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. Here is what you need to know before visiting Antelope Canyon, Arizona.
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.
Antelope Canyons are roughly 6.5km (4mi) out of Page. From Page, take highway AZ-89 south, and turn left into AZ-98. Travel approximately 3km (2mi) and you will find a driveway on the right that leads to the Upper Antelope Canyon carpark. To access Lower Antelope Canyon, continue a smidgen further on AZ-98 and turn left onto the Coppermine Road (222) where you will find the driveway to Lower Antelope Canyon Visitor Center and carpark 0.8km (0.5mi) up the road on your left. If you can see a dirty great big power station on a nearby hill, you’re generally heading in the right direction.
Places to stay near Antelope Canyon
You will find all nearby hotels and lodging in the town of Page. We stayed at the Best Western Plus at Lake Powell, and found it to be very comfortable with friendly staff and breakfast. Camping is not allowed within Antelope Canyon, you will find the nearest campsite at Wahweap Marina on Lake Powell.
Visiting Antelope Canyon
Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons are not part of a National Park, rather they are on Navajo Nation land and are managed as such. The Canyons can be visited by guided tour only, ranging in price from $20-$80 per person, plus a Navajo fee of $8 per person (no Navajo fees apply for children aged 7 and under).
Some people recommend just turning up and jumping on the next tour, however, this is only good during the 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 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. Therefore I would advise making a reservation in advance if you are pressed for time or are travelling in peak tourist season.
If you can afford the extra expense and have the equipment, a photography tour will afford you more time with fewer 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 me, who share a camera.
Antelope Canyon hours are 8am-5pm daily, late March through to November 1. 9am-3pm November 2 through to March.
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 easier walking (you will be walking on soft sand, which requires some stability) and narrow at the top which is responsible for channelling 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 in your frame. Tours purchased at the Tribal Park Gate are all the same in price and style. Tours booked through the operators below will vary in price due to inclusions such as transfers from your accommodation.
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 that people must move through in single file and it is easier to take pictures without other visitors standing in them. Again, you will need to do some walking on soft sand. Tours are offered through the two operators listed below and are virtually identical in style and price.
Upper Antelope Canyon tour operators
|Tsosie’s Slot Canyon Tours||Antelopeslotcanyon.com||(928) 645 5594|
|Ekis’ Antelope Canyon Tours||Antelopecanyon.com||(928) 645 9102|
|Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours||Navajoantelopecanyon.com||(928) 380 1874|
Lower Antelope Canyon tour operators
|Dixie Ellis’ Antelope Canyon Tours||Antelopelowercanyon.com||(928) 640 1761|
|Ken’s Lower Antelope Canyon Tours||Lowerantelope.com||(928) 606 2168|
Alternative ways to see Antelope Canyon
Antelope Canyon is over 16km (10mi) long in total, extending to Lake Powell. For a different perspective, you can see the water side of the Canyon via a kayak or boat tour.
Antelope Canyon kayak and boat tour operators
|Lake Powell||lakepowell.com/things-to-do/boat-tours/antelope-canyon-tour/||(888) 896 329|
|Hidden Canyon Kayak||lakepowellhiddencanyonkayak.com/||(928) 660 1836|
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 may be cancelled as a flash flood precaution. Also, light beams are not visible on cloudy days.
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 eleven 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
Bags are not allowed in the Canyons. If you book a tour that includes transfers from your accommodation, consider that you may not have someplace secure to leave anything you don’t take into the Canyons and therefore you need to channel you minimalist self. Those who are self-driving can always lock things in their car.
Things to take:
- Cash for your Navajo land permit and tipping your guide.
- Plenty of water, especially in summer.
- Small snacks.
- Camera with spare battery and SD card/film. 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.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes.
Things not to take:
- Selfie sticks.
- Tripods unless on a photography tour.
- Backpacks or large bags.
Slot canyon alternatives
If for some reason you don’t want to visit Antelope Canyon or miss out on a coveted tour spot, there are a couple of alternatives in the area, though they will require much more climbing and hiking.
- Wire Pass to Buckskin Gulch Trail 5.5km (approx. 3.4mi) round trip
- Waterhole Canyon (also known as “Secret Canyon” and “Horseshoe Bend Canyon”), entering just below US-89 and hiking eastward. The trail is on Navajo Nation Land, therefore you need to acquire a permit which can be purchased the day of your hike at Horseshoe Bend Tours in Page.
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.
- 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. Also, find a full Southwest Roadtrip Itinerary that will get you from Las Vegas to Santa Fe in 10 days, covering all the best attractions along the way.
Peace, love and inspiring travel,