The small crack twisted like a snake on the ground ahead of me, growing a little wider with each wiggling curve. Idly curious, I followed the narrow channel until it widened enough so that I could see into the inky blackness below. My eyes began to adjust to the darkness and I discerned the smooth walls of a narrow sandstone passage. I continued to move forward until the slit in the rock was almost 2 1/2 feet wide. I peered breathlessly into a dazzling underground chamber where seemingly liquid rock flowed downhill, cascading 20 feet into another chamber that was even larger than the first.
A hundred yards away, my friend Joe was busy examining primrose growing on the side of an orange sand dune. I called him over nonchalantly, trying to hide my excitement. His face lit up like a Christmas tree as he glimpsed the recessed alcove below. We began laughing with amazement as we followed the slot downhill, discovering a series of chambers and connecting passages. Sliding down a steep hillside, we finally reached the cavern’s emanation into a wash. Joe looked at me with a grin and said simply, “Lets get the rope.”
While exploring the countryside near Lake Powell in northern Arizona, just outside of the town of Page, we had stumbled onto a slot canyon. Although we didn’t know it at the time, it was Lower Antelope Canyon and, for me, the beginning of an intense fascination with these narrow slits in the Earth.
A Subterranean Wonderland
After anchoring a 300-foot rope to the truck, we squeezed into the top of the slot and began our descent. The first drop-off was about six feet and we scrambled down easily. Once fully submerged in the cavern, our senses started to reel. The sculpted sandstone walls were frozen in a series of graceful waves, which somehow gave the illusion of motion.
Blue filled the three-foot-wide opening above our heads. The temperature was a cool 65 degrees, as opposed to a hot 90 degrees on the surface. Squeezing through a very narrow passageway, we reached a ledge and looked down into the first large chamber. From here, we faced a 15- to 20-foot rappel down to the cavern floor.
Belonging as I do to a sect of devout acrophobiacs, the thought of walking backwards off a cliff, even with a rope tied around me, is extremely unpleasant.
Joe tried to ease my fears with comments like, “It’s only 15 or 20 feet.” I explained to him that death doesn’t discriminate between 15 and 100 feet.
Eventually, however, my desire to see the rest of the cave exceeded my fear of the rappel. Ever so cautiously (with shaking hands and a palpitating heart), I descended to the chamber floor, as Joe (trying to hide his snickering) belayed me from above.
As we worked our way down, we marveled at the shafts of mid-day sunlight that were streaming through the overhead slot, illuminating various sections of the swirling red sandstone walls. We stood transfixed as the light reflected onto the adjacent rock and slowly transformed the cave into a glowing wonderland. Roses, pinks, purples, blues, oranges and yellows — innumerable shades of soft pastels crept leisurely across the twisted rock. The surface wind sent a shower of fine sand into the cavern, transforming the invisible sunbeams into radiant columns of light. Joe and I were silent as we prepared for our next rappel into the bewitching subterranean bowels of middle earth.
The Spell of Antelope Wash Today
Five years later, I can still remember every second of that first encounter with a slot canyon as if it only happened yesterday. Since then, I have sought out and explored numerous slots — Buckskin Gulch, Wirepass Canyon, to name a few. Of all these places, however, my favorite slot is still the first. Today, I am returning to Antelope Canyon to be hypnotized by its soft light and swirling shapes.
I soon discover that there have been many changes since my initial visit — primarily, access to the slot is more regulated. Antelope Wash, which contains the canyon, lies on the Navajo reservation, and the Indians control who comes and goes. I find Lower Antelope is temporarily closed, leaving Upper Antelope for visitors to explore.
Attracted by the fantastic photographs of this natural wonder, visitors come from all over to feel the magic of the slot; the Navajo Nation is trying to protect the canyon environment from too much human impact.
Arriving at the entrance to Antelope Wash at about 10 a.m., I stop at the cattle gate and purchase a permit. Although a four-wheel-drive vehicle is required to traverse the deep sand of the wash, visitors who arrive via two-wheel-drive can hike to the cave (after purchasing a permit).
Five minutes later and $20 lighter (professional photographers have to pay extra), I lock my hubs, shift into four hi, and begin the three-mile journey up the wash. Red sandstone walls press in from either side and I notice several “baby” slot canyons in the throes of birth, and several “grandfather” slots where the ceiling has caved in, leaving large boulders in the canyon bed.
