For years I’d seen photos of Antelope Canyon in art shows and was astounded by the color and texture of the rock, the way the light made smooth walls glow within the deep slot canyon. I’ve always wanted to go there and experience that.
When we were leaving Grand Canyon, I realized just how close we were to this phenomenal place, but we were with our friends and headed toward Zion. There was a schedule to keep. I let it go, but Kate knew how much I wanted to see this. She got online and found the best tour to take. And after we’d hit the string of national parks northeast of Zion, she pushed for looping back down into Arizona to get me into Antelope Canyon.
We drove south through Monument Valley, which offered wonderful scenic views. We were going to have to backtrack afterwards to get to Durango where we would visit my sister-in-law. To avoid unnecessary (and expensive) miles on Bessie, we looked for a campground near Kayenta, where we would turn west toward Page (where Antelope Canyon is).
We have a great app called AllStays that finds places to camp, park, buy propane, etc. It has been our faithful navigator. Kate used it to find a place to camp just west of Kayenta: the Navajo National Monument. It offers two campgrounds with free camping. Really. FREE! No hook-ups, but nice sites, restrooms… a very nice place. We got there around noon, set Bessie up, and took off in the car for the two-hour drive to Page.
Antelope Canyon is on Navajo land and can only be visited with a guide. Several Navajo outfitters work out of Page and at the canyon site to offer tours. Kate researched on her phone and found that we could save money by going directly to the site. And Ken’s Tours offered the best deals: $20 for a regular one-hour tour, $50 for a specialized Photographers Tour (tripods and SLR cameras required). Plus the $8 entrance fee to the Navajo Park.
We were racing to get there for the last Photographer’s Tour of the day at 2:30. Kate said she would stay with Bailey, go into Page and do some grocery shopping. We forgot that Arizona doesn’t do Daylight Savings Time, so I was actually an hour early, and there was a regular tour going out right then. In a crazy last-minute shuffle, I sent Kate off on the regular tour with my old Nikon camera, and I took Bailey down the road for a dip in Lake Powell. There was a 20-minute overlap of our tours, and it was too hot to leave Bailey in the car, but the ticket seller suggested I tie Bailey up in the shade near the booth and she would keep an eye on her.
I’ll often leave Bailey outside of stores for a short time, and she just lies down and waits. But watching me walk off into a canyon was a whole different ballgame, and she was having none of it. She barked and cried as I left, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do this. But several women went to her side and petted her, and I had to trust that she would be okay for 20 minutes till Kate returned.
The Photographers Tour is serious business. Not only was I the only woman, but I was the only one with less than $10,000 of equipment over my shoulder. There were four professional photographers who sold photos to magazines and over the wire. The two others might have been no more experienced than me but clearly invested more money in their hobbies. I tried not to be intimidated, but I felt like a kid sister tag-along.
Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon, which is a deep, narrow crevice in the earth. We walked as a group to an entrance with steep metal stairs affixed to the rock. A bit of a challenge to navigate with a camera attached to a tripod, but once I was at the bottom, I was absolutely awestruck. All around me, smooth orange walls curved and dipped and whirled in the most amazing water-sculpted patterns. The canyon is a narrow maze winding through rock. Larger “rooms” are connected by narrow passages that often require squeezing or climbing to navigate. Staircases are placed where necessary, but there is definitely some physical finessing required.
Once in, all the photographers got down to business. The tour guide must have assumed that guidance or direction would be an insult to professionals, so he pretty much left us alone, just helping us navigate some of the trickier passages. Occasionally he took a flute from his backpack and played haunting Navajo tunes that echoed through the canyon. Once he showed me how to hold my camera against a wall, shooting up to get a specific shot called “California Waves.”
I’m not used to working with a tripod, and the one I had with me on this trip is a small travel tripod that I struggled to adjust. The lighting was tricky… the contrast between light shafts and shadowed walls was hard to accommodate. And even though it was a two-hour tour, there were other groups coming through and we had to take turns getting clear shots. When the pressure to get the “right shot” felt to stressful, I tried to step back and just look around and enjoy it. God, it was amazing. I’ve seen a lot of red rocks in the last two weeks, but these were like none other. I was so, so glad that Kate had insisted we come here, and glad that she got to see this, too.
When I climbed the final staircase and emerged from the canyon two hours later, I was tired and hungry, but charged with excitement. Kate and Bailey were waiting for me, and Bailey greeted me as if I had come back from the dead. She’d done the same for Kate, poor thing, and the ticket seller had stayed with her the whole time, comforting her. She does much better in the safe familiar of Bessie or the car.
Kate had thoroughly enjoyed her tour as well. It was a very different experience, with Malaysian tourists who took selfies with phones at every turn. But her guide was much more engaged than mine, helping her with camera settings and pointing out popular patterns in the walls, different angles to try. Kate has a good eye for patterns and details. She usually zooms more closely than I do, and she ended up getting incredible photos, some better than mine.
After a quick Thai meal and grocery shopping in Page, we headed back to the Navajo National Monument, where Bessie was parked. At dusk, we stopped for gas at an unattended station and it nearly broke our hearts to see a puppy left there. He came up to the passenger window and sat at attention, looking straight into my eyes until I couldn’t stand to look anymore. He was young and handsome, and I had to tell myself he would be okay. He’d wandered from a nearby house. His people would come back for him. He was a station dog who stayed here at night. Or at worst, a stray that somebody who wasn’t living in an RV with one big dog already would scoop up and love.
The next morning, before we left the campground, we went to the Navajo Monument, which is really like an outdoor museum: an annotated trail that leads to a canyon with overhangs and ancient cliff dwellings. This monument and campground have got to be one of the Southwest’s best kept secrets!