The American Southwest has always inspired me, visually and creatively, in a way unlike any other part of the country. I’ve never been a religious man, but if ever I’ve found a place that made me feel more spiritually connected to it, I surely don’t remember it. Every year I try and get out to explore and wander through the red-rock deserts of the Colorado Plateau, each time trying to find something new, some place where I can reconnect, recharge, and respark my creative engine.
In the spring of 2014, my wanderlust was at an all time high. My show at the time, ABC Family’s “Chasing Life,” had gone on a six week hiatus, a lifetime in television production terms, and I was left with the perfect opportunity to get out and see the Southwest during a time of year I’d never explored it. My sister and nephew flew down to meet me in Los Angeles, as it was Spring Break for him and she needed a break of her own, and I coerced them into joining me for a road trip through Utah and Arizona, culminating with dropping them off in Albuquerque to return home to Washington. The first place on my list of places I needed to see: Antelope Canyon.
Heart of the Canyon
If experiencing the Southwest is a spiritual experience, then Antelope Canyon is truly one of its most holy of places. It’s impossible to step foot into the outwardly unassuming crack in the ground and not be immediately stricken with a sense of awe and insignificance in the face of such beauty. This is a Mecca for photographers and artists and all lovers of nature, a place where you are instantly transported into an otherworldly maze of swirling colors and brilliant displays of light.
Twisting Canyon Walls
Light From Above
Before setting out on the road trip, I booked a tour from Adventurous Antelope Canyon Photo Tours, one of the Navajo-owned outfits operating tours into the canyon. As the site is on Navajo Nation land, and for obvious reasons considered a special place to the Navajo people, nobody is allowed to explore the canyon without a Navajo guide. At first, this put me off, because of the expense, which is not inconsiderable, and because I hated the idea of being led around in a group by a stranger when I was so accustomed to exploring on my own. It seemed, in my head, to taint the experience, to turn it into something akin to a theme park. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
There are going to be other experiences with other tour groups, but I can honestly say, as a photographer, there’s absolutely no other way I’d like to experience Antelope Canyon. Firstly, the sheer number of people in the small canyon is immediately off-putting, and that’s with restrictions on the size of tour groups and access to the canyon. Left to their own devices, the place would be crawling with tourists, and nobody would have a pleasant experience. Secondly, the dedicated photo tour experience was worth all the money I spent and then some, as this particular tour is given primacy of position and space within the canyon, and also allows you to explore other, secondary canyons off the main Antelope Wash. With up to four other canyons, including Rattlesnake, which I opted to wander through, there is a depth of experience offered by Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours that is simply not available from any of the other tour groups. In the main canyon, called Upper Antelope Canyon, the Photo Tour is immediately recognized by other tour guides, and they hold their groups back while you are given clean, unimpeded sight lines of the amazing rock formations and light bars. It’s well worth the cost, if for no other reason than you can get pictures without other people in them, an impossibility in any other scenario.
Entrance to Rattlesnake Canyon
We started the tour early, just me and one other photographer in the back seat of a rundown Toyota truck, bouncing along the dry wash basin toward Rattlesnake Canyon, the first stop on our tour. The guide was great, talkative and conversational, but unobtrusive, and when we got to the canyon, she let us have free reign, walking through the small crack in the ground without interference. I was able to take hundreds of pictures in relative isolation, the other photographer and I accommodating each other as we wandered and snapped away.
Rattlesnake Canyon Undulations
Rattlesnake Canyon is a more intimate experience than Upper Antelope. The slot itself is no more than twenty feet deep, and light bleeds through the upper opening and shades the walls in brilliant tones of orange and pinkish red. The sandstone here warps and twists with each turn, and narrow bends force you to breath in as you wind your way into small foyers, where tumbleweed huddles in pockets carved by centuries of water.
Pocket in Rattlesnake Canyon
As the sun came out of the sheet of gray obscuring it for much of the morning, the light became more dramatic, and the waves of sandstone seemed to ripple and undulate, glowing as the sun kisses them from the upper reaches.
Waves of Stone and Light
Edge of Light and Dark
The canyon itself is only a few hundred yards long, and soon I found myself exposed to the blue sky above, and finding traces of plant life, small desert flowers clinging to life in sandy pools, tumbleweed blowing down from the top by the slightest gusts of wind. Even after such a small amount of time in the canyon, I found myself oddly exposed by the sight of the sky, as if I’d left the comforting embrace of the cold stone into a far less inspiring, severe landscape. It was as far as I made it, I turned back to return to the swirls of rock that I had quickly become entranced with.
End of the Line
After an hour or so, we were asked to return to the truck, and we turned back to the parking lot to pick up half a dozen other photographers who’d signed up for only the Upper Antelope Canyon portion of the tour. We introduced ourselves as everybody piled into the truck, and quickly turned back, racing huge wagonloads of tourists across the wide wash toward our end goal, the unobtrusive crack in the ground that would become Antelope Canyon.From the outside, the canyon looms unimposingly amongst the rock wall at the end of the dry wash. Here a dozen trucks were lined up, offloading tour groups that filed into the gaping maw of the canyon and were soon lost to sight as we got ready to do the same.
Entrance to Upper Antelope Canyon
For all of its unassuming exterior, the interior entrance of the canyon is one of the most spectactular sights I’ve ever witnessed. Like a gothic cathedral, the twisting sandstone walls climb toward the light of the upper reaches, distorting perspective and ending in a jagged, teeth-like aperture in the ceiling.
The canyon winds through massive chambers and narrow crevasses, light streaming through the ceiling and cascading down the red and orange sandstone in the most amazing displays of light. The Photo Tour is timed to coincide with the optimal lighting conditions for photographers, and we were given a show that did not disappoint.
There is not a lot of time to take photos, in each room we had only a few minutes of great light before the sun moved or other tours encroached on our space. We huddled around the walls with our tripods and camera remotes, and all took long exposure shots as our guide through sand into the streaming light bars, solidifying their shape and casting a hazy glow to everything.
At each juncture, other guides would call out to wait for the Photo Tour to take their pictures, and we were treated a bit like VIP’s, which didn’t detract from the experience at all. There were dozens of other people in the canyon at the same time, perhaps hundreds, but the guides respected our space and made sure we were allowed to operate free of distraction or disturbance. It was most welcome.
Soon, though, it came time to leave the canyon, and return back to the parking lot where the day had started. It had been an eye opening experience, and one that I look forward to doing again.
If interested in exploring the canyon, I’d advise going during the off-seasons, early spring or late autumn, when the crowds are fewer and the temperatures a bit cooler. I’ve heard in summer months it’s unbearably hot around Page, Arizona, and rather unpleasant. Be sure to check weather conditions and don’t attempt to enter any slot canyon if there’s been rain anywhere nearby. In 1997, 10 tourists were killed in these canyons by a flash flood, and similar floods happen every year during the summer monsoons.