Jackie McNeel
Upper Antelope Canyon, one of several known as the Slot Canyons on the Navajo Nation.

The Breathtaking Beauty of the Slot Canyons

Jack McNeel

It’s almost impossible to convey the breathtaking awe that grips a visitor to the Slot Canyons near Page, Arizona. The bright colors of the sandstone and the swirling patterns of the rock caused by centuries of water and wind are magnificent, a world like no other. They are narrow, mere slots in the hills, earning them the “slot canyons” moniker. Some areas are barely wide enough for one person to pass at a time.

Visitors come to view and photograph these incredible canyons, and guiding tourists into the slot canyons near Page, Arizona is big business for five Navajo agencies.

“We could have pretty close to three thousand people visiting each week now within the five companies,” said Vernon Tso, Navajo and a guide for 11 years. “And this is still pretty slow, just the beginning of the season.”

Tso is one of many guides trained and highly qualified to lead these tours.

The entrance to Upper Antelope Canyon is an unobtrusive slit in the rock. (Photo: Jack McNeel)

It wasn’t always so full of visitors. Before 1997, relatively few visited these canyons, and no guides were required. Then in 1997 a flash flood roared through one of the canyons and killed 11 people. Those who were lost were from all over the world, and word of the disaster made international headlines. Navajo Parks and Recreation completely closed the canyons, not allowing anyone to enter without a guide.

Today it’s big business, and all guides are trained for a variety of situations, including first aid, CPR, airborne pathogens, hazardous materials and fire safety—all of them certifications needed to work as guides, Tso noted.

The canyons twist and turn, sometimes very narrow, then opening to small rooms, often very dark. Then they lighten as sunshine finds its way through openings above. It creates an intimate experience where one can almost feel the walls, which are so close.

Light filters down through the narrow opening to the sky many feet above in Antelope Canyon. (Photo: Jackie McNeel)

Upper Antelope Canyon receives the largest number of tourists. With five agencies using the canyon it requires a lot of cooperation. Each company can have up to 20 guides a day. Each company is allowed to bring in 70 people per tour. It adds up to a lot of visitations per day, and without the agencies working together it could be quite chaotic. Even so, some of the tours are pretty crowded. At the same time, this number of tours and tourists generate many jobs and much income.

Special photo tours allow accomplished photographers to stop and take pictures of these canyons that look like a painting. (Photo: Jackie McNeel)

Photo tours, which provide a little more time for taking pictures, are also offered for experienced shooters. Guides know the best times of day to catch those rays of light that filter through openings many feet above, at just the right angle. Summer solstice provides more beams streaming down, and even better photo opportunities.

“The position of the sun is very important in Antelope Canyon,” Tso said. “We keep track of the solstices to remember the sun schedule.”

Visitors are primarily from outside the U.S. Japan, Korea, China and France are most prominent, plus a goodly number from Canada as well.

“We’re often fortunate to get an American on a tour,” Tso said.

Travel agencies bring frequent busloads of people. Motels in Page also benefit, including the Navajo-owned and beautifully arranged Quality Inn.

Cathedral Canyon, where a boulder has fallen from the faraway rim. (Photo: Jack McNeel)

Upper Antelope Canyon is one of several slot canyons. Cathedral Canyon is less widely known and less advertised but provides much of the same beauty and fascination, and with fewer people. In a couple of places, boulders have dropped from the rims far above and lodged near the canyon floor, requiring visitors to crawl beneath them. The striations in the rock and the beautiful colors make for incredible photographic opportunites. The quiet, stillness and unique beauty combine for an amazing experience.

The guides not only provide safety and photographic help but also explain the geology and plant and animal communities within the canyons and the role this all plays in the Navajo world. Their knowledge, combined with everything else so unique to these canyons, results in an unforgettable experience.

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