Antelope Canyon is one of those places that crop up everywhere. Screen Savers, Background images, corporate art, TV interludes. It is a place so utterly stunning, its images are used everywhere. Most people assume it’s some remote hidden location miles from anywhere and untouched by man. But this is far from the reality, the Slot Canyon is less than a mile out of Page Arizona, in the shadow of an electric power plant, and easily accessible to any would-be tourist!
On our latest road trip around the Grand Canyon, we stopped by Page, AZ, and checked out this near-mythical canyon. To get the best experience we spent months working out the best time to go, Which Antelope Canyon Tour was Best, Which Operator to go with and how to get the best out of the tour. So if you are Visiting Antelope Canyon Arizona our guide tells you everything you need to know about this stunning and spiritual canyon.
What is Antelope Canyon?
Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon carved out of the Arizona Rocks. A slot Canyon is a very narrow, canyon almost a cave, where the walls are very close together but there is still an opening to the world above. This means that while the canyon is dark, it is not pitch-black like a cave. Due to the Sandstone rock, the Canyon is carved into the light filtering down turns the canyon a stunning red color and at times the whole place glows with an unearthly light that really can take your breath away.
The River that forms the Antelope Slot Canyon System is seasonal, and most of the time it is dried up. This is essential for the formation of slot canyons in the soft sandstone of Arizona. A permanent river would have worn far more of the rock away and the canyon would simply be a canyon, maybe even a Grand Canyon! When the river floods it picks up large amounts of sand that are forced through the narrow opening of the canyon essentially sanding down the walls to give the incredible smooth waved patterns that make the canyon so unique.
It is a wonderful piece of nature in action and something so wonderful, if you are in the area you cannot miss it!
Where is Antelope Canyon?
Just Outside of Page, Arizona. The canyons lie on private Navajo land and are only accessible via a tour. There are tours there every minute of the day so don’t even think about sneaking in, Despite it being disrespectful there are just too many people to get away with it. Page, Az is a small city far from any other real settlement, on the border between Utah and Arizona, right at the mouth of Lake Powel. There is a lot to see in the area beside the Canyons, Lake Powell, Lake Powel Damn, Horshoe bend, and Marble Canyon so it’s well worth checking out the sights if you are in the area.
It’s about two and a half hours drive from the Grand Canyon Village, and the about same again to Monument Valley. It’s perfect road trip territory! We visited on a whirlwind tour of the Grand Canyon. Starting in Vegas, we hit Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Page Arizona, and the Grand Canyon National Park then took Route 66 to Los Angeles. A great trip but honestly we should have added 2-3 days on and headed over to Monument. But at some point, you have to limit what you are doing, or you would spend a lifetime trying to see the whole country!
Antelope Canyon is actually several canyons making up the Antelope Canyon Complex
Upper Antelope Canyon
The main Canyon and the most photographed and easily the busiest. This is where most tours head and it is crazy crowded. But this is the real canyon and the best photo ops are found here. Some of the formations are seriously stunning and like something from another world. This is one of those occasions you just have to brave the crowds and get in there.
Lower Antelope Canyon
The Lower canyon is much quieter and less visited. However, it is not quite as dramatic as the upper canyon. However, this is offset by having time alone and being able to appreciate the spiritual nature and why the Navajo found these canyons so important. We would say the Lower canyon is definitely worth visiting if you have time but we would not substitute the upper for it. However, while most of the best formations are at the upper there are still some seriously stunning formations in the lower canyon and in fact, one of the best of all and most Iconic, the wave, lies in the lower.
On Top of the Upper and Lower, there are a few smaller tributary Canyons. On our Photo Tour, we got to visit Rattlesnake canyon. This was completely devoid of people and our tiny 4-person group got to walk through a completely empty canyon, it was spectacular and Errie. Fortunately, it didn’t live up to its name and there were no snakes. We did see a large number of big lizards though. The canyon is more worn than the Antelope Canyons meaning less slot and more sky.
There is also Owl Canyon, another smaller, wider canyon. Again visits here will likely be one group so you can experience the tranquility of the canyon.
Just down the road (route 89) There is also the Waterhole Canyon Experience. Another slot canyon complex that is available for tours. These are not as perfectly photogenic as Antelope but are a much large chain of canyons. It’s quite different from antelope, but if you are really into the geography of the Region then they are worth checking out.
We had also just come from Zion Canyon. At the top end of the Zion Canyon, the wall closes in creating a Giant slot canyon called the narrows. These are hundreds of feet tall and dwarf Antelope in every way, again a totally different experience but they are both Slot Canyons of sorts, and maybe what Antelope will look like in several millennia?
