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How To Hike Horseshoe Canyon In Canyonlands

Man at Canyonland NP Horseshoe canyon sign.

Horseshoe Canyon is a separate area of Canyonlands National Park, far removed from the main sections of the park, the Island in the Sky and the Needles District. It contains some of the world’s most famous rock art.

To hike Horseshoe Canyon requires driving about 1.5 hours from the nearest city – either Green River, Utah, or Hanksville, Utah – with most or all of that driving on a dirt road. The hike is 6.5 miles out-and-back.

In this article, I’ll cover my experience hiking this incredible canyon.

About Horseshoe Canyon

Horseshoe canyon hike in Canyonlands.

Horseshoe Canyon is a separate and distinct section of Canyonlands National Park that is located on the other side of the Green River from the rest of the park. It’s just one, relatively small, canyon. It’s tiny in comparison to the other districts in the park.

Map of Canyonlands National Park

The canyon is well-known for its ancient rock art, which I’ll discuss below. The rock art is spectacular and is the reason this canyon is protected as part of Canyonlands. The rock art is the main draw of the canyon, but the canyon is so gorgeous the scenery alone makes it worth the long trek to get there.

  • Note: Petroglyphs are pecked into the rock, while pictographs are painted on the rocks. Collectively, they are often referred to as “rock art.”

The canyon was also most likely traversed by Butch Cassidy and his Hole-in-the-Wall gang. His hideout, Robbers Roost, is located nearby.

Getting There

Dirt road driving to Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park

There are two access points to Horseshoe Canyon: Green River, Utah, and Highway 24 near Hanksville, Utah.

You’ll have to drive 24 to 47 miles on a dirt road, depending on the route you choose. Google Maps will get you there whichever way you decide to go. However, you should ALWAYS print maps before you go.

Google Maps will work off-grid if you start it before you leave service areas, but to get back, you won’t have service to start your route. Never go off-grid without maps.

Canyonlands has this basic road map to help you out (see the full version).

Map showing how to get to Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park

From Green River

If you are accessing it from Green River, you can actually take either route to get there. Both options take about 1.5 hours.

45 miles on a dirt road

From Green River, go to the south end of town, and from Green River Avenue, turn south on Airport Road. It will take you over the railroad tracks, and quickly turn to dirt. Take your first left onto Lower San Rafael Road (marked by a kiosk sign), and follow it for over 40 miles to the trailhead. You do have to turn left onto Mailbox Road (again, marked with a sign) for the last 2 miles.

68 miles (blacktop and dirt)

You can also choose to drive west on I-70, turn south onto Hwy 24, then turn east onto BLM Road 1010 (dirt). This requires 31 miles of driving on a dirt road. Again, you’ll turn onto Mailbox Road for the last 2 miles.

From Hanksville

Map showing how to get to Horseshoe Canyon from Hanksville, UT

Hanksville is an even smaller town than Green River, so I imagine most people are coming from Green River. But if you’re coming from Hanksville, it’s about an hour and 18 minutes, and you’ll obviously take the BLM 1010 dirt road for 31 miles to get there.

Which Option is Best?

Most people I talked to access it from Hwy 24, and they thought I was crazy when I told them I came from the Green River side. Both times I visited, I drove the 45-mile dirt road from Green River to get to the canyon, then I drove the 31-mile dirt road to get to Hwy 24 to go back.

Neither road is all that scenic; both have their nice moments, but both are mostly on a flat top with nothing to obstruct your views of the horizon.

Both are graded for cars, but both can get bumpy. BLM 1010 from Hwy 24 does have a crazy section that goes through Sand Dunes (so strange!). Although it’s kind of cool, the sand does blow onto the road, which at times can make it difficult to pass through.

Sand dunes on road to Horseshoe canyon in Canyonlands National Park

Road Conditions

The dirt roads are graded for cars, so in theory, anyone should be able to visit Horseshoe Canyon.

However, it’s the dirt road and the distance that keep most people away, including the fact that the nearest cities are themselves a day’s drive from any major airport or city.

I don’t want to scare you away from doing this, but there are some things you need to be aware of so you don’t get into trouble.

Can I Do It in a Car?

The second time I was there, I saw a few cars at the trailhead, but most were trucks or SUVs.

The fact is that anytime you’re dealing with a dirt road, there could be washboard sections, or ruts from people driving it when it was wet.

There are plenty of sections where it’s smooth sailing, but there are still enough bumps in the road that I would not want to do it in my van or in a car. I would prefer a high-clearance vehicle.

Call Ahead

Either way, I highly recommend checking Canyonlands’ road conditions page, as well as calling the Hans Flat Ranger Station at 435-719-2218 (phones answered 8 am to 4:30 pm daily) about a week before your visit. The rangers have always been helpful and they will tell you what the road conditions are like.

It does receive snow in the winter, so it can be undrivable for much of the winter and get sloppy in the spring.

Watch for Weather

Finally, since it is a dirt road, you still need to use your own common sense. If it is storming on the day of your visit, do NOT drive out there!

