Unless you’ve been living under Navajo Sandstone, you’ve probably seen images of the exceptionally beautiful slot canyons of Arizona, the most famous of which is Antelope Canyon. Antelope, which is actually two Canyons – Upper and Lower – has been beguiling tourists, photographers and nature lovers since they were opened to the public in 1997. Some would complain about their popularity with the masses, however I would argue there are good reasons for that: The warm hues and undulating curves of flood sculpted stone, ethereal hourglass sand-falls and legendary light beams make these other-worldly landscapes extremely attractive.
The making of a slot canyon
Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons would have begun millions of years ago as no more than cracks in the ground. Over time, weathering and erosion largely caused by flash flooding has carved out two narrow gorges in the Navajo Sandstone termed slot canyons. This is why Upper Antelope Canyon is known to the Navajo people as Tse’ bighanilini, meaning “the place where water runs through rocks.”
How to get to Antelope Canyon
Antelope Canyon is located on Navajo Nation land just outside of Page in northern Arizona. The closest airports are:
- Page Municipal Airport, Page, AZ
- Grand Canyon National Park Airport, AZ
- McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas, NV
- Sky Harbor Airport, Phoenix, AZ
It is best to rent a car so that you are not dependent on tour buses or tours that offer transport and can explore other attractions in the area such as Horseshoe Bend and Lake Powell.
Visiting the Canyons
Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons can be visited by guided tour only ranging in price from $20-$60 per person plus a Navajo fee of $8 per person. Some recommend just turning up and jumping on the next tour, however, this is only good during off-season and non-holiday periods or if you have some flexibility in your itinerary.
On the day we arrived tours were booked out for the next 24hrs and we had to return the next morning hoping to get in on a cancellation, which thankfully we did. In addition, although the tours were departing the visitors center on schedule, Lower Antelope Canyon was so full of people they were backed up for 2-3hours waiting to actually get in.
If you can afford the extra expense and have the equipment, a photography tour will afford you more time with less people. In order to take part in a photography tour, each person must have their own SLR and tripod. This was a drawback for JP and I, who share a camera.
Upper vs Lower Antelope Canyon
Upper Antelope Canyon aka The Crack, is the more popular of the two, for a couple of reasons: Firstly it is wide and flat on the bottom for easy walking, and narrow at the top which is responsible for channeling sunlight into its famous light beams. The disadvantages of the wide Canyon floor is that it is more attractive to less able visitors and therefore busier overall, and it’s hard to take a picture without another visitor your frame. Also, note that light beams are not visible on cloudy days.
Lower Antelope Canyon is narrower at the bottom than at the top, hence it’s nickname The Corkscrew. Experiencing the Canyon requires the use of steep stairs and ladders. The bottom of the Canyon is sometimes barely wide enough to place your foot down flat, so you need to be able-bodied and willing. The advantage of this photography-wise is people must move through in single file and it is easier to take pictures without people standing in them.
Best time to visit Antelope Canyon
If you are set on capturing light beams, you need to visit during the summer months. Generally, beams start to appear at the beginning of April and last through to early October. You will also need to book your tour when the sun is highest, between 10am and 1pm is said to be the best. Note this time of year will be peak tourist season and the warmest weather. Summer is also Monsoon Season and there is a greater chance your tour is will be cancelled as a flash flood precaution.
Between mid-October and late-March there are no light beams and therefore fewer tourists, however, tours still sell out during holidays such as the week of Thanksgiving when we visited. The weather at this time is more comfortable, in fact, it gets quite cool inside the Canyons. Winter tours leave as late as 4pm, which can be very dark inside the Canyons and therefore no good for photography.
See more about Antelope Canyon weather here.
In addition to the aforementioned accessibility issues with navigating the Lower Canyon, flash floods are lethal in slot canyons. Rainfall as far away as Bryce Canyon can trigger surges of water through the narrow gorges. After 11 visitors died in a flash flood incident in the Canyon’s opening year, vigilance by tour companies has increased however it never hurts to do your own due diligence by checking local and surrounding weather conditions.
What to take
In general, ensure you have cash for your Navajo land permit and tipping your guide. Take along plenty of water and snacks.
More specifically for your tour, bags are not allowed in the Canyons so be prepared to just take along drinking water and your camera. Tripods are only allowed on photography tours. A bandana and brimmed hat or cap may also prove useful in keeping sand and dust out of your eyes and shirt on windy days.
Last thoughts and tips
- Note that photos of the Canyons seen online are often taken with long exposures and have undergone post-processing to enhance light and colour. In reality, the Canyon’s can be dark and colours may appear less vivid. That being said they are still beautiful and absolutely worth visiting.
- If Antelope Canyon doesn’t sound like your scene, see my upcoming Southwest Road Trip Itinerary for some less tourist frequented alternatives in the Page area.
- Remember that Antelope Canyon is a spiritual place for the Navajo people and a landscape formation that deserves to be protected for future generations to experience – please treat them with the respect they deserve.
Have you been to Antelope Canyon, Arizona? What was your experience? Please share with us in the comments.
Peace, love and inspiring travel,