The Barrier Canyon style of Native American rock art is so distinctive, so beautiful, and so evocative that it is widely regarded as the pinnacle of North American pre-historic art. The Barrier Canyon that this style of art is named for is now called Horseshoe Canyon, and it is located in a tiny and remote unit of Canyonlands National Park in central Utah. The long dirt road drive to the trailhead and the length of the hike itself is daunting to many, but this should definitely be on the short list of high-priority Utah adventures. It is worth every bit of the effort to get here.
First of all, while the graded dirt road to Horseshoe Canyon is fairly long, definitely remote, and becomes impassible after a heavy rain, the road is generally quite good, and passenger cars can easily average 35 mph when the road is in good condition. The route is scenic in places and has signs at the few important junctions. There are a couple of very primitive campsites at the trailhead, and there is generally a park volunteer camping there with radio equipment should an emergency arise. The volunteers also help protect the archeological sites from vandalism and help educate visitors about the art.
The park signs claim the hike is 6 miles round-trip, but it is actually nearly 4 miles one-way to the Great Gallery. There is a steady but manageable drop of about 500 feet to the canyon floor and an additional 100 foot drop as you hike through the canyon. The way back can feel long, and in summer it is exposed and brutally hot. The views going down are marvelous, and the walk through the canyon is very beautiful. Make sure you look for the dinosaur tracks along the trail about 0.2 miles from the trailhead.
It would be a great hike even without the rock art, but the art is really magnificent. There is something unsettling about the abstractly human, other-worldly figures populating the galleries that is hard to describe. These images are believed to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old. Some of the figures are between 6 and 7 feet tall, and the Great Gallery is over 120 feet long. It is easy to see why this is considered one of the finest rock art sites in North America.
There are four main galleries of art, each distinctive and interesting. The first is the High Gallery, which is reached about twenty minutes after the mile-long descent, and the second is not much farther along on the other side of the canyon. The third gallery at the back of a huge alcove is very interesting for the early 20th-century grafitti that is mixed in with the ancient images, and this is a nice cool place to rest before the 1.25-mile trek to the end. Save time to linger at the Great Gallery and wonder, as many others have, whether the figures are shamans, spirit guides, or space aliens.
Note: Horseshoe Canyon is a low risk for flash flooding, but it is very remote. Bring plenty of water, especially in summer, and check the weather forecast before embarking on the adventure.