You’d be pretty hard pressed to find a traveler who hadn’t heard of The Grand Canyon. But what of the other surrounding natural wonders of the American Southwest? I freely admit that prior to planning this roadtrip, I can’t be sure I’d ever heard of places like Lake Powell, Glen Canyon, Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon, despite them being less than a two hour drive from the Grand Canyon’s gorgeous South Rim. All four suggestions came from a Facebook status asking for advice on where two girls should spend five days in an RV from Las Vegas, suggestions that now have me making that grateful-hands emoji in real life.
And all four brought us to Page, Arizona, an odd little adventure outpost on the cusp of Utah.
We woke up to bright blue skies at the Wahweap Campground, a part of the Lake Powell Resort. This was our second morning of seeing our destination for the first time in the morning after arriving in the darkness of night the evening prior, and it felt a bit like Christmas morning every time. On this particular day we were up bright and early and filled with excitement: we were headed to the famed Upper Antelope Canyon.
This was the aspect of our trip I was most excited about from mile one, though we were initially pretty puzzled over how exactly to make it happen. It took a lot of research but I finally gleaned the following:
• Upper Antelope and Lower Antelope are far from the only slot canyons in this region, however they are the most famous. All slot canyons are on either private or Navajo land, and thus are accessible only via tour operators that have been given concessions by the land owners or by the Bureau of Land Management. It can be a little confusing to figure out which companies have access to which canyons. For example, there is no company that has access to both Upper and Lower Antelope. You’d need to visit them with two different tour companies.
• Tours can frequently consist of thirty or more people being herded quickly through a narrow passageway, especially for the most popular canyons. The best way to ensure a personalized experience and the ability to capture frame-worthy photos is to book a specialized photography tour. Or, if you’re Britney Spears and filming the Not Yet a Girl Not Yet a Woman video, do a complete buy out of all five tour companies for a day and artificially dam and flood the canyon for your own private shoot!
• Speaking of photography, the elusive light beams that feature in most famous snaps of the canyons are dependent on time of day, month of year and amount of sunlight. Plan accordingly. Most companies charge a premium for tours at these times.
We decided early on that we wanted to see the iconic Upper Antelope, and that we wanted to splurge on a photography tour. There are five tour companies with concessions to Upper Antelope, though Adventurous Antelope Canyon Photo Tours was the only we could find for photography specific tours (if you know of others, please do give a holler in the comments!) More on my thoughts on them throughout the post.
We settled on a two canyon tour that included both Upper Antelope and Rattlesnake Canyons. First up? The namesake of the desert’s slithering predator.
We had this gorgeous spot all to ourselves, which we’d come to appreciate when we entered the madness that is Upper Antelope a bit later. It’s easy to see why Antelope is the more famous of the two — Rattlesnake is a bit rougher around the edges and does not feature the famous light beams. That said, while it is slightly less visually impressive in person, thanks to the lack of crowds I actually got better photos and enjoyed my time in Rattlesnake more.
We actually lucked out — our group was just five people which we assumed was standard due to the price, but our guide mentioned towards the end of the tour that ten people had rescheduled for the next day due to weather! With such a small group, we had plenty of time and space to play.
Funny story: Zoe spent the first fifteen minutes of the tour taking faux photos with my old cracked-screen dSLR and a dinky tripod we’d bought specifically for the occasion. Why? Because the tour is strictly for for photographers only, no non-shooting guests allowed, which is enforced by requiring every guest to have a dSLR and a tripod. (They do offer some tours that allow non-photographer companions but they are not during the prime light beam hours.) We understood the reasoning for this rule, which is to make sure the true shutterbugs get the best time slots, but we didn’t want to take separate tours at different times of day and I didn’t want to give up the prime time slot. Zoe’s more of a Polaroid kind of girl, but luckily I had yet to get rid of my old dSLR since replacing with an upgraded version a few months prior. We tried contacting the company to see if we could get away with a shared tripod as we were traveling so far and for so long but never got a straight answer (more on our communication disasters with them below) so I ended up buying a cheapie tripod for Zoe to basically just get past the bouncer, so to speak. It ended up being a good investment, at least in laughs — it cracked me up watching her elaborate game of photography charades.
We actually crawled all the way to up and out of the end of the canyon, which gave us the unique opportunity to see it from above. At this point our guide had caught onto the fact that Zoe was a secret sightseer (“Um, ma’am, you left your camera back there on the ground?” “Oh. [Pause.] My baby!”), though he didn’t seem too bothered.
Next up? The very famous Upper Antelope. Our eyes grew wide as we pulled up to the entrance and found a long line of trucks parked alongside ours. The private tour was over indeed! I’d already given myself a pep talk when I woke up that morning that I wasn’t going to get worked up over getting the perfect photo. I’d read plenty of photography tips to prepare mentally (just Google “Antelope Canyon photography” for dozens of blog posts on the subject) but I also wanted to take a moment to do so emotionally. Sometimes I get so stressed in crowded or high-pressure situations about capturing the moment that I don’t enjoy the moment! I promised myself that wouldn’t happen here.
