Antelope Canyon and Waterholes Canyon: Amazing Southwest Slots

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Close quarters in Waterholes Canyon…

On an Antelope Canyon photography tour you are guided around in a tight pack, told exactly where to stand (or where to crouch, as is often the case), and told exactly what to photograph before moving onto the next composition. All of this occurs while crowds of non-photo tourists are held out of frame for the time it takes to release the shutter before they are released to continue pulsing through the narrow canyon. It is a strictly managed, totally “on rails” ride-experience swarming with people. And it is totally worth it…

Like most photographers I had wanted to visit Antelope Canyon (lower) since I first saw a picture of its perfectly sculpted sandstone walls illuminated by beams of creeping light. I had never laid eyes on a more picturesque canyon and it absolutely captivated me. At first I imagined (and hoped) that it might involve a challenging hike to a distant and hidden location where I could experience the thrill of wandering its twisting channels in solitude. With just a bit of research, however, that fantasy was paved over by reality – even by the late 90’s and early 2000’s when I first learned about its existence – the canyon was already an extremely popular destination swarming with guided crowds. As the years have gone by this continues to be the case, only more so. As such, I put a visit on the backburner in lieu of other less-crowded adventures. Last year, however, I was in and out of Page, AZ – where the canyon is located – on a fairly regular basis in my adventures around the southwest and I figured it was about time to experience the canyon.
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The absolutely breathtaking Antelope Canyon…

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Sculpted walls of Waterholes Canyon…

So, on one of my travels through Page in March of 2015, I stopped in at the Powell Museum and booked an antelope canyon photo tour for early June when the light beams would be at their peak. The museum has a partnership with some of the more reputable tour groups in Page and is a good place to book. It was just my luck that I happened to nab one of the last available tour dates as June tours usually fill up 6 months in advance.

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Typical vista in Antelope Canyon…

Months went by and on the morning of my scheduled tour I was running late from Zion due to the fact that I had misplaced my camera coming out of the Narrows. This setback took a few harried hours to clear up and by the time I reached Page I had missed my tour. The outfitter I had booked through the Powell Museum, Ekis’ Antelope Canyon Adventures, told me there were no photo-tour spots available for the rest of the summer. Out of luck. I still wanted to see Antelope Canyon so I drove up the road to try a last-minute booking at another outfitter.

I ended up taking a chance on the roadside Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours stop just east of the power plant along the 98. As it happened they had a prime photo-tour spot available the next day and could fit me in. I happily paid up and spent the rest of the afternoon driving out to Alstrom Point to watch the sun set. That evening I made sure all my photo-gear was good to go for the next day…

I arrived at Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours the following morning around 11:15 and ended up in an SUV along with two middle-aged men from the midwest and a French couple. Our Navajo guide gave us a rundown of what to expect and we piled into the truck and headed down Antelope Wash. On the approach our driver alternated between driving normally and suddenly jamming down on the accelerator to slalom back and forth in the sand for fun. It was an odd ride. All around us were other SUVs and jeeps from other outfitters, everyone kicking up sand and racing through the desert to the same location like a scene out of Mad Max.

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Look Up: One of the pre-designated compositions in Antelope…

Arriving at the entrance to the canyon there were about 50 other parked vehicles and throngs of people at the entrance to the canyon – a narrow crack in the wall that headed off the wash. Our guide gave a small informational speech that he had clearly given a thousand times before – indicating that we should keep our tripod footprints as small as possible and do more or less exactly what he says. He was adamant that he would fight for us to get the best pictures possible and it was clear he took pride in that fact. With that we headed into the canyon. Once inside, the guide went into action amidst the hundreds of people and other guided groups.
 
The tour went like this: At a quick pace, we were guided around in a huddled group and led to pre-determined compositions. The guide told us exactly where to plant our tripods depending on lens and sensor type, even going so far as to dictate horizontal or vertical framing (which is the only real aspect of creative control you have).
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Every turn in Antelope provides stunning natural light…

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Antelope Grooves…

As we crouched shoulder to shoulder with our lenses nearly touching, our guide, sometimes coordinating with other guides, held back crowds and tossed dust into the air to bring out the light-beams. As noted elsewhere online, the precisely guided nature of these photo tours explains why most of the photos from Antelope Canyon look the same.

