The Elusive Horse Canyon

Saturday & Sunday, July 14-15, 2012

I first tried to explore Horse Canyon in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park back in 2008 when I camped at Peekaboo with a few friends. Back then the entrance to the canyon had been washed out pretty good and there was a very deep hole blocking vehicle entry. For the past two years I have been checking the condition of the road so that I could finally get back there to start exploring the area, but both the Salt Creek and Horse Canyon roads have been washed out and closed for that long. I have hiked up Salt Creek Canyon twice during those two years, but Horse Canyon was a bit too long for a day hike. A few weeks ago I finally received word that the National Parks Service had finally reopened the roads in Salt Creek and Horse Canyon, so I quickly made plans to get back. I reserved a campsite at Peekaboo for the weekend and invited Jared and Marty to come along.

After work on Friday, I drove down to Cottonwood Canyon and setup camp so that I would be close to Canyonlands in the morning and wouldn’t have to do much driving. There were a few rain showers in the evening, but the precipitation stopped before I went to bed, and I had a great night of sleep.

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Good Morning by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

In the morning I had a little time to photograph this ruin high up on the canyon wall. I have driven by this site many times and had not been able to find it before. It would have been a long hike up to reach it, but unfortunately I didn’t have the time this morning to try. I will have to return again to climb up to the ruin for some closer photos.

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High Tower by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

After photographing the tower, I continued my drive into the park where I met Jared and Marty at the Needle’s Visitor Center so that we could get our permits and the combination for the lock on the gate. Jared transferred his camping gear into my Jeep and parked his car at the trailhead before we continued through the locked gate into Salt Creek. The drive through the wash was in soft sand as usual, but the debris that had blocked the road in May had been removed. It was nice to be able to avoid this mosquito-infested area by closing the windows of the Jeep 😉 The deep holes that had blocked the entrance to Horse Canyon had also been filled in a bit. We drove through the holes and brush that was growing in the road and continued up Horse Canyon, where we would be spending much of the day searching for ruins and rock art.

We almost missed the remains of a tower near the mouth of the canyon. Good thing Marty spotted this one after we had passed it.

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Watch Tower by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Jared checks out a very small granary that we spotted and climbed up to. The interesting part about this site is how the ledge in front of it was built out in order to make it larger. I can’t recall seeing this done anywhere else?

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Built Ledge Granary by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

We almost missed this nice granary even though it was practically right next to the road.

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Jeep & Ruin by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

A closer look at the ruin.

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Horse Canyon Ruin by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Soon we reached the large arch known as Paul Bunyan’s Potty.

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Paul Bunyan’s Potty by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

We found a route up the sandstone ledges that took us right under the arch so that we could try to visit the ruins and rock art hidden up there. Unfortunately, I was stopped stopped about 20 feet below the final ledge because the climb was just too steep for me. Jared, on the other hand, was able to make it to the final ledge to check it out. Here’s Jared climbing the final pitch.

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Jared Climbing by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Here’s a view out from where I stopped climbing just under Paul Bunyan’s Potty.

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Overcast View by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Here’s a photo from as high as I climbed of one of the ruins I was trying to reach.

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Paul’s Kiva by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

There were also a few other smaller ruins up there that I could see, plus many red handprints and some white dots on the back of the large alcove. You can see them all in this photo if you look closely.

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Upper Ruins by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Our next stop on our journey up Horse Canyon was the Tower Ruins. After we found a way to scramble up closer to the ruins, I took this photo back over the side road we had just driven up.

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Tower Ruin Parking by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

The Tower Ruins in the large alcove above were pretty much inaccessible without a tall ladder or some serious climbing skills.

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Tower Ruins Alcove by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Here’s a closer look at the ruins. I should have dragged my long lens up here with me…

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Tower Ruins by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Jared found this small granary around the corner.

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Ledge Granary by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

After climbing back down from the Tower Ruins, we drove further up the canyon as some darker storm clouds started to roll in.

