Gorgeous and utterly commercialized, I have yet to decide quite how I feel about my trip to Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona. Each twist and turn of its red walls was picture perfect, but behind every one hid yet another group of chattering tourists. The contrast between the near-spiritual nature of the place and the constant shepherding of people through the valley was jarring.
Nobody is allowed unsupervised into either of the two canyons, upper or lower. Instead, scheduled tour groups are run by the Navajo Nation, the owners of the land. I opted for the official photo tour of Lower Antelope Canyon, supposedly the less busy of the two. The photo tour extended my hike from a mere forty-five minutes to two hours and permitted me to bring a tripod down into the valley. While I’m happy to have had the extra time, it did come with a hefty price tag. Nevertheless, seeing how quickly the regular tour groups were shuttled through convinced me that I had made the right decision – in the time I spent in the slot canyon at least 15 different tour groups passed by, each vigorously hurried along by its Navajo guide, with barely an opportunity to pause and snap a picture.
The canyon’s surroundings are in sharp contrast to the beauty found within it. The land is flat and dusty, and a power plant belching smoke is perched on a ridge above the canyon. The beginning of the tour is a short, uninspiring walk from the parking lot to the far side of the canyon, which looks like little more than a crack in the ground.
A quick descent down the steep metal staircase was all that was necessary to escape the bleak landscape. Below, the twisting red rock of the canyon looked like a surging wave, frozen in time. The path flowed through whorls of orange, red and purple rock. In places the sandstone was twisted into fantastic shapes – most memorably a woman with her hair tousled by an invisible breeze.
I snapped photo after photo – trying and failing to convey the beauty of the place. But it didn’t take long before I became disenchanted. There are only so many pictures one can take of red rocks, especially when knowing that photographer after photographer has gone on the same tour and taken the same pictures tens of thousands of times before you. The experience felt canned, with little possibility for exploration or originality.
Even now, months after my trip I have trouble identifying my feelings from that day. All the pictures I had seen of the canyon prior to my trip had shown gorgeous, liquid orange walls without a person in sight. And upon leaving the canyon my camera was full of those pictures. In fact, looking through them afterwards it looks my travel companion and I had the place completely to ourselves. I was perpetuating the myth of a private outdoor mecca, when that place has ceased to exist.
Do I recommend visiting Antelope Canyon? Yes. But go expecting to share a beautiful place with hundreds of other people. And if you want slot canyons that leave some room for solitary, non-technical exploration I recommend going further north to Peekaboo and Spooky Canyons.