Playing in the Sand at Antelope Canyons (Arizona)

Playing in the sand at Antelope Canyons (Arizona)

I am excited to be contributing to Viktor’s Blog.  It is especially fun to see that we just completed a mirror image of his trip to the Southwestern US.  We started in Las Vegas and circled to the East versus Viktor’s circle to the West.  The south leg of our loop took us to the Antelope Canyons in Northern Arizona.

Photo Location Guide - Antelope Canyons
Upper Antelope Canyon in Page, AZ

The Antelope Canyons are the most photographed slot canyons in the Southwest.  Their iconic images have been used in highly visible applications such as Windows Screensavers. Slot canyons are the result of erosion of soft sandstone by violent flash floods, leaving  behind a narrow groove deep in the landscape.

The landscape in this case is the Great Basin Desert and it is a vast stretch of sand, rock and unrelenting sun.

Desert Landscape seen at the entrance to Rattlesnake Canyon

Getting There

  • Distance from: Zion NP 1.75 hours
  • Grand Canyon 2.5 hours
  • Bryce Canyon 2.5 hours
  • Arches NP 4.0 hours
  • Kanab, UT 1.5 hours

Antelope Canyon, located just outside of Page, Arizona, is a nice day trip from most of the other parks. The drive is wonderfully scenic from any direction.  The two main sections are  Upper and Lower Canyons, which straddle Hwy 98 in the Navajo Nation Reservation. 

The only way to visit these canyons is guided by one of the tour groups operated by the Navajo Nation.  Typically we avoid group tours. However, because the images from these canyons were so spectacular and the only way in was on a tour we acquiesced. Do not give up on these amazing natural wonders because of the group tours though, they are worth the hassle.

Photo Tours

For both canyons, we booked the “photo tours”. This is absolutely necessary if you are serious about taking pictures. The tour groups were strict about separating out the serious photographers from the touristy phone photographers.  The photo tours required that you have a DSLR camera and a tripod and  you had to show them at registration.  

Our tour guides in both canyons made sure that we had every opportunity to capture wonderful shots.  They were experienced photographers  and knew the nuances of shooting in their canyons. The photo tours were a higher price and within minutes of entering the canyons, we understood why.  It felt like we had become instant VIPs.

The guides ushered us through and announced us as “photographers coming through” and the crowds parted. The notable monuments were cleared of people so we could set up our equipment and shoot without the masses in our images. Even so, there were lots of people and very little space and you needed to have your act together and shoot quickly.

Tourists in Lower Antelope Canyon

Upper Antelope Canyon

Upper Canyon is shaped like an inverted “V” with a wide base and narrow top. It is completely on the ground level with no climbing necessary. This canyon is known for its shafts of sun beams  that penetrate through narrow openings at the top of the canyon.

The timing of the sun beams gradually changes over the summer as the sun moves further south on the horizon. Because of its easier accessibility and the amazing shafts of light, this canyon is much more popular and the most crowded.

We booked the “3 Canyon Photo Tour” with Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours. This included Owl Canyon and Rattlesnake Canyon. We went to the two smaller canyons first and had them to ourselves.  They have similar structures, textures and colors as the main canyons but not nearly as dramatic. These canyons were a good warm-up to get comfortable with our equipment. And, yes we did see owls and rattlesnakes.

While Owl and Rattlesnake were very quiet, the tour groups definitely overbook Upper Canyon. Our guides did their best to warn and prepare us for this. I would recommend avoiding Antelope Canyon Tours, they herded people in hot trucks from downtown Page out to the canyon. This group also did not have a photo specific tour available.

Upper Antelope Canyon
Sunlight shaft in Upper Antelope Canyon at noon

Lower Antelope Canyon

Lower Canyon is shaped like a “V” with a very narrow trail through the canyon. It is also below ground level and involves several very steep stairs down and back up. The tours into this canyon were smaller and better timed, so the crowds were controlled.

The Lower Canyon is longer but also much more narrow. It was a lot more difficult to get your equipment setup and squeezed into some of the passages. The guides were good to place the photographers so they could capture the well knwell-knownormations. They were very proud and cognizant of their tribe’s geologic treasure. If you only have time for one of these canyons, I would recommend Lower Antelope as your first choice. We used Dixie-Ellis Tours and were very pleased with them.

We used Dixie-Ellis Tours and were very pleased with them.

Lady in the Wind in Lower Antelope Canyon
Entrance crawling down into Lower Antelope Canyon

Photography Tips

These canyons are unique and spectacular venues but they do have some very distinct photographic challenges.

  • Exposure/lighting is probably the essence of shooting in these canyons.  It is both the challenge and the reward. In all of the canyons it was so tempting to shoot up the walls towards the deep blue sky.  Your eye could see all the colors and shadows from the dark interior up to the bright sky, but the camera had a terrible time capturing all those nuances. The guides warned us to avoid shooting at the sky because it would blow out your picture. They were so right, here is an example in RAW and edited.  You can see the original is very dark at the base and blown out up at the sky.I was able to recapture some of the effects in editing.
Caption Shooting Up in Owl Canyon RAW file
Shooting Up in Owl Canyon edited

Another challenge with lighting, which  leads to the next  issue of “sand”, is capturing the sunbeam shafts of light. It is fascinating to see these beams start as a small pinhole of light on the sand floor and grow into a full shaft.

Pinhole start of light shaft

Because the canyon is very dark just before and again after the shafts disappear you need to be comfortable with your camera and tripod settings by feel. The duration of these shafts was actually very short so you needed to  be quick and comfortable with slow shutter shooting. It required some tricks with focusing too because Auto-focus had trouble knowing what to do.

In addition, we were unprepared for how the guides  would help make these shafts visible for photographing….SAND

  • Sand is ubiquitous in the desert and  we thought we were prepared.  But at the first light shaft, the guide suddenly grabbed a huge handful of sand and lofted it into the air.  Now there was sand everywhere. They did this frequently.  I would suggest  bringing whatever you use to protect from rain along to protect from sand.The sand was equally as hard on my tripod and I am not sure how to prevent that.By  the  end of the first tour the legs on my tripod had ground to a halt with gritty joints.
You can see the sand swirling in the light shaft
  • Equipment and practice are essential before you make this trip.  Again, because down in the canyons it is dark and you need to be familiar with your low light/slow shutter settings and shooting from a tripod.Lenses are always a very personal choice but with the tight spaces a wide angle wasInvaluable.  I shot with an 18mm, and our guide said a 10mm would be perfect.At the risk of being obvious, an extra SD card and battery were also essential. The tours were  2-5 hours of constant shooting and it would break your heart to miss anything.

Conclusion

If you are serious about challenging your photographic skills and capturing stunning images, a trip to the Antelope Canyons should considered.  It takes some added travel planning and definitely some shooting preparation but well worth the effort.  In order to visit both canyons you will need 2 days.  There are plenty of other landmarks nearby such as Lake Powell, Glen Canyon Recreation Area and Horseshoe Bend to fill several days visiting Page, Arizona.

 

Janet Frost

Janet is a retired RN in Wisconsin, living a life full of wonder and curiosity. Traveling and exploring the worldfrom behind the camera.
Come explore with her at www.GoLearnThings.com

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