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The first stop off on our recent trip around the national parks of the south west USA was a place called Antelope Canyon. Despite the fact that the tour we were doing is quite a popular one and has more and more people doing it, Antelope Canyon, for some reason, doesn't seem to figure in most peoples plans and so doesn't get as many visitors as the nearby Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. But it was high on my husbands wish list of places to visit, so on our first day we made a considerable detour en route from Phoenix, Arizona to Monument Valley so we could experience this canyon first hand.
WHERE IS IT?
Antelope Canyon is located in north east Arizona, very close to the Utah border. Its nearest place of any size is Page which does have an airport although not an international one. It is easily accessible via route 89 straight out of Flagstaff or routes 15 and then 9 from Las Vegas. It is roughly 140 miles from Flagstaff and nearer 200 from Las Vegas but if you're visiting the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley it's definitely worth a detour if you have time.
The easiest way by far to travel around this area is by car. Distances between towns can be vast so even if you travelled by train or plane you would still need a rental car unless you wanted to be limited in your travel plans. Leaving Page and heading east on the 98 towards Monument Valley will take you straight past Antelope Canyon. In face, the canyon is split into two parts; Upper Antelope Canyon and Lower Antelope Canyon, and this road more or less bisects the two.
WHAT IS IT?
If you have done a similar tour to the one we did you will have seen plenty of other canyons, and pretty impressive ones at that - The Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Canyonlands are all popular stop offs on the tour and are all awe-inspiring places to see. Antelope Canyon, however, is totally different to all the others we saw. Rather than being a vast open space, it is enclosed. It's not a wide open canyon, it's a slot canyon. Those of you who have seen the film 127 hours will know what a slot canyon is, he got stuck in one for 127 hours! They are canyons created by flashfloods which are virtually impossible to see from above ground but through which you can walk, witnessing all the strange, unusual but amazingly beautiful shapes created by the floor waters.
Until we saw 127 hours I had never heard of a slot canyon, although my husband was somewhat obsessed with them and he pointed out that I had actually seen pictures of Antelope Canyon without actually realising it. There is an iconic front cover of National Geographic which bears a shot taken deep in Antelope Canyon and one of microsofts screensavers also features it - that's how amazing the scenery is!
CAN I GO SEE IT TOO?
Yes! The canyon is situated on Navajo nation indian reservation land so the 'attraction' belongs to the Navajo tribe. Luckily for the rest of us, over recent years the Navajo's have become much more savvy in realising what assets lie in their reservations and in opening them up to the public as a means of making money. Monument Valley is another excellent example of this. Because the canyon lies in tribal land it is exempt from any national passes etc so if you have the annual national park pass (highly recommended if you're visiting several of the parks, it will save you a lot of money rather than paying individually) you cannot use it here.
Antelope Canyon is "open" from 8am until 5pm during most of the year with more restricted opening hours of 9am to 3pm during the winter and the entrance fee is $6. I say open in " " because it isn't really open in the traditional sense of the word and don't be fooled by the low entrance fee either. Unlike Monument Valley, which is fantastic value for a day out and whose entrance fee covers everything you might want to do with the only exception being the jeep tours, the entrance fee for Antelope Canyon is literally that, an entrance fee. It gets you into the car park and means you won't get thrown off of tribal land. What their website fails to tell you, however, is that there is an additional fee to pay if you want to go down into the canyon of $22, so about £14. Still, that's not a bad price to pay except that you have to pay it for each canyon. So for a couple to go down both canyons would cost $100 or £65. Not such good value now!
Another sticky issue is that you can't go down unaccompanied and so have to go on a guided tour. The last one of these leaves at 4pm and, as we discovered when we arrived at 4.04pm, if you're later than this they won't let you go down! Luckily, the lower canyon and the upper canyon are run by two different sections of the Navajo tribe and the people running the lower section weren't such sticklers for rules and let us dash down to the opening of the canyon and join the last tour which consisted of a family of 5 andhadn't even gotten into the canyon yet. So the upper canyon lot lost $56 for not being flexible!
It is slightly annoying that you can only go down with a guide, but in the late 1990's a group of hikers were killed when the canyon filled with a flash flood, so it's for safety reasons as well as financial that you can't go down unaccompanied. Obviously the people that run the tours are very experienced and know when it is safe to descend and when you should stay well away.
There is some argument as to which is the most breathtaking and worthwhile of the canyons to visit and as we didn't get to see the upper one I can't comment on that, but what I can tell you is that the lower one alone is definitely worth a visit and is unlike absolutely anything you will ever see anywhere else.
We were led to the opening of the canyon to meet the rest of our group and the guide (who had the very traditional Najavo name of Cornelius!). When I say opening what I actually mean is a very narrow crack in the ground, literally an inch wide and an inch deep, which gradually gets wider and deeper and you have to step one foot in front of the other very carefully until eventually you're underground in a very narrow canyon, with just a slit of sky visible above your heads. It's a very difficult experience to describe as it's impossible to envisage it without having seen it for yourself.
