How to Visit Antelope Canyon and Discover a Slot Canyon All to Yourself
Slot canyons are fascinating to explore. Carved out by the rushing water of flash floods, their winding corners and soaring walls are illuminated by the light that peers into the depths. Of all the slot canyons in the world, there may be none more famous than Antelope Canyon. Brilliant colours of smooth Navajo sandstone are ignited in the light that is bounced between the narrow canyon walls creating a surreal setting and a photographer’s dream. This has inspired visitors from around the world to descend on the sleepy town of Page, making it one of the most sought after tourist destinations in the southwest. Antelope Canyon is split into two sections, upper and lower, which are divided by US 98 roughly 10 minutes east of Page. You can visit both canyons (with separate entrance fees) though many visitors see one of the pair and still have an incredible experience.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN UPPER AND LOWER ANTELOPE CANYON
The upper canyon is accessible from the ground and much wider than the lower canyon. The lower canyon is very narrow and requires climbing ladders as well as descending a steep staircase to access the entrance.
Number of Visitors:
Because it is more accessible, the upper canyon has a higher number of visitors. Our tour guide mentioned that the lower canyon moves 180 people through the canyon every hour (four groups of 15 people enter every 20 minutes). This translates to over 1600 visitors each day in the summer. While we have not been able to find estimates on the number of visitors to the upper canyon, some estimate it to be around 2500 per day.
One-Way vs. Two-Way Traffic:
The upper canyon has two-way traffic because it reaches a dead end where visitors must return the same way they came. The lower canyon is one-way travel with visitors exiting the canyon by climbing out via another set of stairs.
If you intend on taking photographs without others in them, this will be much easier at the lower canyon as you will simply have to wait a few seconds for the person in front of you to turn the corner.
While both canyons are equally stunning, there is a greater chance of seeing the famous light beams at the upper canyon. With that said, we did witness a couple light beams at the lower canyon during our midday tour.
Cost (as of May 2017):
Upper: Standard tour (1 hour): $40. Photography tour (2 hours): $120 - $160.
Lower: Standard tour (1.25 hours): $25. Photography tour (2.25 hours): $47. These tours are longer because of the time it takes to walk to the canyon entrance.
Note: The fees listed above are before tax and do not include the $8 per person fee for entrance into the Navajo Tribal Park.
Due to the popularity of the canyons it can be difficult to book a tour on short notice. This is especially the case for the upper canyon tours. The most popular time slots for capturing the best light are midday and at the time of our visit (mid-May), there were no available midday tours for four weeks, with the only available tour times at 7:00 am or 4:00 pm (not ideal for photos). On the contrary, we were able to book a midday tour of lower antelope canyon for the following day.
What You Need to Know Before Visiting
You are not permitted to walk into the canyon on your own, you must be part of a guided tour. If you do not book a tour in advance you will be told to wait at the entrance until the next available space on a tour (which could mean a wait of a few hours).
The best time to see the canyons is between late morning and early afternoon as the sun is at its highest to illuminate the canyon walls and potentially create sunbeams down into the canyon.
Although both tours provide an opportunity to walk through a beautiful canyon, it is important to bring expectations in alignment with reality. Unless you take a photography tour, you are not allowed to bring in a tripod or monopod and will be hurried along through the canyon with little opportunity to take it all in, yet alone photograph it. While the guides are very helpful, they have a job to keep people moving so that as many people as possible can visit.
Note for those interested in photography: On the standard tour you will not have time to adjust camera settings in the changing light conditions. Tour guides suggest working in Program mode (so the camera automatically adjusts for ideal exposure) at 400 ISO, and daylight white balance allowing you to essentially point and shoot as you walk through the canyon. This was a bit disappointing, but after realizing there was only enough time to frame the shots and shoot before the group was already moving on, I figured it was better than having a bunch of incorrectly exposed shots.
WAIT, YOU SAID I COULD HAVE A SLOT CANYON ALL TO MYSELF?
Antelope Canyon is not the only slot canyon in Page, there are other canyons nearby that many have described as ‘Antelope Canyon without the crowds.’ We took the opportunity to explore nearby Waterholes Canyon and while it only had a few sections that were comparable to Antelope Canyon, we thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to hike at our own pace in solitude (we only saw four other people during our three hour visit).
Here is everything you need to know for visiting Waterholes Canyon (2.6 miles/4.1km roundtrip):
As it is also on Navajo land you will need to get a permit ($13 per person) from the Navajo Parks and Recreation office at the LeChee Chapter House located three miles south of Page on Copper Mine Road.
Note: this office is less than 10 minutes driving from Antelope Canyon and though we could not find a specified address, it is easily found by searching LeChee Chapter House on Google Maps.
The trailhead is located 2.2 miles south of Horseshoe Bend along Highway 89 and can also be found by searching “Waterholes Canyon” on Google Maps. There is a small gravel pull-off on the east side of the highway which is marked with a green sign for Waterholes.
The trail begins at the gravel lot with a combination of spray-painted arrows and rock cairns that guide you across slickrock for approximately 10 minutes then down into the canyon. From the entry point, the hike continues east through the canyon (away from the highway).
The beginning of the canyon is very wide and but after 20 minutes of hiking you will begin to experience the narrow passageways that resemble Antelope Canyon. Not only will you see beautiful curving sandstone illuminated shades of red, orange and mauve, you will also be able to explore the canyon at your own pace.
There are four ladders on this hike, and we can only describe them as makeshift and somewhat unstable. You will need to be extremely careful and decide for yourself if you are comfortable climbing them. If you are not comfortable climbing the ladders, there are beautiful parts of the canyon that can be seen before any climbing is necessary. With that said, our favourite parts of the hike were near the third and fourth ladder.
It will be easy to discern the end of the trail, as the canyon significantly widens out into a wash shortly after climbing the fourth ladder. We read elsewhere to turn around once you reach the telephone poles however we found the best part of the hike was beyond these poles! This is an in-and-out trail so return the way you came. Watch for the exit out of the canyon as it is easy to miss and you will end up walking right underneath Highway 89.
As with all desert hikes, this is an extremely hot and dry trail so we recommend taking at least one gallon (4L) of water per person. Also, there are no washrooms available at the trailhead.
Word of caution: Flash floods can be deadly. Do not enter a slot canyon in the chance of rain and always enter at your own risk. Be aware of changing weather conditions, as even rain several miles away can cause a flash flood. If you are unsure about conditions, check with staff when purchasing your hiking permit.