Indiana Jones Meets Southern Utah

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North America » United States » Utah » Hanksville
October 18th 2011
Published: October 25th 2012
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Holy GhostHoly GhostHoly Ghost

The most famous part of the Great Gallery of rock art, deep in Horseshoe Canyon
I liked watching Raiders of the Lost Ark growing up.

I thought I couldn’t have that experience of finding the remains of long lost civilization on this trip, because anywhere I can reach safely has been explored for a century or more.

Although that is true, parts of Utah can at least give the feel of heading off on a voyage of discovery.

Today visits some of them.

Fremont Pictographs

The drive starts heading east through the Fremont Canyon.

It passes completely through the Waterpocket Fold.

The state built a paved highway through the canyon as the replacement for the tricky drive through Capitol Gorge (see yesterday).

East of Fruita steep red walls close in, until the road is sandwiched next to the river, the only place it can fit.

A parking lot appears on the left, marked ‘Fremont Pictographs’.

A boardwalk runs along the base of the cliff to a small rockslide.

Where the rockslide joins the cliff, ghostly figures appear scratched on the rock.

Depending on one’s imagination, they are either highly stylized human figures or space monsters.

They are literal rock art, created by Ancient Pueblo Indians
Fremont PetroglyphsFremont PetroglyphsFremont Petroglyphs

Fremont rock art in Capitol Reef National Park
scratching the cliff.

The art has many different styles; this is an example of Fremont style.

It’s one of the most accessible rock art panels in the United States.

Heading east, the rock color changes from red to white.

A big dome shaped mound appears on the left, the Capitol Dome (and the source of the park name Capitol Reef, see Incredible Foliage and a Big Red Fold).

The canyon walls then widen and a big gully appears on the right, Grand Wash.

Soon afterward, the canyon disappears; the Waterpocket Fold is long but thin.

Afterwards, the highway rolls through a landscape of low white sandstone cliffs.

Trees appear along the road, fed by the river.

Buttes appear, alternating with eroded mounds.

The highway finally enters a large area of silt dunes, with mountains now visible in the distance.

These, of course, are the San Rafael Swell, which I saw behind the Waterpocket Fold at Boulder Mountain.

The highway ends at a junction, Hanksville Utah, basically a small group of buildings around the highway.

It’s surrounded by flat empty desert, giving a feeling
Capitol DomeCapitol DomeCapitol Dome

The formation that give Capitol Reef National Park its name
of being in the middle of nowhere.

The one notable feature here is the Hollow Mountain gas station, another classic piece of highway kitsch.

It’s a general store blasted into a red sandstone butte, with a gas station next to it.

Inside looks normal, except for the sandstone walls visible near the restrooms.

The real value for me is that this is the only place to get supplies for sixty plus miles in any direction.

Now heading north, the highway passes through flat empty land, the San Rafael Desert.

It’s featureless and profoundly empty.

The only thing that breaks the monotony is a ridge to the far west, the San Rafael Swell.

Eventually, a few red buttes appear near the Swell.

A roadway branches off near them.

At first, the scenery doesn’t look much different.

Close to the butte, the road swings left, and reaches a huge surprise.

Goblin Valley State Park

The highway enters Goblin Valley State Park.

Soon afterward, it passes through an eroded area to the left of the butte.

This valley is invisible until people are basically in it.

Little red rock
Hollow Mountain Gas StationHollow Mountain Gas StationHollow Mountain Gas Station

Its a gas station inside a butte in Hansville Utah
mounds appear here.

They look so strange the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon (see Hoodoo: a Weird Name for Weird Rocks) look normal by comparison.

These are big, lumpy, rounded rocks on little pedestals.

More and more of them appear until the highway ends at a parking lot above a depression absolutely filled with them.

A tiny museum back at the park entrance explains the geology, but it’s not really necessary to enjoy this place.

The landscape feeds the imagination.

These bizarre rounded mounds look like goblins, monsters, aliens, or something from Middle Earth.

