The waving walls of Antelope Canyon

My husband and I, sandwiched between a middle-aged Russian couple and a trio of Japanese exchange students, fidget in our seats and exchange glances as an argument rages next to us. An overzealous traveler in our group has jumped the gun and dropped the metal ladder from our truck with a resounding clang. The tour guide is not happy, and she isn’t shy about voicing her opinion.

“I told you to wait!”
“I’m sorry.”
“Well then wait!”
“I already said I was sorry, what else can I do?”
“Next time someone says to wait, then wait!”
“I said I was sorry!”

I can’t blame the traveler for taking initiative. We have just arrived at the mouth of Upper Antelope Canyon, the destination that we woke up at dawn to see, and a destination on many travelers’ must-visit lists in the American Southwest, including mine.

Tourists, tourists everywhere!

Antelope Canyon is one of the most popular slot canyons in the American southwest. Located just outside Page, Arizona, the slots are narrow and tall, a winding, zig-zagging path carved over millions of years from erosion and flooding. Visitors can see the way swirling water and wind have etched themselves into the canyon walls.

There are two slots: the upper canyon sits at ground level with walls meandering up from the sand. The lower canyon requires hiking down steep stairs and is slightly less busy.

Both make for excellent photographic opportunities and a psychedelic experience as travellers walk between the dusty Navajo sandstone formations.

Increased vandalism from tourism activity led to restrictions in 1997. Now everyone visiting the area is a visitor accompanied by a licensed Navajo guide.The only way in is via a part-highway, part-offroad route, complete with whipping wind and flying grit. It’s a beautiful and exhilarating ride.

Tours are limited to approximately 45-minutes at the canyon with an extra 20 minutes of land travel. Special tours for photographers grant a maximum of two hours inside. Our tour cost $35USD, but some reports online say they can cost up to $80USD.

Inside the waving walls

Cheryl, our tour guide, eventually cools down about the ladder mishap and gathers us together, explaining some rules before entering Upper Antelope Canyon. Stay together. Don’t carve “Smith wuz here” on the walls. Avoid flash photography if you want decent photos.

At 8:30am, the day is shaping up to be bright and sunny. Typical for late April. It’s a different story at the height of the summer months, Cheryl warns, as she points to a branch lodged in between the walls about 3 metres off the ground. The branch got stuck when water flooded the canyon and brought it well above human height, an occasional occurrence during monsoon season. When the canyons flood, tours pause until the water recedes, sometimes within 24 hours, sometimes taking weeks.

Within ten steps inside, I’m taking photos, swivelling left and right, moving sideways and backwards. There’s so much to take in!

Cheryl, used to bobbleheaded tourists, ushers the group along, pointing out rock formations and silhouettes aptly named “the bear,” “Abraham Lincoln,” “the heart,” and “the candlestick”. I hear hushed whispers of oohing and aahing, and it’s really a remarkable sight. Cheryl positions us at the “prime” photography spots, angling cameras in our hands for us to get the shot before motioning the next visitor forward. Those hoping to score serene shots of an empty canyon won’t have any luck on this tour as we’re whipped from one spot to the next.

Around us, I can tell that other tour guides aren’t as no-nonsense as Cheryl. Some come with laser pointers and flashlights to help outline specific shapes. Regardless of their methods, the tour guides are almost unnecessary as a visual wonderland unfurls before me.

As we get deeper in, my sleeves unroll. The air becomes still and cool. It gets too dim for my dinky cell phone camera to get good photos. It doesn’t matter because I’m too busy looking around in wonder and avoiding jutting rocks. The only light source comes from above, lending a purple-orange glow to the walls. It’s a sight that photos can’t do justice.

We are told that the early morning hours are best for lighting and crowds. It’s hard to imagine the number of peak time visitors as we make our way back through the ⅛ mile canyon, hugging the walls to avoid oncoming groups.

As we emerge from the entrance/exit, the day has warmed up considerably, and I have to squint in the light. I peel down to my T-shirt, slip my sunglasses on and enjoy the ride back to Page, savouring the refreshing wind in my hair and fresh memories of one of the coolest places I’ve seen. Cheryl the tour guide might see Antelope Canyon so frequently that its magic is commonplace. But I didn’t come for the guide anyway.

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