The depth of Lower Antelope varies from 20 to 50 feet, while Upper Antelope is almost 100 feet deep. The lower cave requires ropes and/or ladders for descent, but the upper has a continuous flat passage all the way through, allowing visitors to hike into it without strenuous climbing. Entering the upper canyon’s first subterranean chamber, I find myself instantly under its spell. Solid sandstone formations tower over me, twisting and curving fluidly as they stretch upward toward the narrow strip of sky overhead. An owl’s nest sits on a ledge and the rock wall beneath it is streaked with white droppings. Owls capture rodents and consume them whole, later regurgitating a small ball of indigestible fur and bone. Directly under the nest I find a large pile of these fur pellets.
I move on to the second major chamber and the massive, dominating “Corkscrew” formation, named for its remarkable resemblance to (surprise) a corkscrew.
Walking leisurely along the length of the canyon, I feel my way through the dark, narrow section of the grotto and finally emerge into the wash on the other side. Here, I find the sun much too bright and retreat once again to the cool refuge of the cave. On my way back through the stone tunnels I notice a log jammed between the walls about 50 feet up; I find it hard to imagine the amount of water that must have been roaring through this passage in order to deposit debris in such a precipitous location.
In the Corkscrew chamber I sit to watch the sun work its wizardry and create a fantastic lightshow. Sunbeams slowly traverse down the canyon walls like ethereal paint brushes, creating three dimensional masterpieces with an ever-changing palette of incandescent colors.
Dreaming in Pastels
By 2 p.m. the sun is well past its apex; I don my sunglasses and venture into the heat of the day. I hike down to the second slot on the north side of the wash. This is one of the “grandfather” slots, the roof having caved in a long time ago. I clamber over and around many massive boulders as I make my way upward. I notice a horned owl resting in its nest on a ledge, and as I get closer it takes flight, gliding out 15 feet over my head. Its wings slice through the air, reverberating and echoing off the walls of the canyon, producing a sound loud enough to be startling.
The truck feels like an oven (and I a potato) as I backtrack out of the wash. All I can think about is backstroking across the cool waters of Lake Powell. I cross Glen Canyon Dam and the Utah border, heading to Lone Rock Beach, my favorite campsite on the lake. (Lake Powell campground in Page is nice, but it is not located on the beach, and it is not free.) Backing my truck down to the water, I change into my swim trunks, inflate an air mattress, pop open a cold drink and head out into the cool water. I spend the afternoon paddling around the lake, soaking up rays, and waving to the girls in bikinis who flash by on jet skis and speed boats.
By the time sun slips behind the horizon, I feel toasted and relaxed. I remove some firewood from my truck (wood I brought from Phoenix for this very moment) and prepare for this evening’s gourmet meal. Roasting my hot dogs over hot coals, I listen to the water in the lake lapping rhythmically against the shore. I consider my options for tomorrow morning and the slot at Water Holes Canyon seems to call my name. I close my eyes and abstract shapes covered with soft pastels float like a gently rocking boat through my mind.
Distance from the Valley: 292 miles
Getting There: Take Interstate 17 north to Flagstaff, then take State Route 89 north to Page. Once in Page take State Route 98 south. As you come down the hill you’ll see the generating plant with its three smoke stacks directly in front of you. At the bottom of the hill you will see a sign saying, “Buckle Up, It’s the Navajo Nation Law.” Antelope Wash is the right turn directly behind the sign. The gate opens at approximately 9 a.m. and closes at about 4 p.m. Upper Antelope Canyon is three miles up the wash. To get to Water Holes Canyon, watch for the sign on Route 89 just before reaching Page.
Permits: There is an entrance fee to Antelope Wash; call the Visitors Bureau number below for details. An additional fee is charged to photographers carrying large format cameras (bigger than 35mm).
Transportation: If you don’t have a four-wheel-drive vehicle (which is necessary to traverse the sandy wash), and don’t want to hike into the canyon, guided jeep tours are available. Contact Lake Powell Jeep Tours in Page at (520) 645-5501.
Camping: Lone Rock State Beach is located just across the Utah border (about 3 miles from Page).
Season: Spring, summer, fall. Temperatures in the cave will be about 70 degrees even when the outside temperature is 105.
Cautions: Technical climbing should not be attempted without the proper equipment or experience. Care should be taken when securing ropes for descent. Sandstone is soft and will break easily under pressure.
For more information: Lake Powell/Page Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 727, Page AZ 86040; phone (520) 645-2741. Or the Navajo Nation, LeChee Chapter House; phone (520) 698-3316.