Adventures in the American West: Lower Antelope Canyon

‘The Purpose of life is to live it, to taste it, to experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experiences.’-Eleanor Roosevelt

The impetuous for my entire trip was the to hike Antelope Canyon. If you make a similar choice, there is a lot of planning that needs to occur. Of the nearly 1,000 slot canyons in the region, Lower and Upper Antelope Canyon are the most famous. Prior to the late ’90s, the canyons were not regulated. Following the tragic death of eleven tourists in 1997 flash flood (one of the bodies was never found), new guidelines were put in place. It is mandatory that you book through a licensed Navajo tour group. For Lower Antelope, there are only two options: Dixie’s and Ken’s (they are brother and sister). While the lower is less popular than Upper Antelope Canyon, reservations sell out fast. This is even more true with the pandemic as group sizes shrunk considerably (between 6-8 people).

The winter is less crowded and weather is not as much a concern. The summer, you need to be prepared for you tour to be cancelled due to flash floods. The flood waters, which created these canyons, can rise to the top and move swiftly. Following the 1997 tragedy, the area as one of the best weather dopplers in the US to keep visitors safe so it is not something you need to worry about in the canyon itself.

I went in December and it was very cold…like 20-25 degrees. In addition to masks being mandatory, you cannot bring anything into the canyon with you sans a water bottle and camera. Because it was cold but I was also hiking, so a chance of getting warm, I dressed in a lot of layers. I brought my The North Face Campshire fleece hoodie I purchased in Queenstown, New Zealand and it was perfect (sadly, it seems the style I have was discontinued but maybe you can find it on Poshmark or the like). It has a kangaroo style pocket, perfect for my keys and then a traditional hoodie pocket, where I stuck my water bottle. While the fleece’s fit is comfortable rather than roomy, I was still able to wear a fitted sweatshirt underneath. It worked perfectly and also what I wore when I did Upper Antelope and Cathedral Canyons.

I was on the fence about going because it is more strenuous and I read about a lot of stairs. I get winded easily due to a narrow airway, so it was a concern with having to wear a mask. But, I decided, if I needed to take my time climbing out of the canyon then that is what I would do. I did not want to miss out on this experience. And you know what, it wasn’t bad at all. The stairs are going down and only one is steep (you climb down like a ladder). Getting out of the canyon is a gradual climb, I never felt short of breath.

Since I added it after I planned my other hikes, I needed to do it first thing in the morning. While I meant that to be Thursday or Friday, I accidentally booked Wednesday (as my Cathedral Canyon tour was late in the afternoon). Because of my goof and the distance between Monument Valley and Page, Arizona, I had to leave at about 4:30 am. While it meant I missed out on a sunrise over the Valley, I did get to see one of the most beautiful sunrises over the Arizona desert. I was a bit salty about my mistake but those feelings evaporated as the desert colors emerged from the darkness.

Lower Antelope Canyon, through Dixie’s Lower Antelope Canyon Tours, was $50 and included a guide who takes you through and shared their knowledge. My guide, Gene, was fantastic. He grew up in the canyons so had all sorts of fun facts about the region. He also pointed out the famous images this canyon is know for, including the ‘Smiling Shark’ or Peter Lik’s Eternal Beauty.

For all the places that I have visited the last two years in which water has done some crazy things, these slot canyons take the cake. Unlike, say the Grand Canyon or Canyonlands which were aided by wind and a massive river, Antelope Canyon was created by flash floods and that is it. Due to their evolution, it is relatively new at approximately 250,000ish years old. Unlike Upper Antelope, the lower is not getting any deeper (I asked). To enable visitors to walk and not slip on the Navajo Sandstone, desert sand is pumped in after floods.

I am so glad that I went in the winter. Pre-Covid, thousands of people moved through these canyons daily during peak season. With being off season and crowd restrictions, I was able to take hundreds of photographs without having to maneuver around another human. I could enjoy the immense space without the added claustrophobia of other people-lets face it, tourists can be frustrating, ha! There is a caveat to winter excursions, the famous light beams of Antelope Canyon are also not visible from October to March, not that the view is not stunning and I did not feel the lack of light refractions dampened my experience. Being said, if I am able to win the lottery to see ‘The Wave’ this summer, I will most likely visit Lower Antelope again. I will also share the difference in experience with bigger crowds.

It is so rare that some place you dream of visiting exceeds expectations but Lower Antelope did. The curvature of the walls, the isolation, the sheer height that surround you…it feels very grounding. I think if you can only do one of the canyons, it should be the lower. It was worth every stair and then some. And once you climb out, don’t forget to look back. You can see the slot canyon from above and it is so hard to fathom the world that you just experienced below.

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