Antelope Canyon, a photographer’s dream and hidden treasure

Erosion of sandstone by water and wind over millions of years creates slot canyons. One such formation is Antelope Canyon in Arizona, one of the most spectacular and unique geological formations on earth.

The canyon

We are at Lower Antelope Canyon located within Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park in northern Arizona, US. An overnight stay at a hotel in the nearby town of Page allowed us an early 8am start to beat the crowds. This and other slot canyons are accessible to tour groups only, using local Navajo guides.

Our group of 15 hitches up with Michael, who takes us through some safety issues, including “no bags (people in the past carrying graffiti spray), selfie sticks or tripods (have been used to assault guides)”.

The tour

At an average depth of around 37m, it takes roughly 1.5 hours to explore these spectacular rock formations, covering about 400m of twists and turns, with five flights of metal stairs and ladders for descent and ascent. During early tourism days, footholds and stairs were cut into the sandstone walls for access.

We are in for another scorcher as the sun beats down, even at this early hour. But it means that we will get some great photos as the sunlight penetrates the openings to reveal magnificent passageways of wave-like and spiralling rock formations with many contrasting shades and colour highlights.

We descend the stairs and arrive at a magical scene. This is visual overload and would have to be one of most spectacular sights we’ve seen in all our world travels.

A photographer’s dream

We walk on a sandy base with heads craned upwards scanning every which way. Around every twist and turn we see amazing formations, and prompted by Michael, our guide, pick out shapes and forms, including a seahorse, the head of an native American chief, a woman in the wind and Microsoft’s natural wonder screensaver.

The colours are spectacular and vary according to the amount of light filtering through the ceiling gaps. It’s said that if you can capture a photo with five colours, it could be worth a fortune. We can only get to three or maybe four at best – orange, yellow, red and purple of varying hues. If you are a wannabe photographer, there are special tours available.

Peter Lik is an Australian photographer. His black and white photograph Phantom sold in 2014 for a record US$6.5 million. It depicts a phantom-like shaft of light (taken around midday) hitting the base of a cavern in Upper Antelope Canyon. It is a powerful image of contrasting features.

There are several tour groups in this one-way canyon at any time, and sometimes we must wait for the traffic jam to clear.

Along the way, Michael explains the best phone camera settings to use for wow-factor shots and takes photos of individuals at several photo-op spots. He also gives an interesting account of canyon history and its 1931 discovery by a young Navajo woman, a sheep herder. Prong-horned antelopes roamed the area at the time, hence the canyon name.

Other canyons

There are many slot canyons in the area, but the upper and lower canyons are the most popular. Upper Antelope Canyon is a flat walk, with wide passageways. If you are there at midday, you might be able to snag a shot of the light beam – a la Peter Lik. There are no stairs, so it would better suit elderly or disabled visitors. However, it is more crowded than the Lower Antelope Canyon.

Tour companies

There are many online tour companies in Las Vegas that will combine a tour to Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend on the same day. The cost is around $300pp. Be aware that this is a very long day of about 15 hours. If you have time, we suggest an overnighter, or two nights as we did.

Doing a two-night tour allows you to visit other sites including Grand Canyon, Sedona, Antelope Canyon, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Valley of Fire and Horseshoe Bend.

You can also tour the desert sites on your own by hiring a car. This gives you the flexibility to tour all the sites at your leisure.

You will need at least a week to take in everything. If you enjoy hiking, then you will need more time to explore, as there are many walking trails within the national park areas. The distances are long between Las Vegas and some of the sites, but the roads are wide and smooth, with generally light traffic.

Make sure you factor in entry fees, which can be expensive. For example, Antelope Canyon is about $80 each.

Our visit, in May 2023, was part of Empire Vacations three-day Western Deserts tour (Empire Vacations • WDL) at a cost of $857 each twin share, which included two nights’ accommodation with breakfast and all national park entry fees.

I can honestly say that if you are going to Vegas at any time, do yourself a favour and add a couple of tours to your stay. You will not be disappointed.

Have you been to Vegas? Did do anything other than visit the casinos? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

Also read: Marvellous Nevada sights not to be missed

Written by Max Williams

Leave a Reply

Ashford Castle in Ireland

The most beautiful hotels in Ireland

Cape Hauy, Tasmania

Essential advice for your next Aussie coastal road trip