There are thousands of colorful sandstone slot canyons in the Southwest and because no two are the same, exploring each is a unique experience. Some of the most picturesque canyons are found deep in the wilderness and only seen by those who hike many hours, even days, over rough terrain.
Upper Antelope and Lower Antelope canyons are two of the most photographed slots in the Southwest, not only because they are absolutely stunning, but also because reaching them doesn’t require a lot of physical effort. These choice canyons are only a few miles apart within the same drainage on the Navajo Reservation just minutes from Page, Arizona. Both feature corkscrew slots, primarily shaped by water and wind and made up of Navajo sandstone. The Antelope Canyon drainage eventually empties into Lake Powell.
Upper Antelope is by far the most visited; it’s the best choice for all ages due to the ease of walking through it; furthermore its brilliant hues of orange, pink and reds rarely disappoint. The Navajo call Upper Antelope Tse’bighanilini, which means “the place where water runs through it.” Its English name recalls the herds of antelope that once roamed freely through this area. The trailhead elevation is at about 4,372 feet so you can expect outside temperatures to be about 10 degrees cooler than in Las Vegas.
To visit either slot you will need to sign up with a Navajo guide; the upper and lower canyons are separate excursions.
For Upper Antelope Canyon, you will join up with your guide in Page or the outer parking area along State Route 98 and from there you will go with your guide in their vehicle a few miles along a very sandy drainage to the entrance. Most of the guides use this opportunity to educate visitors about the geology, history of the land and the Navajo culture.
Many Navajos consider the canyon a cathedral, many pausing before entering. It is and remains a spiritual place for most.
Once inside you will get to see many of the most famous and recognizable formations such as The Bear, The Weeping Eye and the Dancing Flame. In most places, when you gaze up you will see light beams but will not be able to see the full sky; just the twists and turns of the rock that rise some 100 feet in places. The entire tour is only through a section about 200 yards and then the canyon opens up once again.
Lower Antelope Canyon is called Hasdeztwasi or “Spiral Rock Arches.” This slot is a little more difficult to maneuver in certain areas, and stairs and ladders are used in places to aid visitors. To some visitors it might feel claustrophobic. But it’s quite a stunning canyon and the sandstone seems to have more of a purplish tint compared to Upper Antelope.
As in any narrow canyon, flash flooding can be extremely dangerous, especially during and after a rain storm. Area rain funnels down into these canyon drainages bringing debris and mud along. Even if the sky is clear directly above, a storm miles away can still cause a torrent of water through here taking with it everything in its way. During a visit to Upper Antelope I once observed a juniper log lodged about 30 feet up the canyon wall, a remnant of a past flooding event.
There is a bit of a pall over the lower canyon as this was the site of a horrible flash flood incident years ago. In 1997, 11 tourists visiting Lower Antelope were killed when an afternoon thunderstorm caught them by surprise. Back then there were no escape routes within the canyon, but since then they have been installed. There is a large memorial plaque at the trailhead in honor of the people who perished.
For a list of approved Navajo guides and other information, contact 928-645-0268 or www.visitarizona.com. Masks are mandatory on all tours through the canyons.
Page has full services for travelers including lodging, restaurants and markets.
Many of Deborah Wall’s columns have been compiled into books about hiking in the Southwest. She is also the author of “Great Hikes, a Cerca Country Guide” and a co-author of the book “Access For All, Seeing the Southwest With Limited Mobility.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.
Take Interstate 15 north about 150 miles to Utah State Route 9 east/West State Street in Washington. Take exit 16 and continue to Utah State Route 59 south, which becomes Arizona State Route 398 east, to U.S. Route 89 south/East 300 Street, about 70 miles. Follow U.S. Route 89 south through to Page, Arizona, about 70 miles.