My guidebook calls this the boulder farm, which grows the red rocks found in other parks!

I prefer those explanations to the geology, which is that this place was once a shallow sea where a huge layer of slit accumulated.

The area then rose and sand piled on top.

The silt ultimately compressed to siltstone and the sand to sandstone.

Erosion then set in.

Siltstone erodes more quickly than sandstone, so a pattern developed of sandstone boulders on top of siltstone pedestals, protected from erosion by the boulder on top.

This place is way more fun
The goblins are comming!The goblins are comming!The goblins are comming!

Erosion run riot in Goblin Valley State Park
than that.

The parking lot has a huge view of the goblins stretching to a ridge in the distance, an offshoot of the butte.

A very steep trail runs from the overlook into the valley.

From there it becomes a giant maze, just wandering at will through the rocks.

Close up, they look even stranger than from a distance.

One looked like an exact copy of Kermit the Frog!

The gullies between the rocks are easy enough to follow, although it’s possible to get quite lost.

Some goblins form long walls that completely block progress.

Everything looks the same out here too, so track landmarks on the rim to find the way out (I used the overlook sun canopy).

The valley is also very hot with no shade, so bring water.

Having said all that, I pretended I was on some undiscovered alien world while hiking here, which was an utter blast.

This is a park to feel like a kid again.

Horseshoe Canyon

At the same road junction for the road to Goblin Valley, a dirt road heads in the other direction.

It has
Rock monstersRock monstersRock monsters

Hiking through the fantastic formations of Goblin Valley
a sign at the junction reading ‘Hans Flat'.

It appears to go nowhere.

Instead, it leads on an adventure, deep into this area’s past.

In case it isn’t obvious, it’s also as isolated and empty as anything Grand Staircase Escalante has to offer, and requires the same level of preparation to handle it safely (see Few People Can Go Here, and We Like it That Way).

The first part crosses empty flat desert.

It has none of the ruts or wash crossings of previous dirt roads, but replaces them with endless washboard.

My car vibrates constantly.

The other hazard is the dunes.

In this empty desert, sand blows with the wind until it hits an obstacle, where it forms a dune.

The groove created by the road is enough.

Crossing the dunes is tough.

Go too slow and the car will get stuck in the soft sand.

Go too fast and the car will bounce on the washboard, hit the bottom hard, and break something.

I drove the dunes in second gear with steady pressure on the gas.

With the paved highway long out of sight, a low ridge
The coupleThe coupleThe couple

Proof that even rocks fall in love
finally appears ahead.

The roadway swings to the left and heads toward a large mesa shaped like a cross.

It finally passes right by it, next to a small collection of hoodoos on the back side.

That in turn, reveals a huge view of a profoundly empty landscape, heading for a mountain ridge in the far distance.

The drive reaches a small canyon.

Parts of the road have washed out here, thankfully marked with safety barriers.

Disappointingly, it follows the rim around the edge and back to empty desert.

Other parts of Utah feel like they are empty, but nothing like this.

After more than an hour of this, the road reaches an obvious fork.

A huge sign sits at the junction, the first sign of humanity I’ve seen since leaving pavement.

The sign explains the reason people make the effort to trek out here.

Despite all appearances, this desert does end.

It ends at a huge complex of twisting canyons, heading for the junction of the Green and Colorado Rivers.

The most spectacular parts of this area are protected by Canyonlands National Park, one
Alien worldAlien worldAlien world

Normal reality does not apply in a place as fun as Goblin Valley
of the most inaccessible parks south of Alaska.

No roadway passes through the park, so the rivers divide it into four separate areas, two of which are connected to the roads from the junction.

The sign also repeats many of the warnings from Grand Staircase Escalante, followed by a note that if someone IS rescued, the minimum cost will be $3000.

Adequate preparation is an absolute must!

I took the north fork for Horseshoe Canyon.

Soon afterward, the road gets rougher.

The washboard becomes more severe and big ruts appear.

The worst part is the flat rock ledges.

