Flowing Rocks and Skinwalker Portals: Antelope Canyon

March 30, 2015 — “Are they trying to rip us off?” The man at my car window had a near-impregnable Eastern European accent and a fingertip grasp of English, so that’s not exactly what he said. But it was the gist.

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.

Finally, it was time to load up into the back of the safari-style truck. There were five others in our group, including my Eastern European friend, whom I guess decided I wasn’t lying to him. Our driver and tour guide was a young, laid-back Navajo named Ryan. I would later find out he worked the gig for extra cash in between studying music theory at a college in Phoenix. I would also eventually give him a nice tip both for his unfeigned enthusiasm for the place and because my infant, who got to ride up in the cab of the truck with my wife because of the chill, cried the whole return trip right in his ear.

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.

“You picked a good time of year,” our tour guide told us. “In the summer, there’s like ten times the number of tours going on. You you only have a little bit of time to try to get pictures. It gets crazy in there.”

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.

But there was nothing dank or dark about the cave-like slot. It was beautiful. Enough light filtered in to set a comfortable, ethereal mood, and the walls were gorgeous, almost glowing with internal like and shaped like frozen waves, as if someone had sculptured the soft sandstone with a cake icing tool.

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.

I was hyper-aware of the gray clouds that had covered our trek to the canyon and the rain that had pattered on and off all morning. Mostly, I wondered how much I should be trusting a music theory major for judging weather conditions.

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.

At one point we all had to hug the wall or scatter and backtrack as the other tour groups returned from the far end of the canyon. I honestly don’t know how they fit so many more tours through there during the busy season. After our guide walked us through the history and conditions behind the formation of the canyon, he spent most of the tour pointing out shapes in the rocks, everything from bears and cats to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Tourists love rocks in the shapes of presidents. But then he pointed at a bit of the wall and said something fascinating.

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.

“That’s a door between worlds. My people believe we entered our current world through something like this. It’s also how the skinwalkers get around. Those are our boogeymen.” Tales of interdimensional portals and shapeshifting monsters. That’s how a guide will earn a large tip from me.

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.