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Storm Moving In by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

One of the main reason I’ve wanted to get into Horse Canyon for the past few years was so that I could visit the well-known Thirteen Faces pictograph panel. Once we drove a few more miles up the wash we stopped at a small side canyon that would lead us there. As we hiked up this canyon, the ominous clouds in the sky finally let loose and it started to rain on us. It was never a big downpour, but it was enough to get us wet. Luckily we reached the alcove containing the pictographs shortly after it started, so we were able to get out of the rain and take some photos at the same time. I’m just glad that we never got enough rain in the area to cause Horse Canyon or Salt Creek Canyon to flash flood since that could have caused trouble for us. We would later find out that the storm did indeed cause flash flooding in nearby Elephant Canyon, so we got lucky!

Even though this panel is called the Thirteen Faces, only about ten of them are actually still visible. I can’t recall ever seeing a photo showing all thirteen faces, so I’m not sure how long they have been gone?

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Thirteen Faces by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

A closer look at six of the Thirteen Faces.

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Six of Thirteen by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

After we left the Thirteen Faces we spotted these ruins on a ledge high up on the canyon wall. We saw no way to access the ledge they were on, so we just took photos from the wash below.

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Thirteen Canyon Ruin by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Next up, we searched for and found the ghostly Nine Faces pictograph panel. There are actually nine of them still visible, too!

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Nine Faces by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Unlike the Thirteen Faces which have multiple colors, these are all white.

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Four of Nine by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Jared taking a photo for some scale.

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Jared and the Nine Faces by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

As we searched the area around the Nine Faces we spotted this faint but very large petroglyph. There appears to be an anthropomorph holding two very large shields.

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Big Shields by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

We continued our drive up the canyon to the end of the road and then took a short hike to a viewpoint of the impressive Castle Arch.

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Castle Arch by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

On our way back down the canyon I stopped for a photo under an overhang that apparently has cause some problems for other vehicles in the past.

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Under the Ledge by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Marty shows that there’s plenty of room for a Jeep…full-sized vehicles might need to be more cautious.

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Plenty of Room by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

For our final hike of the day we set out to find the Eleven Faces. Again, this panel only really has eight faces that are still visible, although you can see some faint traces of the other three faces that are now missing. Unfortunately, calcite has been leaching from the sandstone that these pictographs were painted on, so much of it has been covered in the white substance, making it difficult to photograph. I did my best to bring out the details in this photo.

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Eleven Faces by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Here’s a closer look at the three figures on the right side of the panel that seem to be grouped together on purpose.

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Three Warriors by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Before leaving the area, Jared spotted this lone petroglyph that is done in a similar style to the nearby Eleven Faces. While there are number of pictographs in the area done in this ‘faces motif’ this is the first and only petroglyph I have seen done like this. It’s very cool, and I probably would have missed it if Jared hadn’t spotted it.

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One Face by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

We also spotted an interesting ruin high above on our hike back to the vehicles. See if you can spot it in this photo…

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Ladder Ruin View by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Here’s a closer look at the ruin with the large ladder used to access the site. I’m curious to know if the ladder that is up there is original or not? It’s hard to get a good look at it in this photo, and we didn’t have the time or energy to climb up there to check it out. Maybe next time. If anyone has any information about the ladder or ruin, please feel free to leave a comment below.

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Ladder Ruin by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Driving back out of the canyon as the clouds finally start to clear out of the sky.

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Horse Canyon Road by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

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Horse Canyon Wash by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

This is the deepest hole we had to drive through to get into and back out of Horse Canyon. No problem if you have high clearance and your air intake isn’t too low.

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Horse Canyon Hole by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

After reaching Salt Creek again we turned up the wash and drove through the deeper water and mild quicksand to reach our campsite at Peekaboo for the evening. We setup camp, had some dinner, talked and relaxed before finally getting to bed. It had been a long day and we were all pretty tired.

The following morning I slept in just a little bit, but still managed to get up to Trail Arch as the sun started to shine into the canyon.

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Salt Creek Sunrise by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

A view through Trail Arch.

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Trail Arch Sunrise by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Trail Arch with the large hoodoo standing above.

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Trail Arch by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Since I didn’t have my heavy long lens with me when I found this pictograph panel back in May, I was looking forward to getting a better photo of it this time. It just so happens that the panel looked great when struck by the early morning light.

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High Five Panel by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Of course, I had to take some obligatory photos of the Peekaboo pictographs while we were there.

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Peekaboo Morning by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

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Peekaboo Panel by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

After having some breakfast and then packing up camp, we set out to hike up Secret Canyon and see what we could find.

