Friday, July 4, 2014

Lower Antelope Canyon - Ancient Deserts, Modern Art, Many People

Slot canyons are a but one manifestation of many different spectacular erosional features found throughout the Colorado Plateau, but they can be among the most magical of places. Here you'll find constricted channels where walls of polished rock form passages framing a narrow strip of sky, places where the sun is an infrequent visitor. The term "slot" refers to the vertical dimension of the canyon, defined as being significantly deeper than it is wide.

Lower Antelope Canyon from above

There are plenty of canyons in the slickrock wilderness of the Four Corners region, but perhaps the best known are Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon on the Navajo Reservation near the city of Page, Arizona. Not much to look at at from above perhaps, but hidden in the depths are twisting and fluted corridors of hazy golden light that attract thousands of visitors every year.

I usually avoid places as well known as Antelope Canyon particularly due to their popularity, but they are an essential feature of the southwestern landscape and should be included in the extensive catalog of spectacular earthly art. Just be warned if you go - this experience will be shared with many others, and photographers will need to exercise great patience to capture shots without human intrusion.

Lower Antelope Canyon

Page is a town created specifically by the Bureau of Reclamation during the construction of nearby Glen Canyon Dam.  Today the city functions as a hub for recreation on Lake Powell, the reservoir associated with the dam on the Colorado River.  Located just south of the Arizona - Utah border on the Navajo Nation, Page sits atop Manson Mesa in a high desert environment of sand and slickrock.

To reach Antelope Canyon visitors will travel east from Page about 2.5 miles on U.S. Highway 98.  Both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon are administered by Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department.  All visitors must pay the required fees and be accompanied by guides, which are located on site.  For information on cost, hours of operation, and permits for specialty photography (beyond casual picture taking) see the Parks website here.

Also be aware that the Canyons may be closed at any time during the summer due to the threat of flash flooding.  In 1997 eleven sightseers were swept away and killed when a thunderstorm dropped heavy rain upstream.  To prevent similar tragedies tours are suspended whenever there is a likelihood of a storm in the area.

On arrival to the dirt parking area you'll see the large Navajo Power Generating Station looming over the landscape.  Naive tourists who inquire as to its purpose are often told that the area is so dry that it is a "cloud factory".  The joke is on us however, as the coal fired plant emits a haze which often obscures formerly crystal clear western skies.

Navajo Generating Station
There are two tour companies to choose from in the parking area.  Apparently one of them is operating illegally, although if that is the case I'm not sure how they are able to do so.  The company I went with (legally) is called Ken's Lower Antelope Canyon Tours.  The structure shown in the photo below will soon be replaced by a newer and more permanent facility.

Ken's Lower Antelope Canyon Tours (note new building in background)

Visitors are taken in groups of 20, with trips entering the canyon every few minutes.  Before departing for the entrance, the guide runs through a quick list of prohibited activities.  Once the introduction is complete the group heads across the sandy expanse of desert for the northern end of the slot.

The Rules

Heading out

Upon reaching the canyon, visitors plunge into the murky depths on a series of steep and sometimes slick (due to sand) staircases and ladders.  Waiting your turn to descend you get the sense that a lot of people are moved through the canyon every day.

Approaching the entrance

Going down backwards is easier due to slick stair treads

People stack up on the way down
Once at the bottom, eyes take a few moments to adjust to lower light levels.  The canyon is so narrow that the sun almost never penetrates directly into the chasm, and what illumination exists is reflected off golden sandstone.  It is this particular quality that provides a colorful and rich ambient texture to photos.

I am a casual photographer at best, but can certainly understand why a serious photophile would want to spend hours trying to capture the textures and light that every bend and twist in the canyon offers.  Because of time constraints the tour group moves through fairly quickly, and the next group is not far behind.  I found myself lagging as far back as I could to take pictures with no humans in the frame.

Of course there were others of a like mind who wanted to shoo everyone through so they could take the perfect image, and even a few small groups of what looked like professional photographers with a private guide giving tips and tricks for the best shot.  Altogether there was not a hint of a wilderness experience to be found, but then again I knew that's not what Antelope Canyon is all about.

Climbing back into the harsh light of day
I guess I would have to say seeing Antelope Canyon was worthwhile, if only for the chance to take some great pictures.  Unfortunately it is not a place to linger and contemplate the work of nature, although it is certainly worthy of such.  It is a visual spectacle, and like some National Parks there is no choice but to share it with throngs of others who have also come to appreciate the view. 

I went, I saw, I took pictures.  One thing is certain - my next slot canyon experience will be a much more personal experience.  And I might share it with you.  Maybe.