Exploring and Photographing the Dramatic Vistas of Northern Arizona
Page, Arizona, has become a must-see destination on the route to the canyons since the discovery of Antelope Canyon by the media. Until the end of the 1980's, few people had heard of this extraordinary slot canyon and only a few stray professional photographers had ventured there. In the old days, getting there was like playing roulette. If the Begaysthe Navajo family responsible for the land of the Upper Antelope Canyonweren't answering their phone or were unable to meet you at the gate, you were stuck.
At the time of my first visit in the 1980's, I had the luck to find one of the Begays, who opened the gate and let me go on my happy way in a 4x4 vehicle. On my second visit, things were already a bit more organizedthe LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation had taken over control of visits to Antelope Canyon. During the season, a guard was stationed at the gate in his truck and would open it after collecting $5. If you had a 4x4 vehicle, they'd leave you to continue alone. During the off-season, it was necessary to call ahead. On one occasion I spent a rainy afternoon in November calling the Begay children numerous times to ask if someone could be sent to open the gate. After several round trips between Page and Antelope, and three or four hours lost, I gave up.
These bittersweet recollections will serve to illustrate how things have changed. Today, several accredited companies will take visitors in groups for a fee between $25 and $50, depending on whether the tour is qualified as "regular" or "for serious photographers".
In season, it's still possible to visit Upper Antelope Canyon without a guide by presenting yourself at the gate and paying $15 (or only $5 if you wish to leave your car and walk the 6 miles round trip on foot). Out of season, you'll have to go to the office of Navajo Parks and Recreation in Page. At worst, you'll have to wait and go with a tour company the next day. If the weather is threatening rain, the visit will be canceled.
Lower Antelope Canyon is closed to the public since the tragedy of August, 1997, which took the lives of 11 French and Swiss tourists. The Youngsthe Navajo family responsible for this concessionas well as those in the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation and the Navajo Tribal Parks Agency are looking into various solutions that would permit its re-opening in the summer of 1998. It's interesting to relate the circumstances of this tragedy for the lessons one can learn from them.
The visitors were descending in the company of a Navajo guideyou descend by a system of ladderswhen a violent storm struck about 8 miles to the southeast at an altitude of about 2,000 feet. The Navajo guide told the tourists they would have to leave and they reluctantly complied, disillusioned at having to turn back after having come so far. On returning to the surface, the group, seeing that it wasn't raining, demanded to go back down. As the Navajos have a naturally passive temperament, the guide did not attempt to prevent them from doing so. A few minutes later the group was literally swept away by a wall of water over 30 feet tall spouting from the narrow passage, drowning the unfortunate tourists and carrying away their bodies towards Lake Powell in a torrent of mud. There were eleven dead and two badly injured survivors. It was many weeks before all the bodies were recovered from the debris and mud. The last two were finally found in November 1997.
The lesson to be learned from this is that you must follow your guide's instructions as flash floods are frequent and it doesn't necessarily have to be raining in the canyon. This is generally true for slot canyons or narrows. Always obey your guide's or the rangers' instructions, even if it means missing the photo of the century. You should never risk going into a canyon if a storm is threatening close by, which is to say anywhere within a ten-mile radius.
Photo Advice: Antelope Canyon is at once both simple and difficult to photograph. To obtain the best results, you'll really need a tripod. If you don't have one, you can rent one in town. A cable release is also recommended. If you don't have one, the self-timer on your camera will work just as well to prevent blurred pictures due to camera shake. Don't use a flash if you want to preserve the texture of the walls and the nuances of color created by natural light. However, the flash will give acceptable results if you are just taking shots of the family or trying to capture the general atmosphere of the canyon.
The best time to visit the canyon is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun is at its zenith. This is a blessing for photographers, who rarely have such interesting possibilities during the middle of the day. Basically, the walls of the canyon are around 120 feet high and the sinuous nature of the narrow passage makes it difficult for the light to penetrate. Don't be put off by the absence of sunshine, take longer exposures and you'll be pleasantly surprised with the results.
Getting there: Leave Page by Route 98 going to Kaibito, aiming towards the power plant. The entrance to the canyon is two miles down this road on the right and is well marked. If you decide to go with an organized tour, consult the chapter on on Resources in the Appendix.
Time required: One hour round trip to get there from Page, including transit by 4WD vehicle to the canyon's entrance, plus one hour minimum inside the canyon.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication