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March 3, 2014

Arizona: Lower Antelope Canyon


Waves of Navajo sandstone in Lower Antelope Canyon

Waves of Navajo sandstone in Lower Antelope Canyon

Just outside the town of Page, Arizona State Route 98 passes over a water-carved gash the desert sandstone.  Ruts are common roadside features in the desert southwest; the topology of this particular wash is not unusual.  Indeed, passing motorists find their attention drawn to the imposing Navajo Generating Station standing on a ridge nearby and not to the rough shacks and dirt parking lots that mark the entrances to one of the natural wonders of the Southwestern United States, Antelope Canyon.

Upper Antelope Canyon, which we visited the last time through the area, is on the south side of Route 98.  This time we exited north off of the roadway and rolled into the parking lot for Lower Antelope Canyon.  Paying extra for a “photographers pass” at the entrance shack allowed us two hours of unfettered access to the lower canyon.  Importantly, the pass let us bring along the all-essential tripod.

This narrow crack is the upper entrance to Lower Antelope Canyon.

This narrow crack is the upper entrance to Lower Antelope Canyon.

A short distance behind the access gate is the upstream entry point to Lower Antelope Canyon.  Here an unremarkable fissure opens in the Navajo Sandstone wash.  After a moment we realized that this too-narrow channel is the way in.  We stepped out of the sun into the crack and descended into the slot.  Once below ground and sheltered from the direct sunlight, we were immersed in abstract undulations of sandstone.

Lower Antelope Canyon spans less than a quarter of a mile as a crow flies; inside it seems much longer.  Passage is slow.  Twisting narrow sandstone walls interrupted by metal ladders polished shiny by the fine desert sand enforce a single route; there are no wrong turns or side trips.  Every twist, every turn presents a supernatural sandstone sculpture.  Each scene depends on the light.  As the sun moves through the sky, different features in the canyon are highlighted.  Move a few steps forward or back and the picture is entirely different.

Higher up, nearer to the surface there is more light in the canyon (left) but as you descend it is darker (right)

Higher up, nearer to the surface there is more light in the canyon (left) but as you descend it is darker (right)

DSC_4110-Edit-Edit-Edit-EditA place as spellbinding as Antelope Canyon demands pictures.  The bitter reality is that slot canyons with their harsh gradations of sunlight are challenging places to get good photos.  This time I had a better idea of what takes to get a decent picture—avoid the harshest of light contrasts, use a tripod, exposure bracket the shots, mostly avoid the alluring blue sky above, etc.  But still, Antelope Canyon remains a hard place to photograph.  Maybe it’s easier if you are Art Wolfe or Peter Lik but for mere mortals, photography in Antelope Canyon is very difficult.  The upside to taking pictures in Antelope Canyon is that there are so many good angles and so many different light conditions that it is easy to avoid retaking a picture that has long ago been made famous by others.  Indeed you’d have to work hard to reproduce Art Wolfe or Peter Lik’s best shots.

Antelope Canyon is a wonderful place but a visit comes with a side effect.  Now, every time we pass the humblest of ruts splitting the desert floor alongside the road, we can’t help but wonder what lies beneath.  Is it possible that below the surface is another place as alluring as Antelope Canyon just waiting to be discovered?

Navigating a long ladder is necessary at the lower entrance to Lower Antelope Canyon

Navigating a long ladder is necessary at the lower entrance to Lower Antelope Canyon

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