The peculiar formation of a slot canyon can make for an eerie experience and certainly the Antelope Canyon, on the lands of the LeChee people of the Navajo Nation is one of the stranger places you might choose to visit if your budget doesn’t quite run to a space shuttle. The shuttle, though, never lands on alien planets – yet you can still get the experience for very little here on our very own third rock from the sun.
One almost expects to turn a corner and run in to a group of Vulcans performing one of their weirder ceremonies. Pointed ears aside, however, this place is very much down to earth and is one of the most visited slot canyons in the world. It is easy to see why. Its out of this world beauty is capable of transforming the visitor, as it were, to another world. Split in two parts, the Upper and Lower canyons have their origins in pre-history. It is little wonder that the Navajo revere them so greatly.
Light somehow manages to find a way through the walls of the canyon, despite its narrowness. The color of the rock is a giveaway to those in the know – the walls of the canyon are made of sandstone. And one thing that sandstone is susceptible to is water. The medieval cathedrals of Europe will slowly weather away under the aqueous precipitation of the millennia. So it is with the Antelope Canyon – in fact it owes its existence, in one of the driest places on earth, to the erosive qualities of life sustaining H20.
With a leap of the imagination, this gorgeous view upwards of twin light tubes allows us to believe we are privy to the blueprints that Mother Nature surreptitiously provides for the continuous evolution of the canyons. The spirals show us where the water has slowly but persistently eroded the sandstone through the ages. Can any man-made structure match the sheer grace of this canyon below the ground?
So how exactly was this beautiful canyon formed? Although you might hesitate before accepting the fact, for the most part it is due to flash flooding. There are other sub-aerial processes involved as well but rainwater during the monsoon season is the primary culprit (if one were to assign anything like blame for this marvel of nature). There are large basins above both parts of the Antelope Canyon and the rain gathers here until it reaches a kind of critical mass.
When this happens it gushes in to the canyon. Over the thousands of millennia it took to create the full effect the water slowly but inexorably made the corridors of the canyons deeper and steeper. The hard edges of the rock were inevitably worn down and formed the flowing shapes on the rock face. So it was not the work of mighty and ancient Navajo spirits (perhaps…) but of the sheer tenacious persistence of the elements. Flooding still happens to this day – as recently as 2006 a thirty six hour flood forced the tribal authorities to close the lower part of the canyon for half a year. The sand arising from the erosion gets everywhere.
As can be imagined, this natural phenomenon attracts photographers (and more casual tourists) like bears to honey. However, a permit must be obtained nowadays as it was announced a Navajo Tribal Park in 1997. Although it may for some spoil the picture, as it were, to get an idea of the sheer scale and depth of the canyon it is perhaps a good idea to place someone down there – just to get a sense of perspective.
Although these pictures belie the fact, photography is pretty difficult to get right here due to the necessarily wide exposure range needed to get the picture right. This is due to the fact that light reflects off the walls of the canyon like a ball on a table tennis board. Ping pong, ping pong. Although I initially hesitated to include a picture with a human presence this does something to give an impression of the sheer scale of the canyon.
The upper canyon is known by the Navajo as ‘the place where water runs through the rocks’ and the lower as ‘spiral rock arches’. The former is the most visited as its entrance is at ground level, as is its entire length. Thus the tourist does not need to climb – and the famous beams of light are more prevalent in the upper canyon. They can be seen at their best in the summer months when the sun is at its highest in the sky. Between March and October each year the canyon gives the visitor the feeling of being on a beautifully shot Hollywood set – is that Indiana Jones disappearing around the corner?
The lower canyon has stairways to facilitate human travel to its base. Even with these aids to the tourist it is a much more difficult proposition than the upper, situated a few kilometers away. It is quite easy to stumble as the footing is never quite even but this should not deter the visitor even though, unsurprisingly, casual visitors are rarer in the lower.
Due to the danger of rain in the monsoon period, visitors are not allowed to visit the canyon on their own – they must take a tour guide with them. Flash floods can happen, well, in a flash and there was a tragedy in 1997 when eleven tourists were killed by a flood. The only survivor, without irony, was the tour guide who had had training in dealing with swift flowing water. As a result of this the stairways were fully bolted in to place and there are even cargo nets at the top of the canyon which can be deployed to ‘catch’ people in the event of a flood.
So, like so many other things in nature, Antelope Canyon is beautiful but can be deadly too. It remains, however, a superlative example of the inexorable power of nature and a reminder to us that there are many things more powerful on this planet than the human race.