Gaze for too long at these rock formations, and you begin to drift off and forget whether you’re looking at a geological phenomenon or a vast, abstract oil painting. The swirls seem to envelop you, and in Antelope Canyon they actually do. Let’s take a ramble down this most gorgeous of gorges and lose ourselves in the wonderful play of light and patterns that captivate its many visitors each year. Here lies one of the planet’s greatest natural art galleries.
Upper Antelope Canyon
Antelope Canyon lies on Navajo land in the American southwest, nestled hidden in the Arizona landscape. One of the world’s greatest canyons, it is a place of splendid serenity, the sort of spot where people find themselves talking in hushed whispers without quite knowing why. As a slot canyon, it has been formed over thousands of years by the gradual wear of water rushing through rock.
Lower Antelope Canyon
Slot canyons are exceptionally narrow, far deeper than they are wide, and Antelope Canyon’s fantastic whorls and contours can be up to 150 feet tall, while being observable only by very small groups shuffling along the sandy floor. The canyon was formed by the erosion of Navajo sandstone, chiefly due to flash floods that still occur here, making this very much artwork still in progress.
Rainwater, particularly in the monsoon season, runs into a large basin overlooking the slot canyon, picking up speed and sand as it runs into the narrow passageways. Grain by grain, the corridors are deepened and the edges smoothed to form the exquisite shapes and graceful curves in the rock. Wind too has played a part in eroding and sanding this majestic canyon.
The geological rock sculpting here is split into two distinct areas. The Navajo people fittingly call Upper Antelope Canyon Tse’ bighanilini, which means “the place where water runs through rocks”. Lower Antelope Canyon, known to the Navajo as Hasdestwazi, or “spiral rock arches”, is less visited, as it is a longer and tougher hike and must be climbed into via metal stairways.
The characteristic layering of sandstone is clearly discernible, the layers of sand having built up as a result of sedimentation from water, or from air as in deserts. Scientific explanation assuredly has its place here, and yet these visual delights fit easily into the domain of art.
Here, we see the view from inside Lower Antelope Canyon, looking out with a chink of the sky visible at the top of the frame.
The magical gateway into Upper Antelope Canyon – indeed its entire length – is at ground level, which is one reason why it is the more visited of the two carved geological marvels. The other features that explain its greater popularity are the occasional shafts of sunlight that shine down through openings in the top of the canyon; these are more common in the Upper Canyon.
The beams of light are typically seen in the summer months because the sun has to be high in the sky for the angle of its rays to be just right.
The phenomenon does not happen so often in the winter, and during this season, the colours are slightly more muted, though no less magnificent, as in the photo shown here.
The summer months themselves offer two different types of lighting, according to the time at which they are witnessed. The play of light is a dazzling phenomenon, seen here catching and reflecting off the edges of the canyon. The way the light constantly changes seems to emulate the continual evolution of the rock faces.
Sometimes the pillars of light from overhead appear to evoke some kind of spiritual episode, like the stereotypical scene of a god speaking from on high. It comes as little surprise that to the Navajo people, the canyon has always been a place of reverence.
There is a strong sense that this is some kind of sacred space, a womb-like sanctum perhaps, and to the older Navajos entering such a place would surely have been like entering a cathedral. They would likely have left feeling enlightened by nature and in harmony with something greater than themselves. Being inside Antelope Canyon will always be something of a spiritual or transformative experience.
At times, the rock forms seem to bear a resemblance to human or animal bodies in their shape and appearance, making the canyon all the more like a living, breathing entity. Here, faces seem to come out of the wall, looking down quietly yet imposingly on those below.
Antelope Canyon really is a photographer’s dream; however, it also presents difficult challenges due to the way the light enters the area, the large differences in light levels, and the wide exposure range caused by light reflecting off the steep canyon walls.
As mentioned, it is not just the light but the stratification of sandstone that makes Antelope Canyon such an enchanting experience for spectators. It really does call to mind the idea of an immense painter, working with light and rock instead of with oils. Each rock surface is a canvas for nature’s very own swirling compositions.
Yet, despite the beauty and light of Antelope Canyon, this place also has darker, more dangerous aspect. This was all too apparent in 1997 when eleven tourists were killed in Lower Antelope Canyon by a flash flood that also washed away the then wooden ladders that may have provided a means of escape.
In the fatal 1997 event, the rain did not need to fall close to the canyon itself for the floods to come rushing down through its corridors. To trigger a flash flood here, all it needs is for a storm to deposit large quantities of water in the canyon basin, miles upstream.
The risk of sudden flooding is one reason why Antelope Canyon can only be visited through guided tours led by authorised guides. The canyon is also only accessible with a permit, and is a source of tourism trade for the Navajo on whose homeland it stands.
In this shot, we see just how narrow the passages can get, particularly in the V-shaped Lower Canyon, which can be tricky underfoot at times.
Sightseers can stretch out their arms and touch both sides in places. However amazing it may be, Antelope Canyon is not for the claustrophobic.
So we reach the end of our own tour through this wondrous temple of Mother Nature’s. Part natural phenomenon, part tranquil art gallery, part giant artwork in itself, Antelope Canyon will undoubtedly continue to leave visitors both speechless and restored, as it has done for thousands of years.