The Antelope Canyons of the American Southwest are two of the most famous slot canyons in the world. Lower Antelope Canyon is located in the Navajo Nation, just 6 miles outside of the city of Page, Arizona. As you travel on Highway 98 East of Page, you will turn North on Indian Route 222. There are a couple roadside signs which aren’t too difficult to spot, and you will know the parking lot when you see it.
Lower Antelope Canyon is not as famous as its brother, Upper Antelope Canyon. Upper is much more marketed and attracts photographers and tourists from all over the world with its renowned, spectacular sunbeams. If you’ve seen a photograph of Antelope Canyon, it’s more than likely of Upper.
But in no way does this make Lower less of an incredible experience. In fact, since it’s less known there is a better chance that you’ll be able to have some peace and quiet down in the canyon, and a few moments to yourself to truly connect to such a sacred place.
There is one tour you can take and it is called Ken’s Tour. There are no reservations, so just show up with cash. It is 26 dollars for a guided tour which runs for about an hour. I cannot speak from experience, but it seems to me that length of time could seem slightly rushed. If you have a tripod and an SLR or film camera, they will allow you to take a self-guided photographer’s tour which is 2 hours long. That is the tour we chose.
We showed up at 10 in the morning on October 29th, 2012. There were no lines and we were able to walk right in after a little bit of difficulty finding the beginning of it, since we had never seen a slot canyon like this before. During the busier months of May through September, I would suggest showing up early so that you can get some good light down in the canyon. Overhead light is the best, just judge accordingly for your season.
Lower Antelope Canyon begins as no more than a crack in the ground, barely wide enough for the width of your hiking shoe. As you stand there looking at this jagged black rivet you wonder if it’s really possible that you might fit in there, but as you keep taking your steps, you maneuver your way into it and before you know it you’re at the bottom and you’re in another world.
There are several metal steps and ladders throughout the canyon, and about three flights of stairs at the very end that lead you back up into reality, but they are all quite safe and manageable.
Here is one of the first views from the bottom of the canyon:
It is called a slot canyon for a reason; there are times when the walls close in and you can’t stretch your arms out on either side of you, but for the most part you have plenty of room to move around. If you are doing the photographer’s tour, there are plenty of spots to set up your tripod although some are much trickier than others and there are times when you have to move out of the way for passing guided tours.
The Navajo name for this canyon is Hasdeztwazi which means “spiral rock arches.” The English name comes from many decades ago when Pronghorn Antelope roamed freely around the land.
As you weave your way through the canyon floor you'll notice how smooth the walls are and how the light determines the color of the sandstone.
And don’t forget to look up:
Although Lower Antelope Canyon does not get the many famed sunbeams, with a little bit of planning or serious luck, you just might find one. I went in not expecting any at all so it was a big surprise when we came across one.
I’ve never realized how quickly the sun moves until I tried photographing a sunbeam. This is what it looked like when I first saw it, skirting the canyon floor at an angle:
The secret to the perfect illumination of a sunbeam is to throw sand up into the light. It filters down and gives dimension to the beam. Just be careful you don’t get sand in your camera.
Here is the sunbeam mixing with sand:
This beam attracted a lot of attention from a passing group. I had my tripod stealthily set up in the corner of the canyon wall to capture my desired photo. Many people were walking back and forth under it, some stopping beneath it to stare up at it. I was getting anxious and wondering if it was going to fade away before my chance came, but at the last moment everyone cleared away and I got my desired shot. Sometimes your patience can be tried, but it’s always worth it to practice it.
It was one of the best experiences of my entire life. It has been described as "walking through the heart of the earth", and now that I have been through it I can agree with that description. It is so peaceful and beautiful, there is something truly magical about it.
I have never been challenged so much as a photographer. The contrast of light and dark is extreme as you want to capture all the details of the waves and colors that are before and above your eyes. It is very difficult to maintain detail in the highlights while not losing other colors and shapes to dark shadows.
I focused in on just the lines and shapes instead of attempting to get the whole. It is good to have intimate shots of the canyon like this. Their simplicity evokes the peacefulness that you feel when you're there.
HDR is a skill that would come in very useful here. I have not had much practice with it but this is the one photograph I managed to put together. It is 5 exposures. I wanted to get in the blue sky and also expose for the dark shadows underneath. I’ve got much work to do before I come near what I'd like my HDR quality to be but for this purpose alone I think this photo suits me well enough. I pointed my camera directly to the sky above:
We rounded a bend and all of the sudden a beautiful sandstone arch stood before us. I hadn't read of this in any of my research so it was a complete and wonderful surprise.
Here is a steep set of metal stairs towards the end of the canyon. The footholds on the left of the picture are what the Native Americans used before the days of tourism.
Antelope Canyon is a must see if you are in Page, Arizona or on a pilgrimage through the Southwest. This is just one of the many things to see and do in this region of the country. If you're short on time, the guided tour would suit you well. If you are interested in getting some unique photographs while challenging your skills- then you know which tour is for you. Antelope Canyon is so rich with beauty and color, the light so dynamic, the experience will reside in your memory forever.