Is it really like the Photos?
The Photos are an exaggeration. The color is there and the light really does glow, and at times the sunbeams shine down into the canyon. But it is not nearly as striking as some of the photos make out. The color is more muted and the eyes see the filtered sunlight in a more contrasting way than the soft orange/red glow that is portrayed in the photographs. It is still beautiful, and well worth visiting but photographing the canyon allows you to use techniques and post-processing that really make the place come alive.
The other thing the photos omit is the people. The Canyon is small, and the tour companies and clients are many. This makes the Canyon a Squeeze. Most of the best and most beautiful shots are taken pointing the camera upwards, this omits from the shot the fact the canyon floor is basically a sea of people. If you expect to wander the canyon in awe of the stillness and beauty of nature, think again. The canyon tours sell out year-round. Tour operators turn people away every day, and this means it’s bumper to bumper in the canyon!
This is probably the worst thing about the trip. You may be imagining a peaceful, serene, respectful place where you can wander and be in awe and one with nature. This is not going to happen. Expect to be pushed, jolted, and hustled. There will be hundreds of people with hundreds of cameras all clamoring for a perfect selfie or Instagram shot. On a Photo tour, you get a bit more room and can cut through the crowds a bit easier as your guide has authority. But it’s still the same amount of people regardless. If you want to experience a quieter canyon take a look at our other canyons section.
Antelope Canyon Photo Tour or Regular Tour?
The Photo Tours of the canyon are a lot more expensive and have all sorts of restrictions and requirements on them but for photographers, they are incredible. But you do need to be a photographer of at least a modest skill level to get anything out of the tour. In fact, if the sole purpose of your visit to the canyon is not to get photo’s then the tour is pretty rubbish. Our guide told us almost nothing about the canyon, nothing about its history or the formation of the canyon. She didn’t explain what we were looking at or about the spirituality and significance of the canyons to the native people.
Now, this is not a criticism our guide was AWESOME! All respect and thanks go out to Stephanie. What she did was get us in exactly the right spots, and got the people out of the way so we could get the BEST shots! This was clearly hard work and she easily earned her tips and more. But that is what we wanted, we were at the canyon for this:
Many people are not there solely to get photo’s, they want to see the canyon, experience it, and learn more about it. They come well-dressed for Selfies and Instagram shots and we were scrambling about in the dirt trying to get the best angle! The simple fact is unless you know how to work a camera in manual settings Go for the regular tour.
- Do you have a camera with Manual Settings and know how to use them? Do You Have a tripod?
- Do you know how to manually expose long-duration shutter times?
- Do you know how to adjust the white balance either during or after shooting?
- Do you know what aperture setting will be best in low light?
If the above questions are nothing but gobbledegook, then you want the standard tour. If you answered yes to the first and understood the others, consider the photography Tour. If you found the questions patronizing, you DEFINITELY want the photography Tour. It is worth noting that your camera and tripod will be checked for suitability beforehand!
It is worth noting you can still get some really great shots even on the standard tour. Take a look a the two shots below, One is a 3-shot HDR Composite, taken with the DSLR on the Tripod with a wide aperture and long exposure. The other, seconds after, on my Galaxy S10 Phone! Can you tell the difference?
Yeah me too, but it’s not that big a difference considering the cost, time, effort, and hassle of lugging the expensive camera halfway across America into the desert paying nearly triple for a photography tour, and crawling around in the dirt. When the Phone shot is that good!
To me it is absolutely worth the extra effort and cost to capture a shot like that, however, you can still expect to get some great images for your social media profiles whichever tour you choose.
The bottom line is both types of tours are great but the Photography Tours really are only for Photographers who JUST want to take photos of the canyon.
Beginner or hobbyist photographers need not feel intimidated we got loads of great advice and tips from our guide and she really got us into some fantastic positions for some superb shots. If you are still learning but eager, feel free to do the Photography tour and you will end up with some magnificent shots of one of the most photogenic places on earth!
Visiting Antelope Canyon – Experience?
We took the Photo Tour as our focus was on shooting the canyon. But this means we were present in the canyon for over 2.5 hours and experienced multiple regular tours taking place around us.
