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.
Spectacular pictures. I especially love the one with the owls. I was raised in southern Arizona and am there often, but have never gotten around to seeing much of the north. Will definitely add it to a future trip home.
Thank you! The owls were amazing to see–we got lucky as they are not always home. This was my introduction to Arizona, and we stuck to the North–my GOD what beautiful area! At some point, traveling from Arizona to southern Utah, I felt like screaming out, “Oh, shut up, Nature!” These slot canyons are definitely worth a visit, and many-many re-visits after that. A
These images just blow me away. The color! The owls are beautiful.
Thank you, Elen. On that trip we saw Grand Canyon and several National Parks in Arizona and Southern Utah–still, this was one of the highlights. I don’t think I’ve been to another place at once so beautiful, odd, and soulful before.
I have this place on my bucket list. After seeing your shots I’ve moved it up. Terrific.
Thank you! I loved your photographs, so this is a great compliment to receive. I hope you get to see these canyons soon (the Adventurous Antelope company’s packages are definitely worth the money–it was surreal to be in the first two canyons with absolutely nobody else there. We could wander and photograph to our hearts’ content).
I really enjoyed this! Beautifully captured and very well written. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you very much, Yoolie! I appreciate your stopping by.
Beautiful post and photos. This area has been on on our list for years. We’ve been close a few times and for numerous reasons, have never made it. Your photos will motivate us to make it next time. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you! The area is remarkable. I think starting with the smaller, more intimate canyons and then seeing Antelope was the perfect way to experience this otherworldly, intense place.
Wow these are absolutely spectacular pictures!!!! Where exactly is Page? My parents live in Tucson, AZ and I’ve been there many times. I find these photos unbelievable and so incredibly colorful. Colors I would never have imagined possible inside a canyon especially the purples. Stunning!
It’s near the border with Utah, so the opposite side of the state from Tuscon. It may be a great leisurely drive, though, with stops in Sedona and Flagstaff on the way, if you devote a couple of unhurried day to it. This shows Page on the map: http://visitpagearizona.com/sites/default/files/Visitors_Guide.pdf Thank you, as always, for stopping by!
Someday I have to go!!!!! Really I had no idea such beautiful canyons existed there. I think Arizona is a beautiful place. I love Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon is incredible too. Have you been to Utah before? I love the National Parks there as well. Thanks for sharing these amazing photos!
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Magical, memorable images – delighted to have seen them – thank you.
Thank you! I am glad you enjoyed them–this is a magical place, well worth seeing at least once in a lifetime.
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Great photos! I didn’t realize you had to go into Antelope Canyon with a tour. I’m glad I didn’t wait until I got there to figure that out. Thanks for sharing!
In October, at least, it seemed possible to get on a tour without a prior reservation, but you do have to be accompanied by a Navajo guide to go in. Thank you for stopping by!
Oh, and if you want to see the famous sun beams–the best time to go is mid-day in summer, so it’s a good idea to get an advance reservation to ensure that you can go during that time of day (the beams disappear from early October to sometime in late spring, so we didn’t get to see them)
Breathtakingly beautiful photos. I really would love to visit this place – and I’ll definitely remember to opt for Carole Bigthumb’s tour, I like the idea that you aren’t hurried through in the usual “tour” fashion. I hate being hurried and then having to leave without getting any of the photographs I went there for in the first place!
I really enjoyed our tour–I loved going to the smaller slot canyons before the famous Antelope one and being the only ones there. We were unhurried and could take all the pictures we wanted. Beautiful. I hope you will enjoy these slot canyons when you go.
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Wonderful photography, and a well-written article about this beautiful place. We just got back from a trip up there. Lionel Bigthumb took us out on the night photo excursion. It was amazing! I would highly recommend going out at night. Lionel and his guides at adventurous antelope are the best. when you do it night you’ll need to take a bright flashlight and lots of batteries. you reflect your flashlight off the floor, and the canyon walls behind the camera. This provides some amazing light and shadows. Lionel uses a video light bank, if you can get your hands on one of these it provides a wide swath of light. I have a 850 lumens flashlight that also worked well (http://www.fenixlight.com/). just uploaded my night photos on my website wattsimages.com
Best of luck on you next trip
Dennis, your pictures of the slot canyons are breathtaking! I am so glad to hear that the night tour is as good as it sounds. We’ll definitely try it next time we are there–and I appreciate the recommendations for the flashlight. We’ll come properly armed now! Thank you very much for stopping by and for your thoughts.
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Just stunning. This would make me want to run off to see the area even if we weren’t buried in six-foot snow drifts right now……
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I re read this after just seeing it for myself. Your words eye view captured it perfectly. I too can’t wait to return.
I am so glad you saw it! Did you go to all three canyons or the Antelope alone? That area is magnetic, and I can’t wait to see it again and again, in different seasons and light.
I was only able to be in the north canyon. Magical is correct. Can’t wait to go again.
Amazing photos. 🙂
Thanks for visiting my blog. I love your photos of the southwestern canyons. Rosemarie
I loved your photos. The water erosion and striated rock – fabulous shapes.
Thank you. The place is spectacular.
What an amazing place! I’d love to go there. One day . . . . .
I absolutely adore your pictures, so sensuous and sensitive to the terrain. Its haunting spirituality really comes across in your pictures. Have you been to Canyon de Chelly in NE Arizona. It’s Navajo owned and has its very own magic. I wrote several posts on my blog. If you put Canyon de Chelly into the search function on my home page, it will take you there.
Thank you very much. The slot canyons are remarkable. I haven’t even heard about Canyon de Chelly! Will definitely check it out on your website. Glad to add a new “must see” place in that beautiful, wild area.
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Gorgeous photos in beautiful colors!