We’ve all seen the pictures. Bright yellow sun streaming through small and large openings overhead illuminating deep reds and oranges. Or that same light, a bit dimmer, perhaps later in the day, falling at a new angle revealing deep blues and purples. Striations in natural rock formed by time and rushing wind and water and sand continue to be maintained by the same. The area, known for these slot canyons etched into Navajo Sandstone, still experiences flash floods that occasionally call for its closing. These floods, the most recent in 2010 and one that caused 11 fatalities in 1997, are nothing to be toyed with. But that’s the wonder of nature. Treacherous and beautiful all at once.
Locals tell stories of the significance of these canyons to the Navajo people; they came here to hide from the danger of early settlers, to commune with the spirits, or simply to make their way to the river. Regardless of the reason, the feeling of protection still permeates this place. It is no wonder that this wonder draws people from all over the world to get that perfect shot that may give them a taste of what the Navajo people hold sacred. Or make them the envy of all the friends who’ve not yet had the privilege to visit.
A short while ago I was able to tour both upper and lower canyons as a birthday treat for myself. They are aptly named; lower canyon is entered from above and exited through a small crack in the ground that does nothing to give away the wonder beneath. Upper canyon is entered through a vertical crack in the wall of an above ground canyon. Both are magnificent to see and photograph. Whether you go when the sun is high in the sky or later in the afternoon, the sunbeams that fall directly through swirls above provide as magnificent a show as the indirect light that seeps in from side crevices. It is no wonder that the “rooms” are called cathedrals. If you’re a little skilled with your camera (or smartphone; Samsungs are the best…just sayin’) the images you can capture are on par with any professional photographer. The beauty is inherent, immersive, and delightfully easy to photograph.
Popular as it is, there is a part of this beautiful natural wonder that you don’t usually see in pictures. That part is what you see below: the throngs of people lining up to make their way down the stairs into the lower canyon or being carried by jeep to explore the upper canyon. Generally tour guides tell the groups of visitors to take all their pictures up, above the heads of all the other people who have come to capture their own amazing photos of the canyon. This is simply where much of the beauty of the canyons is located. But it’s also a way to avoid shots of tons of strangers. Although I was able to get a few quick shots by myself, this can be a difficult feat because of the constant flow of people moving along both sides of the canyon walls.
All too often we visit these natural wonders because of the amazing images captured by professionals and amateurs alike. I think it’s important to note that the popularity of these places draws people from all around the world so we can’t think that we’ll be visiting alone and have the space all to ourselves. I don’t want to discourage anyone from going, but it’s good to be aware of what you’ll be contending with. The trip is definitely still a “must-do” and if it’s on your list I’d suggest keeping it there!
Here are a few tips and things to know before touring Antelope Canyon:
1) Both the upper and lower canyons are located on Navajo land and have become sources of tourism for the Navajo Nation. The only way to see the canyons is through tours provided by several private companies.
2) Fees for touring the canyons vary depending on time of day, company you choose and other factors.
3) Tripods are only allowed on tours specifically for professional photographers. These tours tend to be more expensive.
4) There is an $8/per person fee (payable to the Navajo Nation upon entering the land) that is separate from the fees that the tour companies charge. This fee is payable in cash only!
5) Be mindful of the weather. It may be hot outside but could be cool once inside the canyons. Bring a light jacket, hat and/or scarf in case temps drop.
6) Be mindful of the time changes depending on where you’re staying. The canyons operate on Page, AZ time but the time zones fluctuate in the area because of the proximity to the AZ/UT border. If you’ve scheduled a tour, be mindful of the time in Page, AZ.
7) Most tour guides will offer to help you get the best shots on your camera. They’re in and out of these canyons everyday so take their advice for great pics!
8) Be aware that the stairs into and out of the lower canyon are steep in certain areas. Also, the red sand tends to be slippery so wear closed shoes with great grip.
9) Be patient. There are tons of people in the canyons all trying to get the same shots.
These are the companies I used for my tours. They are less than a 2 minute drive from one another.
Dixie Ellis’ Lower Antelope Canyon Tours (for lower canyon)
Antelope Canyon Navajo Tours (for upper canyon)