Mother Earth’s Sacred Ground…The Colorful Antelope Canyons

The Antelope Canyons in Northern Arizona have been on my bucket list ever since  I saw unbelievably gorgeous pictures of the canyons several years ago. Wiping the canyons off my list had not happened, until now.

The plan was in place…pick up my husband, who was working in Las Vegas and my daughter, who was also there seeing the Backstreet Boys (yes, they are still performing and I was told it was an amazing concert), and continue on to Page, Arizona, home to the Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons.

Page is an easy four hour drive from Vegas on both highway and two lane roads. Expect to pass scenic red-rock vistas and eventually travel through Kanab, Utah, which is a gateway to Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon National Parks.

Our trip was in the middle of March with perfect mid-70 degree sunny weather, providing beautiful lighting to the natural towering cliffs and rock structures along the highway.  Every bend in the road provided a view more beautiful than the last.

The city of Page is accessed by crossing over the third largest arch bridge in Northern America, the Glen Canyon Dam Bridge at Lake Powell. A stop at the adjacent Visitors Center is a must and a walk across the bridge offers gorgeous lake and Colorado River gorge views.

                                                                                  pc: Marriott Courtyard Page at Lake Powell

We headed to our lodging for the night, the Marriott Courtyard Page at Lake Powell. The hotel is designed in the southwest adobe style, with the majority of rooms facing the beautiful vistas of the Glen Canyon National Recreational Area. The hotel offers a full service restaurant and bar, and a beautiful outdoor pool area.

After dropping our luggage in the room, we headed out to see if we could jump on a tour of the Upper Antelope Canyon.  We chose to visit this canyon first, as we heard it was the less crowded of the two canyons.  We did not have reservations and after visiting a few tour groups near the hotel, all with “Sold Out for the Day” signs hanging in the window, we searched online and fortunately found one of the six tour companies who operate in the Upper Canyon having space for us.

We found Adventurous Canyon Tours easily at mile marker 302 on highway 98, about ten minutes from the hotel. We were assigned to Presley, a Navajo guide who would escort us on the tour.  The tour began with a 3-mile ride down a dusty and sandy river bed in an old retired military transport truck, eventually dead-ending at the mouth of the Upper Canyon. We felt fortunate for the transport experience, as most of the other visitors were in SUV’s or open-air trucks. The beginning of this tour was definitely an “E-Ticket” ride!

Before entering the opening to the canyon, Presley offered suggestions for picture taking and more importantly, suggested to occasionally put down the camera and absorb the natural beauty of what we were about to see.

One step in the canyon took my breath away with the rich colorful sandstone rock formations and interestingly angled sandstone walls. It was the lighting against the rocks, creating various shadows and images, that make it easy to understand why this canyon routinely makes the top 10 list of Most Photographed Slot Canyons in the world. Both the Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons are considered “slot” canyons, due to their natural design of being significantly deeper than they are wide.

The Antelope Canyons are located on Navajo Nation Land, and all tours must include a Navajo guide.  It’s with good intention because it is the guides who instill a sense of respect for their beautiful canyons.  It was clear that Presley took pride in his job as a canyon guide. He was informative, knowledgeable and interesting.  He also shared information about the culture of the Navajo, including their strong sense of family.

Presley shared historical information about the Antelope Canyons; how they were formed by millions of years of water, sand and wind rushing through the sandstone crevices during the seasonal floods. He described how they were originally discovered in the early 1930’s by Pronghorn Antelope herders who went in search of their flocks.

The Navajo name for Upper Antelope Canyon is Tsé bighánílíní, which translates loosely to “the place where water runs through rocks.”  It is also known as “the Corkscrew” due to the twists and turns and oddly shaped walls of the canyon.  This is more of a walk than a hike and is less than a half mile up and back down the same route, with little to no climbing.

I had read reviews where visitors felt rushed through the canyon, but this was not the case with Presley.  The tour encourages you to take as many pictures as you want as you complete the first half of the walk, then encourages you to put your devices away and simply experience the canyon on your way back to where you began.

I’m glad it’s done this way, as I was intentional about experiencing what the canyon had to offer. I ran my hands over the smooth sculptured magenta and orange colored walls and imagined the power of water, sand, and the wind that has rushed through this canyon to create such unusual beauty. According to Presley, water and sand traveling from upstream, when filtered into the narrow Upper Canyon, can travel over fifty miles per hour, creating new characteristics in the rocks each time a flood occurs.

