Our world is changing. Cataclysmic political shifts constantly cause havoc and turmoil, but travel fans are concerned with more subtle upheaval. Mother Nature demonstrates great patience crafting her gems and these showpieces have been around a very long time. So how could it be that Antelope Canyon, located just outside of Page, Arizona, USA seemed to pop up out of nowhere?
It was only about ten years ago when I first saw pictures of this incredible slot canyon, featuring dazzling waves of sculpted sandstone illuminated by sneaking sunbeams. Shaking off the awe, I became puzzled how it was possible to be roaming the planet so many years and still be totally unaware of the phenomenon? Well, probably because its creation was fast tracked by flash floods carving Navajo sandstone. In fact, Antelope Canyon was unknown until 1931 when happened upon by a young Navajo girl tending her sheep nearby. Located on Navajo reservation property, the site escaped publicity until tours began being offered in 1997 – explaining why it was off my radar.
The magnificent beauty of Antelope Canyon did not take long to catch the eye of tourists and today it is likely the most photographed slot canyon in the world. When a friend asked whether I was interested in venturing out west to go hiking, I can honestly tell you my decision was immediate as soon as she mentioned Antelope Canyon would be on the itinerary. I will share a few details around the formation of this marvel, but somehow I doubt you will need anything beyond a few visual images to become intoxicated and place this near the top of your list of future destinations.
I mentioned flash floods were the driver of the canyon’s rapid development, but other influences were simply seasonally heavy rainfall (just the plummeting raindrops, not the rushing river generated) and wind brushing sand over the works. Results are passageways where the sandstone walls,
appropriately enough, appear to be ‘flowing’. Add to this the sandblasting action of desert winds and you wind up with a remarkable tableau.
An intriguing facet is the existence of two distinct canyons which are in some ways polar opposites. We visited Lower Antelope Canyon, named the “corkscrew” for its spiral descent beneath the earth’s surface. You enter the narrow cavern by descending a steep stairwell and proceed by climbing a few ladders to negotiate ups and downs along the way, though most of the path is level. Of course the journey concludes by ascending another ladder to return to the light. While there is no strenuous exertion, the Lower Canyon requires some effort and does not appeal to those prone to claustrophobia, making this less popular.
Upper Canyon, within a few miles of Lower, gets its name for just cause. This latter canyon does not descend below ground level (its nickname is the “crack”), so no ladders are required and sunlight is more plentiful with the open roof. Steep canyon walls still limit sunlight to barely peep in and the effect is much like the Lower Canyon. Unfortunately the sun needs to be high in the sky and little, if any, daylight makes it in between October and March.
The Navajo nation has made Antelope Canyon a Tribal Park and access is restricted to guided tours provided by authorized agents. I am happy to
report the guides employed by our provider were native Navajo, able to share personal history and customs in addition to quality information around this miracle of nature. Beyond the added dimension of cultural insight, our guide offered several other bonuses. Accompanied by the guide for the group ahead (we were ushered through in groups of ten, but everyone queues up in a massive gang at the initial stairway leading down into Lower Antelope Canyon), the pair displayed how the slot canyons were formed by repeatedly piling up sand at our feet and pouring bottled water over the mass (imitating both flash floods and rainfall). This basic demonstration illustrated mechanics of slot canyon creation, allowing our group to appreciate nature at work.
Even better, our guide halted the group three different occasions and personally adjusted the settings of everyone’s digital camera to best capture dynamics of the particular stretch we were entering. I was impressed by this personal touch, not to mention her patience and camera knowledge (she updated each device quite quickly). This enabled everyone to capture vivid memories, and what memories! I will confess it is a crowded affair and you are often bumping up against other folks, usually where a landmark view exists. The stellar sight which drew the crowd alleviates the pain, however, and my favorite was ‘woman with blowing hair’, because this lady seemed to capture the attitude of the environment.
And crowds be damned, inevitably there are moments when you cannot glimpse another human being. I found these brief stretches to be utterly magical, making it far too easy to imagine you have travelled to an alien planet. Possibly not that far – I need to remark this was quite similar to Petra and resurrected vivid memories of walking through the Siq there. Best of all, whether there were folks around or not, every direction you gaze reveals delightfully polished waves of reddish-orange sandstone, dappled by sunlight leaking in from above.
The other nice feature was the lack of being rushed through. In the past there has been disappointment over being hustled through a popular venue, but not at Lower Antelope Canyon. The length of this underground jaunt was about 400 meters, but we were down below for a little over an hour to savor the unique grace. Even the ending had a special charm. You think you are merely climbing up a ladder, but suddenly discover yourself exiting through a narrow crack in the earth’s surface.
It is nice to know the world continues to create wonders and I have to say the lesson today was to keep searching for places where antelope may play.