I first saw a photo of Antelope Canyon in college. I remember thinking that it must be a place in some far flung corner of the world – I was actually pretty surprised when I realized it was in Arizona! When I moved here almost 10 years, I immediately put Antelope Canyon on my Arizona “Must See” list. It took me 9 years, but this May I finally checked it off that list.
Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon located just east of Page, Arizona on the Navajo Reservation. The only way to access the canyon is with an organized tour. There are several options available, and I would recommend checking TripAdvisor for reviews. There are two areas to choose from – Upper Antelope Canyon (aka the Crack) and Lower Antelope Canyon (aka the Corkscrew).
Upper Antelope Canyon is the most frequently visited by tourists as its entrance and entire length are at ground level, requiring no climbing. The famous light shafts are also more common in Upper than Lower. Light beams occur most often in the summer months, as they require the sun to be high in the sky. Light beams start to peek into the canyon towards the end of March and disappear in early October each year. According to our guide, the winter months are better for richer rock colors.
Lower Antelope Canyon is accessed by metal stairways. While the stairways are helpful, it is a more difficult hike than Upper. Lower is longer and narrower in spots, with areas that have no footing. At the end, the climb out requires several flights of stairs.
My friend and I booked a tour of Upper Antelope for the light beams. We opted to pay a little more money for a photography tour, which usually goes late morning in order to optimize the beams. I have to say, the photography tour was worth every penny. The canyons see several hundred people a day, which means there’s a pretty steady stream of bodies through the canyon.
So, how do you get those lovely shots of nothing but light and rock? Well, your photo guide huddles your group into a corner and when the timing is just right, he halts the other tour groups. You then have exactly 2 minutes to get in place and snap as many photos as you can! It’s intense and not for anyone unfamiliar with their camera equipment. A tripod is also a requirement – some of the lighting conditions are tricky and you’ll need the stability.
Another little trick that I was naively surprised to discover – the guide also uses a scoop to throw sand in the light beams so they show up better in photos. It does enhance the beams, but it also enhances the chance of getting sand all in your camera. I highly recommend taking a cover of some sort to cut down on the amount of cleaning you’ll have to do later.
I think my biggest mistake was trying to do too much with too many cameras. I won’t say how many were involved, but do yourself a favor and stick to 2 max (cell phone included). Also make sure you take a lens you’re familiar with. My friend rented a wide angle for the trip and had a lot of difficulty with overexposure. With only 2 minutes to shoot and a light beam that comes and goes in 10 minutes, there’s no time for re-shoots.
Antelope Canyon is every bit as magical as it appears in photographs. It’s also really crowded, dusty, and short. The photo tour spent just over an hour in the canyon, but you can walk through 1-way in 10 minutes easily (assuming you aren’t dodging the crowds). It’s worth the extra money for the extra time and the professional guide. Our guide was incredibly helpful – he’s a photographer in his own right and so used to the canyon that he knew exactly where to go and what to do. He even gave us some great tips for other photogenic spots in the area!
I can’t wait to go back in the winter to photograph the colors. As amazing as they are in summer, it’s hard to imagine they could look better in winter, but I’m game to find out! I would also really like to check out Lower Antelope. It’s rumored to be slightly less crowded; one can hope!
Know Before You Go
Photography vs. Regular Tour: If you’re going to take photos, spend the extra money for a photo tour. Otherwise it’s highly unlikely you’ll get a photo sans people. The guides are also super knowledgeable. Also note that you’ll need to book these tours well in advance – generally they have 6-8 people only and there are fewer options than the regular tour. Check TripAdvisor for tour recommendations. Almost all tours leave from Page, Arizona – it takes about 10 minutes to get to the canyon.
Equipment: Take a lens and camera that you are familiar with – there’s no time for a learning curve once you’re in the canyon! My friend took a wide angle, but these photos were shot with an 18-200mm, which was more than adequate in my opinion. A tripod is also mandatory to assist with the low lighting and sand action shots.
- Water: It’s the desert. No matter how hot or cold it is outside, bring water.
- Camera cover: I took a couple of bandanas – one for my face and one tied around my camera. They worked perfectly for keeping at least some of the sand out.
- Hat/sunglasses: There’s a lot of sand blowing around down there. There are also lizards that fall down into the canyon occasionally.
- Clothing: Wear close-toed shoes. I would also recommend pants as you’ll be crawling around to get those perfect shots.
- Game face: You only have 2 minutes per setup, so be prepared! On the way back out, however, there should be plenty of time to relax and just enjoy the scenery.