We were fortunate to see a beautiful light beam that snuck through the cracks in this canyon.  Typically, these light beams do not appear until the beginning of April, but on this mid-March trip, we were simply lucky to experience one!  Views of light beams continue through the beginning of October.

The guides, many who have lived on Navajo Nation Land for their entire lives, usher hundreds of thousands of visitors each year from around the world, who come to experience a trek through the canyons. Our guide explained how the tribe never forgets to pay respect to Mother Nature’s handiwork in the canyons.

I am not sure how anyone can come out of the canyon tour and not feel some type of spiritual tug from Mother Nature. Pictures and words will never truly describe what we saw.  The Upper Antelope Canyon was truly an experience that should not be missed.

That evening we choose a local BBQ joint, Big John’s Texas Barbecue, located in the heart of Page’s business district. Housed in an old gas station, you know you found the spot, with the double-barreled smoker sending up a signal.  The restaurant has indoor and outside seating, with picnic benches covered with gingham tablecloths.

We opted to sit outside and watch the beautiful Arizona sun melt into the horizon.  Big John’s is standard BBQ fare, served with a side of good old fashion friendly service. You will find BBQ everything, including beef brisket, baby back pork ribs, pulled pork, smoked chicken, butter-smothered cornbread, beans and coleslaw. A vegetarian salad is also offered. Leave room for one of their luscious fresh baked fruit cobbler or brownie deserts, that is, if you can find room after dinner!  Weekends include a entertainment by a local country band, so plan your timing right and it can be a great evening after a canyon tour.

The next morning we drove directly to the Lower Antelope Canyon, also located on highway 98.  There are only two tour operators who take visitors into this canyon, so our advance reservation with Dixie Ellis Lower Antelope Canyon Tours was a blessing.  We met our guide, Daniel, and other visitors in our group, and walked about ten minutes down an easy dirt path with few obstacles to the opening of the Lower Canyon.

This canyon is given the name Hazdistazí, or “spiral rock arches” by the Navajo, and is affectionately known as “The Crack” for its narrowness and steep entrance….just a crack in the open desert to which you will use a set of stairs to descend to the sandy riverbed below.

The stairs are a bit dicey if you have any fear of heights or simply can’t maneuver yourself down steep stairs. There are additional stairs throughout the one-mile, one-way walk, some without railings, eventually ascending through a crack to the surface. This canyon has more semblance of a hike, as there are numerous narrow inclines, twists and turns, and low ceiling rocks.

After experiencing the absolute beauty of the Upper Antelope Canyon the day prior, I did not expect the Lower Antelope Canyon would be able to take my breath away. Yet, as we descended into the canyon, my jaw dropped with the unusual beauty of this canyon!  Given it is narrower than the Upper Canyon, the lighting created various reflections on the walls and the views were more defined and intensified.

We started the tour around 10:00 am and were treated to numerous light beam views throughout the walk, and they were spectacular! The pace of this walk, as with the Upper Canyon was not rushed, contrary to what I read in many blogs about the canyons.

We surfaced out of a large crack of the canyon to a warm desert breeze, feeling like we had accomplished some great hike, yet the entire length of this canyon was less than a mile. Looking back from where we had just emerged, there is no sign of the beauty that sits just below our feet; a colorful and awesome gem in the barren desert.

Both canyons require a Navajo Nation Land usage fee of $8.00 per person, per day. You will save money if you visit both canyons on the same day and use the same pass.

Make sure your devices are fully charged with plenty of memory. You will take more pictures than you think!

Unless you are on a “photography” tour, monopods or tripods are not permitted on the regular tours.
Water bottles are permitted, but make sure you are hands-free throughout the canyons to take pictures.

Depending on the operator, the Upper Canyon tour may not allow any purses, backpacks, etc. Check with the operator when making reservations so you can plan accordingly.

Try and reserve tours between 10:30 am – 1:30 pm for the best chance of seeing light beams.
Visit both canyons, and each has something different to experience!

If you go:

Courtyard Marriott Page at Lake Powell
600 Clubhouse Drive, Page, Arizona
(928) 645-5000

Big John’s Texas Barbecue
153 South Lake Powell Blvd., Page, Arizona
(928) 645-3300

Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours
AZ-98, Page, AZ

Dixie Ellis Lower Antelope Canyon Tours
Indian Rte N22, Page, AZ 86040
(928) 640-1761