the million dollar shot
The Grand Canyon may be America’s most famous gorge, but it is not its most photographed. That honor belongs to the much smaller Antelope Canyon, which also can be found in northern Arizona. Located on Navajo land near the town of Page, Antelope Canyon is about 75 miles away from Kanab — perfect driving distance for a day trip, especially since there are plenty of other landmarks en route to and around Page that can be added to the itinerary. Despite the crush of visitors, Antelope proved one of the most memorable sites of our Southwest road trip, which had already provided quite a number of remarkable highlights.
Antelope Canyon is perhaps the most stunning exemplar among the unique slot canyons that define the landscape of the American southwest. Slot canyons are created by flash floods and tend to be tall and narrow, some claustrophobically so. The upper portion of Antelope Canyon is barely 400 meters long and so narrow in some parts that one has to walk sideways to squeeze through. It is also indescribably beautiful.
The rocks and debris picked up by successive flash floods have left their mark on the canyon’s walls, carving the smooth sandstone into fantastic shapes. The walls taper as they ascend, almost touching at the very top, and the little light that filters through the narrow slit above turns the canyon’s walls into a rainbow of colors. In the summer months, beams of sunlight play on the canyon floor at noon. Even in the dead of winter, however, Antelope Canyon is a wondrous sight to behold.
Because Antelope Canyon is located on tribal land, access can only be obtained on a Navajo-guided tour. There are tour companies in Page that can book a tour beforehand, but it is just as easy to simply show up and go with one of the Navajo guides on site. The tours are identical and cost the same. At the appointed time, a fleet of pick-up trucks races across the dry, muddy riverbed towards a non-remarkable rock wall. If one did not know about the canyon’s existence and simply happened upon the crack in the wall that serves as its gateway, one could be forgiven for walking right on by without giving it a second thought.
The tour of Upper Antelope Canyon costs $40 per person, exclusive of the reservation fee, and lasts an hour, which may seem like a long time to walk 400 meters, but in reality rushes by in a flash. This is because there are so many visitors that the Navajo guides function primarily as ushers, striving for maximum efficiency as they shepherd their flocks into and out of the canyon. Sure, they stop to point out the canyon’s interesting features — a rock wall that looks like the bust of Abraham Lincoln, another that resembles a praying bear — but there is no time to linger and experiment with different camera settings and angles when there are dozens of tour groups crammed into the canyon’s tight space.
Everyone gets one or two shutter clicks at each stop before being hurried along. The only way to avoid the rush and attendant stress is by paying extra for the two-hour photographer’s tour, which we did not do. In addition to the extra time inside the canyon, the main perk of doing the photographer’s tour is the permission to bring along a tripod. The same low-light conditions that make the canyon beautiful also make it very difficult to photograph without a tripod, and it’s easy to get frustrated when the beauty one sees with one’s own eyes does not translate into the stunning photos one expects.
Having driven an hour and a half just to visit Antelope Canyon, we thought it would be silly to turn around and leave after just spending an hour there, so we went across the road to visit the lower portion of the canyon as well. As late as 2011, one could visit Lower Antelope Canyon without an organized tour, but the canyon’s rising popularity has put an end to that bonanza. The lower portion of the canyon is five times as long and is much wider than the upper portion. This means a lot more light filters through — the colors are softer, but also much easier to capture without a tripod.
Not only does the Lower Antelope Canyon tour cost less ($20/person when we visited last fall), but it’s also longer and less hurried. Our guide didn’t mind walking slowly and seemed unconcerned when we lingered behind and inadvertently joined a subsequent group. We spent an hour and a half in the lower portion of the canyon and our photos of it turned out much better. Though we preferred the Lower Antelope, both parts are worth visiting — both because they are incredibly beautiful and also because they are so different from one another.