We soon found a site that had a few broken down ruins, handprints on the walls and many large potsherds on the ground.

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Corrugated by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Jared takes a photo of the reverse handprint.

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Handprint Photographer by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

It almost seemed like there might be enough potsherds laying around to rebuild an entire pot.

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Potsherds by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

A little further up the canyon I spotted a panel of white dots high above. Jared was able to climb up a steep crack to reach them, but I wasn’t able to follow. It took a little time and work, but I managed to find an easier way up to them, too.

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High Dots Panel by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

There was also the remains of a small storage cist or granary.

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Storage with a View by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

There was even another large potsherd up here, too.

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High Potsherd by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Marty followed my route up and checks out the area.

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Marty and the Dots by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

There was a great view of Secret Canyon from up here.

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Secret Canyon View by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

After hiking back out of Secret Canyon, we finished the drive out of Salt Creek Canyon and exited the park. Since we were all pretty hungry, we stopped at the Needles Outpost for a burger.

I took a photo of this little guy posing on a rock before leaving the Needles Outpost.

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Poser by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Before leaving the area and driving home, we stopped at a few more rock art sites along the Indian Creek corridor, starting with this large boulder that Jared had spotted before.

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Ute Boulder by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

A closer look.

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Stickman Panel by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Then I took them to a small panel on a boulder right next to the road.

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Roadside Boulder by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Our group of vehicles parked along the road in Indian Creek Canyon as we searched for new sites.

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Rock Art Hunter Parking by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

While scanning the canyon walls for more rock art we spotted the remains of a ruin high above. This is the first ruin I have come across in this area.

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Indian Canyon Ruin by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

This is another panel of petroglyphs that I had not seen before. I swear I find something new every time I spend some time searching this canyon.

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Indian Canyon Designs by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Before calling it a day, we stopped at a large site of petroglyphs that Marty and I have been to before, but Jared had not. The following few photos are from the area.

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Maze & Man by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

This is still one of my favorite petroglyph figures.

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Inside by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

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Snake Man by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Jared checks out the large panels of petroglyphs.

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Admiring by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

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Fighting Men by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

After hiking back down to the vehicles, we said our goodbyes and started the drive home. On the way back to Moab I drove though some pretty heavy downpours and wind. This is much needed rain for the area.

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Downpour by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

After passing through Moab and turning up the Colorado River Road I noticed that the river was colored red from heavy rain and flash flooding up by the Richardson Amphitheater area. Aside from driving through more storms, the rest of the drive home was uneventful. I actually got home just after a pretty big storm had passed over Grand Junction.

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Red River by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

I’m glad that I was finally able to visit and explore the elusive Horse Canyon and am looking forward to returning in the future since I’m sure that we still missed a lot of interesting things to see. Let’s just hope that the road doesn’t get closed for two years again after the next large storm comes through the area.

>> Horse Canyon Photo Gallery


3 Comments

  1. Eduardo Beck February 2, 2013 5:28 pm  Reply

    Great pics and great trip! I’ve been there twice in 1987 and again in 1994. At that time all the 4WD roads were open up to Angel Arch campsite. I tried to drive up to 13 faces but the overhang was more extended on the left (did it collapse?) and you should have passed your wheels on the rock you see on the left. No safe room for a rented Nissan Pathfider! I enjoyed very much to see your pictures: they reminded me all the good time I had when I was living there. Thank you!

  2. Michael Eiting August 7, 2013 10:40 pm  Reply

    We have a permit to stay at Peekaboo on Aug. 16-17 and were planning a full day trip up Horse Canyon. However, I could only find directions to the 13 Faces panel. I would love to retrace your journey and see / photograph the 11 Faces and 8 faces as well as the numerous ruins you posted pictures of. (BTW – the photos are excellent! Nicely done!)
    Where can I find detailed directions or a map or GPS coordinates to the other face panels?
    This may be the last opportunity I have for quite a while and would love to take advantage of it. Thank you in advance for any information you could provide.
    Happy Trails! Mike

  3. Stephen February 11, 2017 3:42 pm  Reply

    Your story and pictures are great. This is why I love Canyonlands — you get to see things that most people never see in their entire lives. Beautiful.

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