Antelope Canyon on Navajo Lands near Page, Arizona, had been on my must-visit list for years: fleeting light beams, smooth waves of petrified sand, and warm shades of peach and orange–I wanted to see it all with my own eyes. Naturally, this was one of the most-anticipated stops on our October vacation to the American Southwest.
A Navajo Tribal Park, the canyon is accessible only by guided tours, and there are several to choose from. We decided on Carol Bigthumb’s Adventurous Antelope Canyon Photo Tours because of the glowing reviews by photographers and the company’s exclusive access to several other slot canyons in the area. In advance, we booked a day tour of four canyons, but, because of flooding, only three were accessible the day we arrived on the reservation: Owl, Rattlesnake, and Upper Antelope. In the end, though, the 5-hour journey through this sandy dreamscape felt just right in every way.
We began at 8:30 am at the Owl Canyon, residence of two majestic great horned owls. They were home, dozing off in one of the crevices, their feathers grey and blue in the cool morning light. Our guide, Josh, said that owls lived in this canyon for as long as he could remember, always a pair, but nobody has ever seen the owlets or could find the owls’ nest.
As we wandered deeper into the canyon, its smooth walls seemed to part before us and float up to the sky. It was so quiet–the five of us were the only people there. After the initial chatter of admiration, all conversation was reduced to whisper. This place was solemn, and we felt it necessary to tread quietly as we intruded on its solitude.
Gradually, the canyon enveloped us. Sandstone, it turns out, hid an explosion of colors: saffron orange, amber red, sunshine yellow, henna brown, all speckled with purple, pink, blue, grey, white, black–remnants of 250 million years of rainwater erosion.
As light traveled gently over the smooth swirls of canyon walls, they seemed both frozen in time and breathing, their colors constantly changing, glowing.
We wandered about, taking pictures. Our guide, himself an amateur photographer, made excellent recommendations. As we lost ourselves, he played his flute, apparently a staple of many slot canyon tours in the area–not that “setting the mood” seemed a necessity. My cynicism quickly dissolved, however. The music was captivating and fit organically with the setting: the acoustics in the slot canyons is superb, and this was a spellbinding way to demonstrate this.
Though the concert was “part of the tour”, it felt unforced and sincere. Josh said he learned to play as a boy, and, at one point, playing his flute was the only thing he had or could give. In his childhood, he and his friends were told not to roam these slot canyons. “This is where the wind lives,”–adults said, “Would you enter someone’s home uninvited and disturb them?” Now, when he brings tourists here, he says his flute playing is a way of paying tribute to the wind, thanking it with his breath, as it were.
The owls still on their perch, sleepy but watchful, we left their canyon for our next stop: Rattlesnake Canyon. This was a more challenging entrance, with several ladders to climb, and corridors so narrow we had to squeeze through.
I think I loved this canyon the most: so intimate and still, its sandstone pock-marked and covered with lichens, some black, some colorless (these turn emerald-green with rain, Josh said).
The wind and rains that easily flood slot canyons have cut and shaped these rock dunes for millennia. They cut and shape them still, and will do so for millennia more. It felt surreal to climb through one particularly picturesque opening, still incomplete, a meeting place of what once used to be two canyons. I am less than a second in their collective existence.
The canyon seemed to me then an enchanted living organism. I could spend the whole day here, watching the light change, the sky so impossibly bright over my head, listening to the breeze ruffle the sand, thinking of everything and nothing in particular.
On our way out, we found a baby rattlesnake. Josh carefully placed it outside of the canyon. The snake almost got trapped in one of the ditches, where it would be an easy prey for birds (the owls will forgive us, I hope!). This was the first time I saw a rattlesnake in the wild, so vivid, and very, very venomous.
Then, as the sun climbed to its midday peak, it was time for the grand finale: Upper Antelope Canyon. The scale, especially after Rattlesnake, was breathtaking. “The most-visited and the most-photographed slot canyon of the American Southwest,” it is open to many tour groups. Even in October, the off-season, when this canyon’s legendary sun beams seize for the year, groups of ten to fifteen people shuffle through with metronome regularity. One day I would like to see the beams, even if it means battling hundreds of stressed, perspiring strangers, but, for my first taste of this magical place, I was grateful for a less jarring introduction.
Carole Bigthumb’s outfit seems to enjoy priority over other tours. Unlike the others, we were unhurried and even got the grandest halls of this sandstone cathedral all to ourselves for a short while. Still, voices of guides pointing out a menagerie in stone (“the alligator!” “the eagle!”) and celebrity captures (“THIS is that National Geographic cover, right there!”) carried and tempered the magic.
Because it is so much deeper, Antelope is darker than Owl and Rattlesnake, its colors more muted to a naked eye (a tripod here is a necessity).
Look up, though, and it will take your breath away.
Further into Antelope, the corridors narrowed. I felt like I was walking through a charmed labyrinth of petrified flames, grasping for me, leading me on.
Occasionally, a flurry of sand descended from the canyon’s ceiling. This is a far more persistent issue earlier in the season, our guide said–a challenge for photographers, certainly, but it does inspire beautiful pictures. In the absence of sunbeams, sand streams take center stage, and they are mesmerizing:
By 1:30 pm, our slot canyon journey came to a close. It was spellbinding, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Adventurous Antelope runs night photography outings on occasion–something to look forward to, and I’d love to revisit the canyons in a different season. We are already planning a return in spring. I can’t wait.