Horseshoe Canyon

My wife Sheridan and I have been together for thirteen years and have been married for over ten. Over the years, I have talked with her off and on about going to Utah for a hiking adventure. I had previously been to the Beehive State a handful of times to various trekking locations, including Zion and Bryce Canyon, but nowhere compared with wildness and intrigue of Canyonlands National Park in the environs of Moab, situated in the northeast part of the state. Yet, something always seemed to get in the way of what I wanted so desperately, though I must confess that this was not because of any resistance from Sheridan, rather, due to an overwhelming desire to put my inspirations on paper. Five books later, associated with numerous overseas excursions for research, at long last there was a gap in my schedule. No more delays or diversions, it was time to go to Utah.

The first few days Sheridan and I shared in Moab were magical beyond description. After a strenuous, breathtaking hike to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, the following day we hiked the little-known, but beautiful, Moonflower Canyon, discovering petroglyphs at the entrance and a small, reflective pond deep in the canyon, where we sat in meditation. Later that same day, we drove to the Island in the Sky, a mesa which rests on sheer sandstone cliffs over one-thousand feet above the surrounding terrain. There, we had unforgettable views of the lower canyons at Mesa Arch and Grand View Point.

The plan for the following day was to hike the Chesler Park and Joint Trails in the scenic Needles district of Canyonlands, a vigorous ten mile trek far away from the beaten path. But, while on the road, Sheridan read about a hiking trail in the far northwest part of Canyonlands, a place called Horseshoe Canyon, one that comparatively made the Needles area look as busy as Manhattan during rush hour. Yes, it was that isolated, but on the flip side, the place contained some of the finest rock art in North America. While the location was challenging to get to – a two and a half hour drive from Moab – the eventual reward was a chance to cast our eyes upon the Great Gallery, a panel of pictographs that included ornate life-sized figures, created sometime between 1 AD to 1100 AD. It was an easy call, we had to see it, no matter the difficulty. Little did we know at the time what we were getting ourselves into.

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast at the B & B, the Red Moon Lodge, we set out on our great adventure. We traveled a circuitous route which led us north to I-70, west to highway 24, and then south for twenty-nine miles to a dirt road that led us back east thirty-two miles to Horseshoe Canyon. As the driver, the back-country road was frightening. In many places it was rutted, with patches of sand, rock shards and washboarding that occasionally caused our two-wheel drive car to lose traction and unsteadily swerve. Assuming we achieved our destination, I also knew that we would likely be returning at night, and I couldn’t imagine how much more challenging this route would be when I was unable to read the detail of the road accurately.

I’m happy to report that after about an hour of nerve-wracking driving, we arrived at the trailhead of Horseshoe Canyon, eager to experience the trail and what it offered. After hiking down the gradual incline for about fifteen minutes, the unforeseen occurred: the soles of both of my aged hiking books began coming apart. I offered to try and continue as they were, but Sheridan advised that I return to the car and replace them with my hiking shoes, and I agreed. As quickly as possible, I retraced my steps back up to the car, where I changed into my shoes and came back down to meet her, patiently waiting alongside the path. Valuable time was lost, though, and we did not want to be on the trail after sunset. We pressed on.

And what a beautiful trail it was! The slabs of grey rock comprising the pathway gently wound down for a while, then steeply switchbacked to the canyon floor. In the canyon itself, beautiful brown sandstone walls and green and yellow cottonwood groves greeted us, and the stark, visceral beauty of the area was breathtaking. While the seven mile round-trip trail was flat at that point, much of the hiking was through deep sand, and I felt like I was slogging through mud. The trekking was exhausting, and after seeing two beautiful panels of pictographs, we stopped to have lunch on the trail, exhausted, but satisfied with what we had seen.

Shortly thereafter, a young, dark-haired hiker wearing a baseball cap and a friendly smile approached us from the opposite direction. He informed us that he had seen two more panels of rock art, one being about ten minutes away, and the last, the Great Gallery, was around forty minutes further up the canyon. After sharing our chocolate with him, he headed towards the trailhead, and in spite of our fatigue, our inner fires had been lit – we had to go on.

After over an hour of trudging along the sandy canyon floor, we arrived at the awe-inspiring Great Gallery. Seeing these images painted so long ago was captivating, and we lingered there, sensing the presence of spirit. We sat in meditation, connecting with an ancient energy that cannot be described in words. One thing I was certain of, and that was the place was sacred. While sitting before the images, I wondered: What inspired these artists of so long ago to create this magnificent work? Was their spiritual presence still in that place? How many more years would I be capable of making such a difficult hike?

After chanting ‘Om’ three times and thanking God for allowing us to be in that holy moment, we began the hike back to the trailhead. Deep shadows appeared on the canyon walls, and we knew our time was limited. Sheridan led the way as we slogged through the exhausting sand, battling fatigue with every step. Soon my left big toe began to hurt, and every step was painful. I then realized that my hiking shoes were simply not sturdy enough for such a trek. We kept moving – we had to – we had no choice.

After what seemed an eternity, we reached the place for the steep ascent out of the canyon, and pausing frequently to catch our breath, we slowly worked our way up. After a while, I ran out of water and was grateful that Sheridan still had some to share with me. As much hiking as I had enjoyed in the past, and I’ve done a lot, this was one of the toughest treks I had ever attempted. When we finally sighted our car in the distance, I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing without a doubt we would make it back. Shortly after we reached the trailhead, the sun started to go below the horizon. We had arrived with no time to spare. After what we had been through, driving the dirt road back to the highway would not be a problem. After all, even though we felt beaten and battered, we had somehow survived, and I was glad for that.

Now, as I sit and think about our experience at Horseshoe Canyon, several thoughts come to mind. First, I feel empowered and exhilarated that I was able to reach down inside myself and find the strength to complete this challenging hike, in spite of the many obstacles. Also, I am reminded that most spiritual experiences are accompanied by some sort of pain, whether physical, emotional or mental. I’m glad we made the arduous hike to Horseshoe Canyon, though I doubt we’ll do it again. Other adventures, other expeditions await us, and I’m more than willing to accept the discomfort that accompanies them.

What will they be?

I can’t wait to find out.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>