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Nature providing a cinematic look…

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Guide-flung dust disappears in the light…

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The Dragons Lair: incredible light in Antelope Canyon…

Other tour operators constantly accused our guide of taking too much time in one place or monopolizing various other areas. He was extremely aggressive in eking out space for our group and bore the brunt of their criticism, calmly shaking off their complaints. He really did fight for us to get as much precious time and space in that canyon as possible. In fact, he often muscled out the very tour operation I had booked with through the Powell Museum months before.

Within 45 minutes our tour ended and we headed back towards the head of the canyon. I was left wondering what more there was to see, as it was evident from the echoes of the crowd that there was more going on further down. It is up to the discretion of the guide just where you go and what you see so in that respect multiple visits can be different.

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A hike in Waterholes Canyon…

The next day, having finally visited Antelope, I decided to check out what is essentially its foil: Waterholes Canyon. The accessible section of Waterholes is a short – and at the moment quiet – slot canyon that can can be hiked in solitude with a $12 backcountry permit. It features sculpted and fluted sandstone canyon vistas reminiscent of Antelope – but without huge crowds. With your permit you may spend hours inside, but are required to stay within a designated zone – deeper exploration of the area is off limits unless guided.

The permitted area of Waterholes is certainly not as deep, narrow or picturesque as Antelope, but being able to walk around freely as the light changes is worth the trip and will yield images with much the same feel. It also suggests the extent to which the surrounding area is punctuated by these beautiful narrow slots.

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End of the Waterholes east narrows. Up the ladder to continue to the powerlines…

The “trailhead” to Waterholes is right off the 89 on the east side of the road, south of Horseshoe Bend. After a short and steep descent you arrive in the bottom of the wash. To your west the canyon heads downstream under the 89 overpass to meet the Colorado River in Glen Canyon. If you head down under the bridge you can find the remains of a car that is now crushed into the bottom of the canyon. Apparently this whole western section of Waterholes was once accessible to technical canyoneers but I am not sure of its status now – I would love to canyoneer it to the Colorado and then packraft down to Lees Ferry…I may have to look into that.

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Sandstone Texture…

Anyways, the section of Waterholes to the east of the overpass is currently permitted, with instructions to go no further than the power lines that cross the wash a mile or so down. It is in this section that you will find pretty sections of short narrows. The narrows abruptly end at a ladder and if you continue up the ladder the canyon opens up again until the power lines. Here you can turn around and head back to your car.

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Chutes and Ladders…

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Waterholes gets narrow…

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Twists and turns on a waterholes hike…



::: Download Trip KML :::

Rating: ★★★★★
Distance: ~2.5 miles for Waterholes, under 1 mile for Antelope…
Time Needed: 45 minutes to 4 hours for Waterholes depending on how long you want to enjoy it. An Antelope Tour from start to finish is under 3 hours…
Difficulty: Easy

Special Considerations: Lower Antelope Canyon: Book your trip far out in advance (6 months). Both outfitters mentioned in this writeup are great choices – but I might try to go through the Powell Museum first. If you are interested in getting the best pictures possible you will want to book your trip for Lower Antelope Canyon for early to mid June when the light beams are best and aim to get on a tour that enters the canyon at around 11:30 or 11:45. This way you will take best advantage of the light. I have not been in Upper Antelope Canyon but the gist is that it is slightly less photographic but still worth the trip. I intend to visit in the future. Waterholes: I have been to waterholes twice, both at around noon and also later in the day. In my experience, Waterholes is most photographic around 3pm or 4pm in early June – when the light hits at an angle and bounces around in the narrow channels. A fantastic day of slot photography could be had by booking an Antelope Photo tour for around 11:30 and then heading down the road a few hours later to Waterholes to round out the afternoon.

Photo Tips: Dust abounds in Antelope. Tourists kick it up, guides literally throw it into the air. If the possibilty of dust on or in your camera concerns you then you might want to bring a plastic bag to cover the camera body in. Also useful is a blower of some sort to clean the lens off in between exposures…as fine dust will settle on it. I did not bring a cover for my camera and it was fine – but I am not one to baby my gear so your mileage may vary. A cable or remote release as well as a tripod are essential. For Waterholes canyon you can ignore the dust warning…the experience is much more within your control. I do not recall using a polarizer for the above images.

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