As you start your descent your shoulders are literally touching the sides of the canyon and you have to squeeze your way through, but as you get deeper it gets wider. The flood waters have eroded the rocks in such a way that they have created swirling, twirling shapes out of them, all smooth and rounded and the sunlight catches them in such as way as to make them look like they're on fire. The colours that assault your eyes are nothing short of amazing with bright reds, oranges and yellows everywhere.
It is a photographers heaven down there and hubby, who fancies himself as the next Ansell Adams was blown away and the guide had to keep waiting for him to catch up. He must have taken nearly 200 photos in the hour we were down there! Of course, the Navajos are onto the fact that it's a draw for photographers now and if you want to use any pictures taken down there for commercial purposes you have to get (and pay hundreds of dollars for) a special permit. If you want to take a professional camera down there and spend longer than the usual hour long tour you also have to pay a premium, but many many people take advantage of this and spend all day down there waiting for the sun to hit the rocks at the right angles to get the best shots.
Our guide was really wonderful that day. He let us take our time and told us interesting facts about the canyon, showing us the footholds in the rock that they used to use to climb up and down (now there is a rather worryingly steep ladder for people to use), showing us rock formations that they have given special names to such as 'buffalo' and 'Captain Jack' which have been shaped to look like their namesakes over thousands of years of erosion. He also had a traditional Navajo flute with him which he played beautifully and increased the atmosphere down there phenomenally.
Obviously as he spends all day every day down there he now knows the best places for photographs and was quite an adept photographer himself so he would frequently take our camera and wander off with it to make sure we didn't miss any good shots and we would often turn around to see him twisted into some weird position half under a rock to get a good picture. He also showed us how to throw sand up into the sunbeams to get a cloudy effect and catch the sunlight as it all fell back down again (the three young boys from the family we were with loved that they were actually allowed to throw dirt!).
When we eventually got to the end of the canyon there was quite a climb back out as we had descended so far, but they have now built sturdy metal staircases to make getting out easier, although it is still quite nervewracking as they are steep and you can see straight back down into the canyon the whole way up. Once you're out on the top and look back you can hardly see the canyon at all and, unless you'd been down it you wouldn't know it was there. It really is a hidden gem.
Unfortunately this is an attraction which really isn't accessible to everyone. There is no wheelchair access at all and if you're unsteady on your feet or don't like heights or enclosed spaces then this isn't going to be for you. Whilst there were young children down there on our tour, it wouldn't be suitable for very young children as the access ladders and staircases are very steep and narrow so it would be impossible for them to be carried in any way to ensure both their safety and that of the person carrying them.
Other things to bear in mind is the terrain both inside the canyon and walking to and from it. Inside it is very sandy on the bottom so it is like walking on a very dry beach so appropriate footwear should be worn. I wore proper walking trainers which soon filled with sand which was highly irritating, but at the same time flips flops or other open shoes would be a big no-no. Getting to and from the canyon is a short hike over rocky ground and so would also make adequate footwear a necessity.
You should also make sure sure you carry plenty of water. Whilst the canyon itself is mostly shaded it still gets incredibly hot down there because, let's face it, it's in the middle of the Arizona desert! We only took 1 litre between two of use and wished we'd taken more, and that was well after the 'mid-day sun', particularly on the short hike back to the carpark afterwards.
Also worth keeping in mind is the fact that there are only very basic facilities on site. There is no real building, just a short of lean to shack think with a few benches where you can sit in the shade to wait for the next tour. You can buy a small selection of drinks there but not refrigerated ones and the only toilets available are porta-loos, or outhouses as they called them, which are on the edge of the carpark and sit in sweltering heat all day long! No thanks, I'll cross my legs until we get to our hotel!!
Antelope Canyon is absolutely, definitely, positively one of the most amazing places I've ever seen and was well worth both the 150 mile detour and the entrance fee (although I wouldn't have paid twice to see both canyons). It was a once in a lifetime kind of experience and really should be a must-see place if you're anywhere nearby and is a definite detour-worthy stop on your way to Monument Valley or the Grand Canyon North Rim. The guide we had was obviously very knowledgable and made our tour very memorable, although we didn't really appreciate the sign at the end of the canyon which read "all tips gratefully received", particularly when we'd already just paid them $56 for an hours worth of sightseeing. The tipping culture in America really confuses me and in this case, as far as we're concerned paying $22 EACH for a one hour tour should be more than ample without having to add a tip on top of that.
That one slight niggle aside, we had a fabulous time down the Lower Antelope Canyon and would heartily recommend a visit. You'll never see anything like it anywhere else and to be able to actually go down deep into the earth and see the shapes and twists and turns and colours down there is really quite surreal. I don't feel like I can take any stars off for the tipping issue as that was left to your own discretion and they Navajos had been very accommodating in letting us go down and join the last tour even though we arrived when it had already left, so this place gts a huge 5 stars from me and I can't emphasise enough that if you're staying anywhere nearby then it really is worth the effort of getting to.