If it happened, it happened; if not, I’d have the memories.
Crowds notwithstanding it was one of the most magnificent places I’d ever seen. And my pep talk — as well as the relaxed time we’d had in Rattlesnake — worked. I felt an amused detachment to the circus that was going on inside the canyon and was alarmed at group members who seemed almost hysterical in their pursuit of the perfect photo.
The truth is that while I have a keen eye for composition and strong sense of aesthetics (thank you, BFA from a top design university!), I’m not a very technically skilled photographer. I may know what an F-stop is and the general theory of how to shoot in manual, but I never do it. Hence why I squirm anytime any of you ask for a photography tutorial! Almost every photo you see on this site was shot on aperture priority, no flash, no tripod, no specific clue on what I’m actually doing.
Which is all to say, I was beyond thrilled that not only did we get the chance to see the ethereal Antelope Canyon light beams, I also took a photograph that I was pretty pleased with. Can it compete with the world’s most expensive, taken in the same location? Nah, but I’m pretty excited to frame it someday.
Conclusion? The canyons are magical. Truly, madly, deeply magical.
But. There is a big but: Never in my nearly five years of travel have I had to work so hard to give someone $146 dollars. This was the single most frustrating tour booking experience I have ever had. Our calls to Adventurous Antelope Canyon Photo Tours were not answered, our voicemails were not returned, our numerous emails would get an auto-response and our detailed follow ups would warrant only yet another auto-response. We honestly had no idea if we were actually booked on the tour until the evening prior, when we received a confirmation phone call. There was a lot of stress over the whole “photographers only” thing, too.
While our guide gave good photography tips and knew his way around a camera, he could not have seemed any less interested in us or in our questions. I often had to ask two or three follow ups to glean answers to pretty basic questions about the area. Worse, we were pressured into giving him a $20 tip each.
Hence, I have really mixed feelings on the whole thing. On one hand, our booking experience was frustrating and difficult and our guide experience was disappointing, and we paid a lot of money for it. On the other one hand, I wouldn’t trade our experience for the world — and I’m happy to have paid the big bucks to do a photography tour. We could have saved $118 each by doing one of the standard $48 tours but I would have left miserable. Also, we did get VIP status when we were in Antelope: all the guides, regardless of which company they work for, know each other and work together really respectfully to keep big groups out of the way of the photography tours and make sure you get the shots. They’d yell out “photo tour coming through!” and the other guides would just shove their groups out of the way. We had a lot of fun playing in Rattlesnake Canyon and enjoyed having priority access in Upper Antelope Canyon.
With our tour finishing up around 1PM and no long drives ahead (we were actually staying in the same campground two nights in a row — bliss!), we still had plenty of time to explore the area before sunset.
Our plan was to spend the afternoon SUPing on Lake Powell, something I was incredibly excited for. But first, lunch. When we stopped at the Lake Powell viewpoint en route to the marina we decided the view was too gorgeous to drive away from just yet, and started prepping our meal right then and there. Such is the beauty of driving a JUCY and having your kitchen along for the ride!
However, we noticed a dark weather pattern heading our way at a rapid clip. At first, we reveled in watching it get closer and closer without a care in the world. Slowly we started flashing each other nervous smiles and reassuring each other that we were totally safe cooking in metal pots while a lightening storm quickly approached. In retrospect I have no idea why we were both so reluctant to pull the plug on the whole operation, but I can assure you you’ve never seen two girls move so fast as we did when a man in a truck pulled up and screamed at us to get out of there before we got killed.
His timing was impeccable. Moments later we were immersed in the most deafening torrential downpour I’ve ever experienced, pans rattling in the back and pot of ruined macaroni in my lap.
Truly, it was chilling and I had a rare moment of dread and fear wash over me as we frantically tried to decide if it was safer to pull over off the road we could not see in front of us or keep pressing forward in search of safety. With lightening striking at alarmingly close locations, I turned, as always, to Google. At this point, my searches were getting increasingly morbid, as my recent search history showed.
The eye of the storm passed and we made the short drive back to the Lake Powell Marina. Rattled by our brush with bad weather, we decided to spent the afternoon catching up on tasks like laundry, showering, answering emails, and giving tours to the onlookers who regularly inquired about our JUCY.
Right before sunset the rain tapered off and, feeling a little antsy from our low-key afternoon, we decided to take a little drive. We weren’t on the road long before I heard an excited shriek from Zoe. “Rainbow!” I snapped up and saw it — a perfect multi-hued arch reaching valiantly from one end of the lake to the other. Our aimless drive to nowhere suddenly had a destination. We pulled over to admire.
In that moment, on the side the road, I felt so spoiled. The whole trip, we were surrounded by an overindulgence of natural beauty, an absolute excess of gifts handed over by the universe. We had had so many already, and here was yet another. It almost felt like we’d had more than our fair share. I felt very small, very humbled, and very grateful.
Stay tuned for further adventures around Lake Powell!
Have you been to any of the slot canyons or the lake?
Many thanks to JUCY for our sweet ride! As always, you receive my honest thoughts, full opinions and poorly written jokes regardless of who is footing the bill.