the Great Gallery rock art panel
NPS Photo by Tom Gray
 

The archeology of Horseshoe Canyon spans thousands of years of human history. Artifacts recovered from sites in this area date back as early as 9000-7000 BC, when Paleoindians hunted megafauna like mastodons and mammoths across the southwest.

Native American rock art found in Horseshoe Canyon is most commonly painted in a style known as “Barrier Canyon.” This style is believed to date to the Late Archaic period, from 2000 BC to AD 500. During this time, nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers continued to make Horseshoe Canyon their seasonal home.

During later periods, the Fremont and ancestral Puebloan cultures left their own distinctive rock art in the canyon, but their presence was brief in comparison and final abandonment had occurred by AD 1300.

The Great Gallery is the best known and most spectacular of the Horseshoe Canyon panels. This well-preserved site includes both pictographs (painted figures) and petroglyphs (figures etched in the rock with a sharp stone). The tapered, life-size figures, lacking arms and legs and frequently containing intricate designs, are characteristic of the Barrier Canyon style.

Though Horseshoe Canyon is most famous for its rock art, the canyon’s history has many chapters. Hundreds of years after the prehistoric artists left the area, Europeans arrived. Outlaws like Butch Cassidy made use of Horseshoe Canyon in the late 1800s, taking refuge in the confusing network of canyons, especially those around Robbers Roost to the southwest.

In the early 1900s, ranchers built several stock trails into Horseshoe so cows and sheep could reach water and feed in the canyon bottom. Eventually, the ranchers constructed a pumping operation to fill water tanks on the canyon rim. Many of these modifications are still visible today.

Prospectors explored the area in the mid-1900s, improving many stock trails to accommodate vehicles and drill rigs. Though they searched the rock layers for oil and other minerals, no successful wells or mines were ever established around Horseshoe Canyon.

After being added to Canyonlands National Park in 1971, grazing and mineral exploration in Horseshoe ended. Today, park visitors descend the old ranching trail and marvel at the history of this magnificent canyon.

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