The road is graded and has a gravel base, so it can handle some water. Both times I went, there was a small chance of rain. It sprinkled on me one day, but I was fine both times.

Prepare for the Worst

Since you’ll be 30-45 miles away from a paved road, you should be packing food, water, and emergency supplies. Fill up on gas, and know how to change a tire in case you get a flat.

Cell Service

Cell service is spotty at best, so don’t just assume you can call for help if you get into trouble. I have Verizon and there are times I had service, but I mostly didn’t.

Your safety is your responsibility.

Camping

There is a campground right at the trailhead for the hike. It’s actually located on BLM land, and anyone can camp there. There are no services, and the campsites aren’t even marked. There is one vault toilet.

I saw a few people camped there last time I visited.

Note: you cannot camp inside Horseshoe Canyon.

Hike Overview

Now it’s time for the fun stuff! The hike is about 7 miles out-and-back. (I’ve seen conflicting signs, some stating 6.5 miles and some stating 7 miles.)

Man standing by fence at Horseshow Canyon hike in Canyonlands National Park

For about the first mile of the hike, you’ll descend 780 feet to get from the canyon rim to the bottom of the canyon.

Then you’ll hike about 2.5 miles to the Great Gallery, and about 2.5 miles back.

Then you’ll have to climb 780 feet to get out of the canyon. Obviously, this is the most difficult part and comes at the end of your hike, so make sure you know your abilities!

Having said that, I’ve hiked out of the canyon twice, and although it sounds daunting, I didn’t find it that difficult. There are plenty of relatively flat sections.

Also, I think my trekking poles really helped me handle both the downhill and the uphill.

Trailhead

Sign at Horseshoe Canyon Canyonlands National Park

I love the trailhead because the sign is actually the entry sign for the park! The parking lot is on BLM land, but once you cross that sign you’re in Canyonlands.

There is a kiosk where you can sign in (always a good idea), and learn more about the canyon.

Kiosk at trailhead to Horseshoe canyon Canyonlands National Park

Pro tip: Take a photo of the map in the display panel so you know what to look for as you travel through the canyon!

Dinosaur Track

Dinosaur Track on Horseshoe Canyon Hike Canyonlands National Park

On the way down, look for a circle of rocks marking a dinosaur track. It’s right on the trail, just on the left-hand side. Fun little find!

Riverbed with Towering Canyon Walls

Canyon walls from riverbed of Horseshoe Canyon hike in Canyonlands National Park

Once you’re in the canyon, you’re walking in a dry riverbed with towering canyon walls on both sides.

It’s not a slot canyon (like a lot of other Utah canyons) – the canyon is plenty wide, so there’s no fear of a flash flood washing you away.

Canyon walls from riverbed on Horseshoe Canyon Hike in Canyonlands National Park

The riverbed does occasionally get water, so depending on the time of year, you may get your feet wet. I did it in May and I did not get my feet wet.

The sheer canyon walls were a joy to look at throughout the hike, and they provided some helpful shade at many points along the way.

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Wildflowers & Cottonwood Trees

Wildflowers in Horseshoe canyon in Canyonlands National Park

My biggest surprise was seeing the amount of growth and greenery at the bottom of the canyon. This is one of the things that made the experience so special to me.

In May, the wildflowers were in bloom. Primroses and other delightful wildflowers kept surprising me around every turn.

Wildflower in Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park

The green cottonwood trees provided color against the white canyon walls, as well as much-needed shade at certain times.

I loved seeing the cactus bloom as well!

With few other people on the trail, I was able to hear the birds chirping and the wind blowing through the trees. It was an epic experience!

Trail Markers

Since the entire trail traverses the bottom of the canyon in a riverbed, it’s nearly impossible to get lost. However, the canyon is wide enough that you’ll do a lot of hiking in sandy spots with no real “trail.”

You’ll crisscross from canyon wall to canyon wall to view the rock art galleries (see below), so you need to be on the lookout for rock cairns (little stacks of rocks), as well as established trails in certain sections.

If you miss these, you may miss the galleries, or rock art panels.

Petroglyphs and Pictographs (Rock Art)

Rock art in Horseshoe canyon in Canyonlands National Park

There are a few different rock art panels along the trail, found on both sides of the canyon walls. These are such a joy to find.

The rock art here is called Barrier Canyon Style. It’s much older than most rock art found in Utah and has a different style. It probably dates to 500 BC or maybe even much older, whereas most Utah rock art is Fremont Style, dating to about 1000 AD.

Rock Art Etiquette

Obviously, you should never, ever, touch the rock art. It is illegal, and you can and will be prosecuted heavily.

I saw one quote in a pamphlet at a rock art site that had this to say:

“I see these pictographs like any great work of art. Most people wouldn’t consider walking into a museum and writing across a Rembrandt, or even the wall next to a Rembrandt.” – Constance Silver, Art Conservator.

