The sprawling Navajo Nation has no shortage of magical places, but the most photogenic might be Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon, located just outside Page, Arizona. They are a testament to the power of water and time, as over the years, flash flooding has created deep, gorgeous passageways—called slot canyons—that you can walk through.
The name Antelope Canyon comes from an era when antelopes ran wild in the canyons, but the only animals you’ll see these days are other human beings. The 600-foot-long stretch of Upper Antelope Canyon, which is also known as the Corkscrew, is the more popular of the two canyons. The walls can reach 120 feet, and it’s easier to access; exploring the half-mile Lower Antelope—or the Crack—requires walking up and down metal stairways. Visitors to Upper Antelope Canyon are also more likely to see beams of sunlight, which are prized by photographers. (Slower snappers will want to know that there’s a two-hour limit in each canyon.)
As you might expect, both canyons have long been considered spiritual places by the Navajo. You may only visit with a guide although that’s as much because flooding remains a possibility, and rain doesn’t have to occur on the site for water to come rushing through the canyons.
Stunning beauty awaits. Antelope Canyon in Arizona on the Navajo Indian Reservation is the most photographed slot canyon in America. It’s a sacred and spiritual place. Serene and mystical. A quiet reverence. A special work of art created by nature. An unimaginable blend of glowing pastel colors made brilliant by cascading beams of sunlight that illuminate an artful collection of sculpted sandstone in infinite shape and form. Antelope Canyon is like a vibrant underground cathedral where every step exposes a unique scene of depths of exquisite contrast and brilliance. Just gaze and imagine an evolving millions upon millions of years where flowing water and winds carved this sacred wonder. Imagine how ancient peoples must have respected and protected this place to preserve it as a gift to all civilizations to come. It took the forces of water, wind, and climate extremes over millions of years to create this cathedral of shapes and its brilliant array of color. During rain storms, water is collected in a basin above the slot canyon. When the basin overflows, it forms a flash flood that rushes through the canyon carving shapes of sandstone which is essentially petrified sand dunes. With each succeeding flood, carvings of new shapes and polishing of existing formations gradually occur. Yes, there could be potential danger, but there is only remote chance. During rain storms on the Navajo Indian Reservation, rain-runoffs slowly converge to form quick-moving flash floods. But guides and management carefully watch weather patterns carefully. When poor weather and potential rain storms are predicted, the canyons will be closed and entry is prohibited. This is a reason visits to the canyons are prohibited without being accompanied by an approved guide
Seasonal waters from Antelope Creek flow through both canyons and drain from the south, into nearby Lake Powell. The rainiest months in the canyon area are generally August and September. But again, when conditions exist for flooding, entry to the canyons will be prohibited.
When approaching upper Antelope Canyon, there is no obvious clue as to its location. The trail seems to end at the base of a red sandstone plateau about 20 yards high, but the sight of an Indian jewelry stall soon indicates its position – the entrance is a narrow curved slit in the cliffs only a few feet wide. Once inside, the temperature drops as much as 20 degrees as the visitor enters one of the most beautiful of all natural formations. The sunlight filtering down the curved sandstone walls makes magical, constantly changing patterns and shadows in many subtle shades of color. Some sections of the canyon are wide and bright, while others are narrower and more cave-like, with no light reaching the sandy floor. After only 150 yards or so, the canyon becomes suddenly much shallower near the top of the plateau. It may take only 3 or 4 minutes to walk through, but the canyon is well worth the arduous trek or expensive journey required to get there. Pictures taken here adorn camera shops and photographic manuals throughout the world, and usually there will be many people waiting with tripods and light meters trying to compose the perfect shot, and grumbling when other people walk in front of their two minute exposure. There are other equally short but pretty narrows further upstream, though these are not open to visitors.
The lower canyon is longer and deeper than the upper section, but also slightly more challenging, requiring climbing down ladders in some places to descend several sheer drops. It was here that 11 people were drowned in a flash flood in August 1997, when water 50 feet deep from a thunderstorm 5 miles away swept through the canyon, eventually deepening it by 4 feet. Lower Antelope Canyon was closed for 9 months before reopening with improved safety features, and now all visitors must now be accompanied by a guide. Both parts of the canyon are still beautiful, but any sense of adventure or tranquility is long since gone – best to try one of the hundreds of other Southwest slot canyons for these qualities. The nearest alternative, free except for the standard Navajo hiking permit, is lower Water Holes Canyon, the section west of US 89.
The peak season that attracts the largest crowds is April though October. To avoid big crowds, take the earliest tours that typically last 1.5 to 2.0 hours. The best time to take photos is about mid-day from April through September when the sun is overhead casting beams of light into the canyon. Visitors must be accompanied by a guide approved and licensed by the Navajo Nation to enter Antelope Canyon. Fees vary by specific guide and a separate entrance fee is charged. Contact one of the approved tour guides. Some tour companies offer photography and specialized custom tours.