UTAH: Ponder Prehistoric Petroglyphs in Canyonlands

The desert is like a giant, open air museum, preserving things that have long since passed away. While the pueblo builders may be more widely recognized, near Moab, Utah is another, older mark of ancient human settlement in the form of petroglyphs at Horseshoe Canyon.

(I have used a map from Climb Utah as my park map has disappeared. They have some great information on this location too so check them out! http://climb-utah.com/Roost/horseshoe.htm)

Location: Canyonlands, near Moab, Utah. Specifically Horseshoe Canyon.

How you get there: You can reach Horseshoe Canyon trailhead with a 2 wheel drive vehicle, but you will have to be careful in spots doing so. Your best bet is to google the location and check the park website as road conditions change. The trail head has a kiosk which helps make it obvious, and you park practically right on the rim of the canyon.

Time for hike: The distance is 7 miles roundtrip, but expect to take about 2-3x as long as you usually do to cover this distance due to heat, the number of petroglyphs to check out, and the sandy bottom terrain.This is an out and back hike to the Grand Gallery. 

Best season to do this hike: Early morning, or really any time it’s going to be cool!

Trails to Take

When you get to the trail head the trail heads off down the side of the canyon, looping past an old stock water tank that used to be for sheep.

Old sheep stock tank waterer

As you continue, keep an eye out on the trail for dinosaur foot prints. The park rangers who come through often arrange a circle of stones around them to make them easier to spot.

While the map below gives you a general idea of where the cool stuff is, the easiest way to find the petroglyphs is to just bring a buddy and one person takes one wall and another one takes the other. The buffalo panel is kind of behind a rock sitting below the canyon wall, and the alcove panel is actually in a cut out alcove on the side of the canyon wall.


While you can travel beyond the Grand Gallery, keep in mind how much time you have to get back to the car and the fact that the forestry service won’t come rescue you if you go much beyond it.


  1. While this should be obvious from all the signage and stuff, the petroglyphs are no touch. And don’t carve your own initials in the wall next to them (like some guys in the 1800’s did). But I put it here anyway because you will be fined out the whazoo and I actually work with some people who would touch the petroglyphs. Note these are not the people I take hiking with me.
  2. Start early. If you end up starting the trail late, pick a nice shady spot and wait till the evening to hike out. I did quite an impressive near death experience on the hike out because I was too stupid to wait…and we never did see the Japanese guy with the camera we hiked out with come off the trail…
  3. Their is a semi-feral cattle herd wandering the area above the canyon rim, which includes a number of uncastrated bulls that have a distressing tendency to stand in the middle of the road.
  4. If you are driving a 2 wheel drive vehicle watch out for patches of sand on the road in.
  5. There is no water out here. None. Bring a lot, (we consumed over a gallon on the hike) and make sure you have a way to keep it cool, (overheated water plagued our trip).
  6. Dogs are not allowed (but equids are)
  7. There is a ranger posted at the Grand Gallery who helps keep the rock art in pristine condition and can lend you binoculars if you want an up close and personal investigation of the petroglyphs. He’s also the guru for other exciting petroglyph locations in the area.
  8. While you can probably do the 30 miles in with a 2 wheel drive vehicle if you have experience driving on challenging dirt roads and sand, bring the 4 wheel drive if you have it.
  9. A unique thing about canyons in this part of the world is they can flash flood when there isn’t a cloud in the sky if there is rain coming down in the mountains or further up the canyon. So check the weather before you walk into a canyon with walls so high you can’t climb out in a hurry.
  10. This is definitely a human only hike! While I may take goats in many many places that goats probably don’t belong, this area is home to goat related wild species. The park service will not appreciate the presence of domesticated caprines in the vicinity.

In sum: If Facebook existed in prehistory it probably looked something like the petroglyphs at Canyonlands. Imagine liking Mr. He Who Calls the Wind’s carvings of his most recent buffalo hunt.

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