Wandering the West
August 24, 2010
You’ve seen the pictures I know you have but you may not know exactly where they were taken. It’s a place that’s easy to get to and fairly easy to hike through, and you really can’t take a bad picture when you’re inside.
Look up "Antelope Canyon pictures" on the net and the second a picture forms on your screen you’ll say, "Oh yeah that place!" Antelope slot canyon near Page, Arizona, (near the southern tip of Lake Powell) is one of the desert Southwest’s most photographed places. It is narrow at the bottom with winding, soaring canyon walls. The narrow opening at the top only lets in the sun in the middle of the day and only from March 15 to October 30.
That shaft of light shining to the flat sand floor reflects light off all the surfaces of the eroded sandstone. The effect is spectacular. You’ll see it frequently in outdoor magazines and advertising. If you want to attract attention, a wide-angle shot of Antelope with the shaft of light playing against the walls will do the trick every time.
There are really two Antelope Canyons, offering different hiking skill sets, different views, and very real and different levels of danger. Upper Antelope, nicknamed "the crack," starts as just that on the surface on sandstone-capped terrain about seven miles or a 15-minute drive from Page. This section is an easy flat walk that follows the crack until the walls rise above it.
What’s striking are the shapes of the sandstone below the level of the prevailing terrain. Because the sandstone here is shielded from the surface elements of wind erosion, the walls in the canyons are smooth, swirling fanciful shapes, worn smooth and flowing from eons of water and flooding. It’s a very fluid look, like an abstract sculpture. Add the play of light on the fancifully shaped surfaces and you have a memorable stroll. The walk is only about 225 yards long an easy stroll for almost everyone that does not require climbing or any great skill.
Whether you choose Upper Antelope or Lower Antelope, you’re not left alone. The canyons are on Navajo tribal land. The tribe created a tribal park out of the place, and all trips have to be guided and carry an entrance fee around $35, plus a tribal permit fee and tax, plus a tip for the guide. For a family of, say, four, this is a bit pricey, but none in the family will forget it.
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That’s especially true of the Lower Antelope trip. The lower canyon is shallower and more of a classic "V" shape. Here, too, the sandy floor ends at steep-walled cliffs cut into graceful spiraling shapes worn smooth by water, and kept smooth due to its protection from the elements.
Speaking of elements, it was rushing floodwater that carved the wondrous shapes. Those same flash floods still happen, and happen unpredictably. On August 12, 1997, a Navajo guide led 11 tourists — seven from France, two from the U.S. and one each from Sweden and the U.K.– down the wooden ladders to the canyon floor. It was just sprinkling there, but unknown to them, a gully washer had dumped an enormous amount seven miles upstream in the Antelope drainage. By the time the flash flood hit the tourist party there was no time and no way to escape. All but the Navajo guide, who had received swift-water training, perished in a deluge of water and debris. A later flood, on October 30, 2006, raged for 36 hours, causing so much damage that cleanup and repairs took five months.
Now, the Tribal Park has NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts available at the fee station, and there’s a siren to blast into Antelope at the earliest warning of upstream floodwaters. And in the lower canyon, where wooden ladders were quickly swept away, eliminating any chance of escape, the ladders are now steel and bolted to the rock walls. Those ladders, in places several stories high, make Lower Antelope a tougher hike, but still one suitable for kids.
In Antelope, you must take a camera. Low light levels in places mean long exposures are required, so bring a tripod. And wear comfy hiking shoes. Your Navajo guides will do the rest, telling the history of their people and explaining the area’s geology.
Your pictures will dazzle your viewers. They’ll all want to know, "Where’s that place?" and after seeing it, they’ll want to go there too.
If after your tour you’ve worked up a sweat, Lake Powell is just down the road.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.
Park City to Page, Arizona — 389 miles