The erosional rock sculptures found in Upper Antelope Canyon are, probably, the most photogenic in the world. Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon are located on the Navajo Reservation, close to Page AZ. Page is the city that came into being as an adjunct to the building of Glen Canyon Dam. Glen Canyon, likewise, had some of the finest rock sculpture you would ever see. But the reservoir impounded by Glen Canyon Dam, irreverently called Lake Powell, first buried those rock sculptures under water, and, as the lake has emptied, under silt. Additional incongruities are seen in the immediate area of Antelope Canyon, consisting of a railway that hauls coal to the Navajo Generating Station, and the station itself, which sits within a mile of the Canyon.
My friend, David Hiser, a photographer for the National Geographic magazine, had heard about Antelope Canyon, and mentioned it to me. In the fall of 1988, a few of us drove down from Aspen, Colorado, to find out what the fuss was about. First, we visited the local Navajo Chapter house, in Page, to get permission to visit the canyon, and then four-wheeled up the sandy arroyo to its mouth. Only a few photographers knew about Antelope Canyon at the time. The sandstone wall that stands at the mouth of the canyon was covered in graffiti, and cow shit was everywhere. The Navajo Tribe had no idea what a money-maker this canyon would prove to be.
The convolutions of the walls block out light in those months that the sun is inclined away from the vertical. Only in the summer months are sunbeams able to reach to the bottom of the canyon.
The sandy passage is, in most spots, very narrow.
We also explored Lower Antelope Canyon on the same visit. It is located just downstream of the highway bridge, and has a different character than the upper canyon. It begins as hardly more than a slit in the sandstone bedrock, and then quickly widens as it drops away. We were able to climb down into the canyon a short ways, before being stopped by a vertical drop off. We had been told that we would have to rappel into the canyon at a point downstream from there. After a little exploration, we located an arm of sandstone to anchor our rope, and rappelled in. We “prusiked” up the rope (a prusik is a special knot that allows you to climb a rope) on the return.
I returned to Upper Antelope Canyon in 2002, this time with Kathy. The canyon had, by then, been discovered, and was now a Navajo Tribal Park. There was an admission fee, which included 4-wheel transport up the arroyo to the mouth. The entry wall, covered in graffiti in 1988, had been cleaned-up. And the canyon, short as it was, was very crowded. In many spots – those no wider than the span of a tripod’s legs – movement was halted when a photographer had chosen to take a timed exposure. And there were a lot of photographers there (myself included), as one would imagine.
We didn’t visit the lower canyon, which had, in the intervening years, seen the installation of ladders, for the descent of the first vertical pitch and elsewhere. As the above photos show, the lower canyon presents much trickier terrain than the upper canyon, which poses great hazard in the event of a flash flood. And, indeed, in 1997, a guided group was caught in the lower canyon by a flash flood, with all 11 of the guests being washed-away and killed.
The following photos are of Upper Antelope Canyon, taken in 2002, with better lighting of the canyon than in 1988.
The last time our route home from Page took us past Antelope Canyon, we didn’t stop. The crowds there were just too large for comfort.