Viewing the Art

I have a few bits of advice for you when viewing pictographs or petroglyphs:

  1. Bring binoculars & a camera with a zoom lens. I forgot my binoculars (argh), but at least I had a zoom camera for some up-close images. Also, the park is generous enough to have some binoculars at the final panel, the Great Gallery!
  2. Take some time to analyze individual figures, rather than just the entire composition. Look at the details closely.
  3. Look for the snakes and dogs. A ranger told me all the panels have a snake and a dog in them!
  4. Try to come up with your own meaning for them, however crazy, fun, creative, or deep they may be!

High Gallery

Rock art in Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park

The first panel is the High Gallery, so named because it is high off the ground. So make sure to look up to spot it!

How did they get up here to write on the wall? You can see a rounded ledge that has obviously broken off since then.

Horseshoe Shelter

Rock Art panel in Horseshoe Canyon Canyonlands National Park

Horseshoe Shelter is next, with another fun panel that is a little higher off the ground. A rope tells you not to try to climb up there or get closer to the paintings.

Handprints

Rock art in Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park

Before we get to the big Alcove Site, I found a mini alcove that had some handprints on it! That was a fun little find.

Alcove Site

Alcove site in Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park

The Alcove Site provided a nice bit of shade as well as some fun images of figures with horns of some sort.

Alcove site rock art in Horseshoe canyon in Canyonlands National Park

Great Gallery

Great Gallery Rock art panel in horseshoe canyon in Canyonlands National Park

The last panel is the most famous panel: The Great Gallery. This panel has figures that are solid (commoners?) and some silhouetted figures (shamans?).

The panel is quite long and has a lot of cool images going on. The big bug-eyed figure is often called the Holy Ghost figure. I saw two people that looked like they were fighting (I can only assume they were brothers, lol). I saw a herd of animals, an angel, and of course, snakes and dogs.

There are a few benches made out of rocks and complimentary binoculars so you can sit and enjoy the panel for a while before hiking back to your vehicle.

How Long It Took Me to Hike It

It took me about 2.5 hours to get to the Great Gallery. This was MUCH longer than it felt – I was enjoying the hike so much that it felt like it took about an hour. I took some time at each stop, and I was filming for my YouTube channel, so it took me a while.

I spent about 30 minutes at the Great Gallery, and this included eating lunch.

It only took me about 1.5 hours to get back to my car, and that included the steep climb out of the canyon.

So overall, it took me 4.5 hours.

Do You Need a Permit to Hike Horseshoe Canyon?

You do not need a permit to hike Horseshoe Canyon.

When to Hike Horseshoe Canyon

The best times to hike Horseshoe Canyon are Spring (March-May) and Fall (October-November). Summers are brutally hot, and winters are cold and snowy.

I attempted this in March and had to turn back once I was down in the canyon (long story), and returned in May. The great thing about May is that the trees and flowers were in bloom, and the roads were in better condition.

Can Kids do this Hike?

I saw two other families on this hike with young kids. I was impressed they did it!

Going downhill is easy, and the flat walk through the canyon and back is easy.

The two things that would give me reservations about bringing kids are 1) the length of the hike, and 2) the climb out of the canyon at the end, when everyone is tired.

What to Pack

You must be properly prepared if you’re hiking in the desert! Here’s what I brought:

  • Binoculars (actually forgot these, but this is the good-value pair I own)
  • Camera with a zoom lens (I have a Sony A6600, but I’m not a photographer, so I can’t tell you whether it’s a great camera or not)
  • Trekking poles
  • Full tank of gas in vehicle
  • A LOT of water
  • A Camelback MULE (although it says it’s for mountain bikers, it holds more water for us hikers)
  • Lunch and snacks
  • Vortex hiking shoes (so my feet wouldn’t get wet if I had to step in water)

Where to Stay

I’ve stayed in Green River, Utah, many times, and it makes for a great place to see Horseshoe Canyon as well as a number of other incredible sites in the area, such as Goblin Valley, San Rafael Swell, Arches, Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District, Sego Canyon, and more.

The River Terrace Inn is located right on the river, and although it’s older (think ’70s), it’s extremely classy and well-kept, with beautiful gardens and a pool outside, with nice furniture in the rooms.

For a more budget or family-friendly option, try the Super 8 Hotel, which has a pool, big rooms, and is nicer for a Super 8.

There are multiple other chain hotels as well.

Is Hiking Horseshoe Canyon Worth it?

Yes! Horseshoe Canyon really blew me away with its beauty.

Although the rock art is the main draw of the canyon, it was the towering walls, the greenery, the wildflowers, and the landscape that provided an unforgettable experience. The panels were the extra special thing that really put it over the top as one of my favorite hikes I’ve ever done!

Is There Anything Else I Should Know?

There is so much to do in Moab, Arches, and Canyonlands. How do you know what you should see and do? You need help! Don’t miss out on the best things.

Most travelers want to visit the most popular sites and still avoid crowds. We have a detailed itinerary that gives you a step-by-step game plan so you can get to the best places at the right times!

Resources

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