We used Navajo Tours (More on the Tour Companies later on) Which is the best-located tour Company, Right at the start of the river bed and the only way into the Canyon. The Tour starts by boarding the offroad vehicle and driving up the dry river bed to the canyon. There are multiple Big Offroad trucks that make the drive, but as our group was only 5 people, 4 guests, and our guide Stephenia we were in a regular SUV. Unfortunately, the sand is soft and the drivers have strict speed limits so the drive through the sandy river bed is long and slow.
Once at the Canyon, we got a quick briefing on what would happen in the canyon. Along with a raft of Canyon-specific Photo Tips. Some of which were against my intuition but were certainly correct for the environment. Stephanie was also on hand for tips and advice while we were in the canyon. While the tour was 2 hours long and the Canyon itself was quite small less than 200 meters in length it was still a pretty hectic schedule.
Inside the Canyon, there were two kinds of shots on offer. Upwards shots, where we would position ourselves, point the camera skyward, and capture some incredible feature or lighting effect. With these types of shots, we could ignore the other tours going on around us and just shoot.
The Second kind of shot involved the Canyon floor. These were set pieces and required the removal of the other guests from the shot. The Guides all work together on this to close off a section of the Canyon for only 2 minutes at a time. This allows a Sunbeam to shine down or a Sand fall to start running. Our Guide had an uncanny ability (Probably from doing this day in and day out!) to know exactly when and where the Beams would fall and obviously the sand falls are set pieces filled by hand to run on demand.
The Two-minute Delays were just enough to get the shots you wanted but you needed to work fast and it was quite pressurized. I missed a couple of shots and others were not quite as I hoped but overall I ended up with a ton of seriously mind-blowing shots that I actually find hard to believe I took!
The Tour moved forward and backward through the canyon getting shot after shot at chasing the Sun Beams as they fell. The Gide worked incredibly hard to shut off the sections of the canyon we needed and to remove “feet” from the shots that we thought were clear. There was not much patience for non-compliant guests and if stern instructions in English did not get the required response guests were physically (but gently) Moved! We can’t tell you the number of times we have wanted to do that at other tourist attractions!!! Eventually, we seemed to have bagged every shot imaginable and our memory cards were filling fast! It was hard to believe this tour was 2.5 hours as the pressure to bag the shot made the time fly.
As an added bonus on the drive back in the 4×4, we stopped at a second canyon, Rattlesnake Canyon. This was completely deserted and we took it in turns to wander the length of the canyon alone, taking in the stillness and the peace of this sacred place. It was quite a change from the hectic meat grinder of the upper antelope. This was an unexpected surprise but most appreciated.
We then headed back to the beginning, and headed off on our way, naturally leaving a good tip for our excellent guide.
Best Antelope Canyon Tour Companies
Most companies are pretty similar and offer similar tours for similar prices, it’s a bit of a rigged market that operates on the scale of numbers. Honestly one of the most important factors in choosing a company is the tour timing. We needed a morning tour and one that ended around mid-day. We had to drive in from Bryce and head to the Grand Canyon Afterwards. So the 11 am Start just suited us. Other tours were offering 12 am, 10 am, or 9 am and we just couldn’t fit these in. We were also arriving on a Saturday and some companies refused to run the photo tour on a Weekend.
This is our company of choice. As we said we chose them mainly due to the timing but really enjoyed the experience and tour they provided. They provided flawless service and a fantastic guide. However, the check-in staff were a little surly.
- Sightseeing Tour – $92 + $8 Park Fee – 1.5 hours
- Photography Tour – $160 inc Park Fee 2.5 hours
Specializing in the Lower Canyon, a great tour to get you to some of the quieter and more unique Lower Canyon sights.
- Standard Tour – $55 + $8 Park Fee – 1 hour
- Deluxe Tour – $135 + $8 Park Fee 2.5 hours
The Tours are based inside the town of Page and offers transportation out to the canyon in their monster trucks.
- Sightseeing Tour – $85 + $8 Park Fee – 1.5 hours
- Photography Tour – NO Longer Available since December 2019
Best Choice for seeing Multiple Canyons!
- Sightseeing Tour –
- $108-$119 Upper Antelope – 1.5 hours
- from $195 Upper Antelope + Rattlesnake – 2.5 hours
- from $221 Upper Antelope + Rattlesnake + Owl – 3.5 hours
Antelope Canyon Photo Tips!
First of all, I am a strictly amateur photographer and use basic and affordable kit. I still use my Trusty 100d which is excellent as a travel camera and some of the cheaper brand lenses. You can not claim I am a Pro Photographer with all the gear. But I still managed to get some serious once-in-lifetime shots in the pressure cooker of the photo tour.
