Antelope Canyon, AZ – 1988 and 2002


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 grafitti-covered wall at the mouth of the canyon

The grafitti-covered wall at the mouth of the canyon, 1988

Flash photo, in the gloomy confines of the canyon

Flash photo, in the gloomy confines of the canyon. Only a little patch of sky can be seen overhead.1988

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.

Flash photo, in the gloomy confines of the canyon

Flash photo, in the gloomy confines of the canyon. The floor of the short canyon (a quarter of a mile?) is flat and sandy, making for very easy walking. 1988

The sandy passage is, in most spots, very narrow.

The sandstone canyon has been sculpted by flash floods

The sandstone canyon has been sculpted by flash floods. 1988

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Windows have been eroded through some of the formations. 1988

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The lower walls are lit by reflected light from above. 1988

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Fabulous forms – seen only in similar “slot canyons”. 1988

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A window eroded through a rib. 1988

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.

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David Hiser, in a chamber above the drop off. 1988

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This is a view downstream from where we were stopped by a vertical drop-off. 1988

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David and the others are below me, as we return to the surface. 1988

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David rappels into the canyon, downstream of where we first attempted to enter. 1988

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A fin, lit with light bouncing up from below. 1988

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The golden glow. The sun is striking a wall just out of sight to the right. 1988

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An natural bridge spans the canyon. 1988

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A natural bridge. 1988

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The canyon deepens rapidly. 1988

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Same, 1988

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A sculpted room, near the end of the canyon. 1988

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On the return. The second natural bridge seen on the way down, 1988

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On the return. The first natural bridge seen on the way down. Presumably, erosion first cut the right hand channel, which is seen to be more elevated than the left hand channel, creating a fin. Then erosion cut straight through that fin, creating a natural bridge. 1988

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A window and a muddy pool beyond

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More of that golden glow

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LowerAntelopeWindow#24

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Me, photo by David Hiser, 1988

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.

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Upper Antelope Canyon, with tumbleweed and juniper branch still life

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The swirling forms are the product of swirling waters – these waters carrying very abrasive sand and grit

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The lines seen in the rocks are horizontally-deposited sedimentary strata

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The canyon walls glow in many shades

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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.

About believesteve

I am a photographer and have published a book of photography and accompanying text on running the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The first (print) edition is out of print, but a second edition is available as an iBook (eBook) through the iTunes bookstore. All Grand Canyon, river and nature lovers will enjoy my book: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-grand/id672492447?ls=1
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