A cold, sporadic rain had my family and me sheltering in the car. We were parked in a dirt parking lot on Navajo land outside of Page, Arizona, waiting for our scheduled tour of Antelope Canyon. I knew what the guy meant. It had cost me like $50 a person to get the tour. I told him that we’d paid the same amount he did, that he wasn’t being taken advantage of for not being English-speaking. I left off the part of the explanation where it was impossible for any Native American to rip off a white man, all things considered.
But I assumed Antelope Canyon was worth every bead. I mean, just the images online made the place seem unreal, especially this image, which recently broke the record for most money paid for a photograph at $6.5 million. If just photographs of this place were worth that much, the experience must be priceless.
Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon, meaning it’s an extremely thin passageway created by flowing water. There’s an Upper Antelope Canyon and a Lower Antelope Canyon, each on separate tours. We opted for the former since it seemed like the most dramatic photos came from there, but also because it was easier to access and we had an infant with us. Lower Antelope Canyon involves clambering up and down a series of ladder-like iron stairs.
The truck took off across a wide ravine of flat, orange sand veined with tire tracks from previous ventures. After three miles of nothing except skeletal transmission towers, an outcropping of sandstone about 120 feet high rose into view. An ominous dark vertical line slit its face. A few other tour trucks were parked outside, their occupants already swallowed by the rock.
As we stepped inside, I couldn’t fathom there being room for more than our tour group. We were at the beginning of a winding passage the space of which varied from a small room to a couple chest-widths. The floor was covered with a thin layer of fine sand that almost seemed like it had been imported and carefully spread with Zen garden rakes. Above, the thin sliver of light that was the top of the crevice was often blocked by twists in the rock wall. At no point did it not feel like we were in a cave, even with the snatches of sky high above our heads every once in a while.
In fact, it was water that had done all the sculpting. Even though the place was bone dry on our visit, it is extremely prone to flash floods. That was terrifying to me, being trapped in that claustrophobic space, underwater, knocked against all the beautiful whorling outcrops of rock. And that wasn’t just fancy. People have died in Antelope Canyon. In 1997, 11 succumbed to a flash flood there. In 2010, a group was stranded until the waters abated. It was one of the reasons why only guided tours are allowed access.
The rocks themselves were overall a dull pink, not the vibrant orange that I’d seen online. Partially that’s because of the time of year we visited, with only the winter sun feebly penetrating the canyon top. Partly it’s because the rocks seem to come out more vivid in general in photos. Unfortunately, our winter timing also meant that we didn’t get to see any of the canyon’s famous shafts of light that penetrate the dimness like UFO tractor beams. But that was a fine compromise to escape the crowds.
It was a flat section of rock, about six feet tall or so, inset a bit and rounded at the top. It’s nothing I would have noticed on my own.
After about 45 minutes, we exited out the far end. The length of the canyon was only about 660 feet. We could have raced through it in a minute. Outside, the guide pointed to initials carved into the rock and some bullet holes. “That’s one of the reasons we don’t let people come here by themselves anymore. But in the long run it doesn’t matter. The stone is so soft, the water will eventually wear it away.”
After that we were given free rein in the canyon, where we alternated spending time by ourselves in the various twists of the passage and running from skinwalkers with my eldest. Then we all loaded back up into the truck for the return trip.
I know I started out this piece crassly, talking about money, but sometimes I have to do that. However, the place was fantastic. Well worth forking over my pennies and putting up with the cheesy presidential rocks.