These are about two inches high each and cross the width of the road.

They are incredibly dangerous because driven the wrong way they will hit something vital on the car bottom.

I scouted every one of them, because I doubt AAA makes it this far out.

All at once, flat desert becomes slickrock.

Rounded sandstone stretches off to a canyon in the distance.

The road ends at a large flat area (calling it a parking lot is charitable) with a single outhouse plus a weatherbeaten
On the Road to NowhereOn the Road to NowhereOn the Road to Nowhere

The long and lonely road to Horseshoe Canyon
sign welcoming people to Canyonlands National Park.

A wide path heads across the slickrock from the sign, heading for the canyon.

It was once an extension of the road, built by prospectors looking for oil.

It’s in worse condition than anything the San Juan’s in Colorado have to offer (see San Juan Backcountry ).

Most of it was blasted into the rocks.

In places it nearly disappears and I had to find cairns to follow it.

The path undulates across the slickrock until it reaches a surprise, a windmill next to an old water tank.

It was built by ranchers before the park was established.

The windmill is over seventy five years old and a historic landmark.

The tank held no water.

Beyond the tank, the path heads into a shallow ravine.

The ravine becomes deeper, with views of rounded sandstone knobs in the distance.

The path reaches one of them and swings around it on a blasted shelf.

This provides the first view of Horseshoe Canyon itself, a wide gap in the earth with tall sandstone walls.

Horseshoe CanyonHorseshoe CanyonHorseshoe Canyon

The canyon from the trailhead
path then drops into it along a steep path blasted into the sandstone wall.

During this part of the hike, I ran into a park ranger.

We had a quick conversation.

Although it was never explicitly stated, the clear point of this talk was whether I had enough experience and supplies to not kill myself out here.

I must have passed, because the ranger wished me a good hike and headed up the trail.

The blasted path ends roughly halfway down the canyon wall at the top of a huge sand pile.

Now a trail, it works its way down the pile through a set of switchbacks.

Even heading downhill, this was work, because my boots sank deep in the sand.

Finally, I was at the bottom of the canyon at the wash.

Hikers in Horseshoe Canyon have only one real navigation choice that must be made correctly.

The former road continues up the other side of the canyon here, through switchbacks made of stone piles.

Heading down the wash is also a possibility.

The hundreds
Old windmillOld windmillOld windmill

Remains of an ancient windmill near Horseshoe Canyon
of boot marks show that the correct choice is up the canyon, which is where I went.

The trail starts in the wash but soon climbs the banks.

The trail is on the banks instead of the wash because the wash is filled with boulders and debris.

Horseshoe Canyon is wide enough to have a floor beyond the streambed.

It’s nearly all sand, with grass, bushes, and cottonwood trees.

Vertical sandstone walls tower beyond.

The trail is a narrow path through the vegetation.

It’s a slow slog through the sand that reminded me of Escalante Canyon with no water (see Desert River Walks).

The canyon weaves back and forth as it goes, so progress is hard to measure.

The trail crosses the wash many times.

Most of this stretch is unremarkable by southern Utah standards.

The Great Gallery

The reason people hike here appears when a cairn pile marks a side trail.

It goes to the nearest wall, which is covered in petroglyphs.

These are different to the Fremont art I saw earlier, showing elongated bodies with heads but
Sandy hellSandy hellSandy hell

The final descent down a sand pile into Horseshoe Canyon
no arms or legs.

A few animal-like drawings appear nearby.

The style is called Barrier Canyon, one of the oldest discovered.

This panel is merely the first.

Ancient inhabitants turned this canyon into a major art gallery.

The thrill of exploring an ancient world soon kicks into high gear.

Another panel, much smaller, appears.

Further down, yet another appears.

The canyon narrows with less vegetation, and an alcove appears on the wall.

A trail of cairns leads right into it, where more petroglyps appear on the back wall.

Sadly, some visitors just had to deface the rock nearby with graffiti.

The footprints continue down the narrowing canyon.

