A slot canyon is a narrow deep canyon formed by water and wind. That’s the geological definition. For the photographer, it is a subterranean theater of light where a play of shifting sunlight and shadows cast purple, orange and red hues on sensuous canyon walls.
On my road trips to North Arizona, I visited 3 slot canyons located on the Navajo Reservation, just outside Page – Upper and Lower Antelope and Canyon X. The three canyons are part of Antelope Creek which drain into Lake Powell. Each canyon is unique but all are equally captivating.
Upper Antelope Canyon
The Navajos call Upper Antelope, Tse’ bighanilini, which means “the place where water runs through rocks”. Its entrance is at ground level so it is easy to walk into the canyon. Hence, Upper Antelope attracts quite a crowd, especially in summer.
This was the first slot canyon I had been to and I was overwhelmed by the towering sandstone wall rising some 120 feet (37 meters) above me. It took some time before my eyes adjusted to the shifting light and multicolored layered rocks.
One of the highlights of my December visit happened just when we were leaving the canyon. Our Navajo guide, Davon took out his wooden flute and played. Suddenly, everyone stopped what they were doing to listen and immerse in this magical moment. His music, raw and pure, echoed through the canyon, haunting and melodious. A beautiful and timeless moment!
Lower Antelope Canyon
From above Lower Antelope is a long crevice in the ground. From this unlikely entrance, you descend into its gallery of sculptured light.
Known as Hasdestwazi, or “spiral rock arches” by the Navajos, Lower Antelope is made more interesting by its many twisting canyon passages. You need to do some climbing up and down metal stairs and at times, squeeze through narrow passages.
Antelope Canyon is so called because pronghorn antelopes used to graze and roam in the area. For Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons, you drive to the entrance gates and wait for the Navajo guides and pay the admission fees. For Upper Antelope Canyon, a Navajo guide will drive you from the carpark to the canyon in their 4WD vehicles. For Lower Antelope, you simply hike from the carpark to one of the several points where you can climb down into the canyon. For more information and admission fees to Antelope Canyon, click here.
This is a more remote and less visited slot canyon as Overland Canyon Tours is the only outfitter allowed to bring groups into this canyon. The number of visitors entering the canyon at a time is limited to 6-8. Going into Canyon X starts with a 30 minute drive from Page through rugged rocks and sand. It takes more effort to get to this canyon as you need to hike down a steep trail and walk along a wash before reaching the slot. Charley Moore and Jackson Bridges of Overland Canyon Tours are wonderful photography guides as they know when and where the light is streaming through the canyon and will bring you to the appropriate section.
Shooting in a slot canyon is challenging. At times, there are other visitors and you have to be patient and wait for them to pass. By and large, most visitors are courteous and will wait for you to complete your shot before moving through. It is also neck breaking as most of the time you are shooting up in constrained places. Here are some photography tips I learned from my slot canyon experience:
- Use a tripod
- Bring your cable release because of long exposures
- Look for patterns, shapes and forms
- Avoid very bright areas of the rocks in your compositions
- Bracket your shots
- Deactivate the auto flash
- Use a camera cover to protect your camera from the fine sand (a shower cap does the work too)
- Bring plenty of patience
Note: Visiting a canyon can be dangerous if you are not careful. Always check the weather report for storms as a flash flood can a deadly hazard turning the otherwise dry desert into a raging torrent of water. In August 1997, 11 tourists were killed in the canyon during a flash flood. Keep a lookout for scorpions and rattlesnakes which are commonplace in this desert habitat. Also be respectful of the place as slot canyons are hallowed and sacred grounds for the Navajos.
Sculptured by water, wind and light, the slot canyon walls are stone tapestries of nature’s handiwork, always changing, always different. So take your time to explore and let the rocks speak to you. You’ll be surprised by the patterns you see in the rocks.
If you would like to view more of my slot canyon photos, click here.