Even if the name Antelope Canyon is not familiar, it is quite likely you will recognize images of the smooth, twisting red rock formations that appear to be an underground passageway through layers of frozen swirls of red liquid.
Often the scenes of the formations feature shafts of sunlight radiating down from where the ceiling of the slot canyon is open to the sky. Located in Page, Arizona, photos from this natural wonder are frequently seen in commercials and displayed in photography exhibits.
Antelope Canyon was formed by Navajo Sandstone erosion, primarily resulting from flash flooding when rainfall runs into the extensive basin above the slot. The water picks up speed and sand as it rushes down into the narrow passageway. Over time, the passageways have been eroded away, making the corridors deeper and smoothing hard edges to form characteristic “flowing” shapes in the rock.
The canyon is inside the Navajo Tribal Park, and visitors must purchase a $25 ticket for a tour led by a Native American guide. About every 10 minutes, small groups are escorted on a short walk to the canyon’s entrance. A covered walkway and a steep metal stairway lead below the surface of the rocky landscape, and there is no hint of the experience that awaits just underground. Thus begins an hour-long, quarter-mile adventure on foot where every turn leads to new formations and photo opportunities.
Unlike a cave, Antelope Canyon is open at the top, so passage is lit by natural light from above. The angle of the sun and passing clouds combine to change the intensity of the colors inside the canyon walls as visitors traverse the hidden geological gem. From April through October, the path of the sun is highest in the sky, and the shafts of light shine down from the top to the floor below, creating the illusion of a spotlight shining downward.
As many as 2,000 people a day tour the canyon. But because tour groups are small, the walls are so close and the turns are so frequent, a tour does not necessarily feel crowded. In fact, the person in front, just a few feet away, is often out of sight.
There are several considerations before visiting the canyon. First, a hat with a brim will make the visit more enjoyable on a blustery day, when a mist of fine dust consistently falls into the canyon. Also, narrow passageways can make some people feel claustrophobic.
Physical limitations restrict some from taking the tour, as it requires climbing and descending several ladders. Also, while the bottom of the canyon is actually shaped like a “V,” sand has been brought in to create a level floor, but in places the canyon walls still remain barely wide enough for a foot. However, there is an Upper Antelope Canyon section, and tours there, while not quite as spectacular, are on one level.
“Until the late 1990s, anyone could enter Antelope Canyon on their own,” says Bubba Ketchersid, who has lived and worked in Page for 40 years and owns the Bear’s Den Bed and Breakfast in town.
The rains that still sculpt Antelope can result in tours being canceled, and the rain need not be close. In 1997, a heavy downpour occurred several miles away, although no rain fell at the canyon. Without warning, a rushing wall of water funneled into the slot and 11 tourists drowned.
“The tourists were from various countries throughout Europe, and the news reports received a lot of attention due to the beauty of the site,” Ketchersid says. “It was a tragedy, with the unexpected result that tourism increased dramatically.”
Today, a radio constantly monitors weather in the area, and tours are canceled when required.
“Most people come to Page for a day, and usually just to see Antelope Canyon, but once here they realize there is a week’s worth of outdoor activity,” Ketchersid says. He adds that perhaps 20 other similar canyons can be explored with private guides, and several hiking trails pass through rock formations so fragile that permits are required.
Within a 10-minute drive of central Page, a wide trail leads out to Horseshoe Bend, the often-photographed spot where the Colorado River makes a dramatic, wide curve. Some consider the spot as the start of the Grand Canyon.
At the edge of Page on 161,000-acre Lake Powell, marinas offer boat tours and houseboats are for rent. A little farther away, the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon beckon.
We already plan to return in 2018.