It twists through many curves, all with blank rock walls.

After the artwork earlier, it’s rather depressing.

The wash finally curves around a small sand hill with cottonwood trees behind it.

A trail ascends the hill.

Past the trees, it reaches something felt as much as seen, the Great Gallery.

The canyon wall here contains over two hundred feet of petroglyphs, protected by an overhang.

It’s the largest single
Ancient art galleryAncient art galleryAncient art gallery

The first pannel of Barrier Canyon petroglyphs in Horseshoe Canyon. These are over a thousand years old
grouping of ancient artwork in the Southwest, which visitors appreciate all the more due to the effort of reaching it.

I have now traveled far into the past.

The wall contains hundreds of figures.

Most are the same armless apparitions seen on previous panels.

Unlike the previous ones, these are in multiple colors, white red and black.

Many are covered in intricate patterns.

One striking figure contains a black checkerboard pattern over a white body, with large eyes in the head.

Archeologists call it the Holy Ghost.

Nobody knows exactly what these figures mean, but many think they represent shamanist symbols.

Standing in front of this artwork is a moving experience.

It’s over a thousand years old.

Ancient humans spent considerable time and effort to create this work, and it has lasted to the present day.

The effort needed to reach here adds to the feeling of finding something special, something far away from modern civilization.

I realize people have written about and photographed this place for nearly a century, but the thrill exists nonetheless.

Horseshoe CanyonHorseshoe CanyonHorseshoe Canyon

On the way to the Great Gallery

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, getting to the treasure is only half the battle.

The heroes then need to get back out, through all sorts of traps.

I now have to get back to the trailhead.

Shadows are slowly rising along the canyon wall, indicating that the sun is sinking.

Hiking that old road in the dark over slickrock, where I can barely find the path, will not be fun.

Hiking the canyon back to the old road is easy enough.

Climbing the sand hill along the road is another matter.

This stretch was like climbing an endless stairmaster, every step sinking in the sand.

It’s steep too, and I was quickly breathing hard.

During the climb, I head a low whistling noise.

This is odd, because the rest of the canyon was essentially silent.

I stopped to listen, and the noise dropped.

I started climbing again and it grew louder.

I then figured it out.

Echo was a Greek nymph who fell in love with the self-absorbed youth Narcissus.

Unable to consummate her feelings, she wasted
Great GalleryGreat GalleryGreat Gallery

A section of incredibly detailed figures in the Great Gallery
away until only her voice remained.

Poor Echo lives all over this part of Horseshoe Canyon due to the smooth walls; I’m hearing my own breath.

Speaking normally revealed the amazing acoustics, as I heard my voice from several areas up and down the canyon, with second plus delays.


I finally reached the rock shelf, where the climb got easier.

I rounded the sandstone knob into the ravine.

I can see the sun at this point, on the horizon.

By the time I reached the water tank, it had set.

I still had twilight, so I used the fading light to navigate across the slickrock.

I made it back to the trailhead with just enough light to see.

Soon afterward, it was dark.

The stars, like the last few days, are truly glorious.

Driving out of this desert is going to be tricky.

It’s flat and nearly featureless.

All I can see is the area in front of my headlights.

I decided to follow wide spots with tire tracks and no vegetation, assuming that is the
Great GalleryGreat GalleryGreat Gallery

Another section of the amazing Great Gallery

The rock ledges were just as tough in this direction, even though I knew how to get across them.

I then found the road junction with the billboard, so the method must work.

The trickiest part was crossing the sand dunes, where tire tracks are the only sign of where to go and I needed speed to not get stuck.

I finally made it back to pavement.

I’m on a paved road, but still in the San Rafael Desert a long way from anywhere with tourist facilities.

Having no other choice, I pushed on north.

I finally reached the town of Green River.

It’s an Interstate pit stop, so it has facilities open late.

These make it an oasis in the Utah desert.

The truck stop where I had dinner and the highway motel where I slept are unremarkable, but I’m fortunate they were even available.


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