Focus – It’s dark in the canyon and focusing can be a little tough. I was using Live-View and frankly, it was useless. Getting a single shot out of my bracketed set was impossible. To Solve this I switched back to the viewfinder. However, with some shots, the camera position meant I could not use the viewfinder physically. In these instances, I simply composed the Shot with Live View and switched back to take the shots using the remote trigger.
Lens – I used my trusty 11-20mm F2.8 DX Tokina. At times I could have used more reach but the Ultra Wide was essential for many of the shots. So, in short, take the Widest lens you have but also one with a reasonable zoom. Most importantly, Take ONE lens. You are not allowed bags in the Canyon, but more importantly, this is NO environment for swapping lenses.
Bracketing – We were advised that any bracketing should be done manually and not to use Auto Bracketing. I was a little confused by this as I regularly shoot everything with a +-1.0 Auto Bracket. So why would I not use that in the Canyon? I ignored the advice. By the end, I was using manual Bracketing as instructed. The Focus issues meant that the auto Bracket would fail halfway through the sequence leaving me unsure of how many shots and at what exposure I had got. Doing it manually just worked better when you had such limited time to get the shot.
Tripod – On a Photo tour you are required to use a tripod. And frankly, you would be a baffoon to try without. Some of the shots are very dark and long exposures are needed to get the best shot. Along with the need for bracketing to get all the detail in the image you need the composition to remain static while you bracket. With people pushing by and the cramped environment. Without a tripod, the images would not all be the same for the post-shoot HDR merge.
Shutter Speed – You are going to need a remote shutter. While some shots require quite quick shutters and the manual trigger is fine, others are much longer, SunBeam shots and SanFalls all require long shutters to get that smooth effect. The Sunbeams are highlighted by the guide throwing sand into the air. With a fast shutter, the individual grains are visible and the effect is lost. With a long slow shutter, the dreamy sunbeam effect is captured. Of course, some shots are just dark and require longer exposure to get the detail out of the gloom.
Communicate – Ask Your guide for help, they will position you in places to get the best shot but it is not always clear what they are pointing you toward, Ask. Despite their best efforts people still wander into shots, thinking they are clear. The Guide cannot know if your shot is clear, Check and tell them if not! I had a few shots ruined by errant feet and heads getting into the frame.
Things to Know –
Trip times are in Mountian Standard time the same as Page, this can cause a lot of confusion, You are right on the border of several time zones some use Daylight Saving and others do not. The Canyon uses Navajo Nation time which is the Same as MST but does use Daylight saving. It can all get very confusing! Just make sure you know all your timings in all Time Zones as the last thing you need is to miss a tour due to time zone confusion!
Book EARLY! We cannot stress this enough. Book Today, or as soon as practically possible as far as finalizing your Itinerary goes. These tours SELL OUT FAST. While we checked in for our photography tour the huge line at the standard tours was made up of 50% of people asking when the next tour was and being told they were sold out. Tours can sell out months in advance and you need to be on it pretty quick to get the tour at the best time. Capacity is limited so they cannot squeeze you in or add extra tours.
Get there early. Make sure you check the check-in times as you are often required to be there quite early and they may RE-SELL your tour if you are later than the check-in!
Make sure you have empty Memory cards and full Batteries for your camera on the Photo Tour. I nearly drained a full battery in the 2.5 Hours along with filling a memory card and draining the Go Pro and 50% of my phone battery! You will be at it NON stop and the use of Live View really batters the battery! You do not want to miss anything!
A trip to Antelope may not be quite the incredible and life-changing experience you expect, the number of people who visit is quite frustrating and detracts from the experience quite a lot. But it is still one of those locations you have to experience. Anyone passing through the area simply has to take the time to visit this truly special geological formation.
As a Photographer it was very gratifying, I have a memory card filled with stunning images that will take me years to process and go through. The end product is scarcely believable as my own product and the Photos and wall art now proudly displayed on my wall regularly attracts admiration, followed by disbelief when I inform them I took the shot!
Our entire road trip was organized to fit into a stop at Antelope and I can safely say It was worth every bit of time effort and expense, even getting up at 5 am to get down from Bryce canyon!
Have Your Say
Have you visited the Canyon? What did you think? Too Crowded or a necessary sacrifice? Which canyons did you visit? Let us know in the comments below how your trip went and what you saw. We would love to hear from you. Also is you have any questions feel free to fire away in the comments. Seeing the canyon can be a once-in-a-lifetime trip that you need to get right. Ask us your questions so we can help you make the trip perfect.