Monday, November 26, 2012

Arizona Slots

Hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Not what we considered a year-round destination. So what had attracted us to stop in Page, AZ? Beside the fact that it happened to be in line with our pilgrimage to “that really big hole in the ground” there were some intriguing national landmarks. The obvious ones were Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam. And then there was the iconic bend in the Colorado River, Horseshoe Bend. There was a lot of movie scenery. Time and again Hollywood had been drawn to include surrounding landscapes in films. “Planet of the Apes”, “The Outlaw Josey Wales” to name but a few. Even a few episodes of that most famous of all Time Lords: "Doctor Who".
Truth be known, our first choice was none of the above. It was The Wave, an eye-popping sandstone rock formation on the Coyote Slopes along the Arizona-Utah border not far from Page that had captured our attention. Many of you might recognize The Wave in pictures used in computer screen savers or stock desktop photos. However, due to limited access (max 20 people per day) via a very restrictive and quirky day-permit system, plus our own limited time schedule, a visit to The Wave was put back in the bucket list. Since we only had one day to spend in Page, we opted for what we considered to be the second best option: a visit to one of the slot canyons.

entering Lower Antelope Canyon
Staff at the Page-Lake Powell Campground & RV Park provided us with several useful tips about visiting the Antelope Canyons. Located on Navajo land within the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation, visits had to be with an authorized Navajo guide connected to the Navajo Tribal Park system. If rain was in the forecast and presented the slightest danger of a flash flood, tours were cancelled. In 1997 eleven tourists were swept away and killed when Lower Antelope Canyon was hit with a flash flood.

Of the two canyons, Upper Antelope Canyon (Tsé bighánílíní, “the place where water runs through rocks”) was the most frequently visited because its entrance and entire length are at ground level. Lower Antelope Canyon (Hazdistazi, “spiral rock arches”) was less visited by tourists because it required negotiating several steps and was twice as long, narrower, and in general, more physically demanding. We didn’t see any limitations for Lower Antelope Canyon, and in fact, that it was less touristy was a plus.

Lighting was better in early or late afternoon. Since we’re morning people, early worked. It was a relatively short drive to the the gate that lead into a parking area where we purchased tour tickets. After a brief introduction about where we were headed and safety concerns (again what to do in the event of a flash flood: a ladder system would be deployed at key spots along the canyon walls) we were off.

Tilman, our Navajo guide, lead our band of tourists across a vast and sloping sandstone rock formation to a narrow crevice, barely visible to the casual observer. We were going to enter that? Are you kidding? Suddenly the term “slot canyon” became much more apparent as we filed, one by one, down a steep flight of stairs into...into...well, who knew?

Over the course of our tour Tilman pointed out numerous “money shots”, a term he used to describe several photographically interesting bends and turns where muted light from above dramatically highlighted canyon formations. Understandably, photographing the slot canyons was a primary draw. Tilman knew all the best stops and shots and frequently helped group members set up their shot, often taking someone’s camera and making the shot for them. Photo lighting was very challenging due to limited exposure ranges - a tripod would have been very helpful. Carrying and setting up a tripod would have also been challenging and, would have considerably slowed the group’s progress. If photography was the only reason for visiting, for an additional fee, one could purchase a special photography permit and a one-on-one session with a Navajo guide. Many professional photographers the world over have visited the canyons (you may have seen the slot canyons portrayed in National Geographic Magazine). We were happy to grab what photos we could while trying to shoot around the group’s movements in a very confined space.

At one point in the tour we descended to well over a hundred feet as narrow canyon walls towered above, often obscuring direct view of the blue sky above. We twisted, squeezed, and sometimes stumbled our way through a fascinating array of geologic formations lit by natural light. Oh, what eye candy!

Near the end of the tour, we gathered in a wide canyon chamber, Tilman stopped to talk about Navajo Nation history and in particular his parents. He asked for quiet then began to play a haunting piece of music on a traditional Navajo flute that reverberated through the canyon. Now this is what we would call chamber music! Sadly, the art of flute making and playing is dying out. Taos Pueblo used to be known as the center of flute music. Today only a few elders remember how to play the flute. The use of flutes by the Navajos is also rare. Use of the flute for present ceremonial purposes these days is most often associated with the Hopis.

Another tour, lapping at our heels, lead by Tilman’s younger brother, caught up with our group. Tilman and his brother played a musical duet, a tribute they had written about their mother. While Tilman played his flute, his brother chanted/sang the lyrics. It was powerfully moving.

We silently exited the canyon via another set of nearby steep stairs up into the bright sunlight and made our way back to the parking lot. If you’re ever near Page, AZ, by all means make the time to visit one of the slot canyons. If you’re physically up for it, Lower Antelope Canyon is our recommendation. You might try to get Tilman as your guide.
With most of the afternoon left to explore we sought out a few of the other local sights. A 3/4 mile hike to the edge of Horseshoe Bend offered a stunning view of the Colorado River a thousand feet below. One of those weak-in-the-knees views with no guard rails.

On our way back to the RV park we sidetracked to cross the Glen Canyon Dam. Be sure to stop at the visitor center for more views, a well stocked bookstore, and several exhibits that chronicled the dam’s construction. And, be sure to flip off the dam from one of the overlooks. Edward Abbey would be proud. Abbey, a strong advocate of environmental issues and staunch critic of the damming of the Colorado was to say the least, a major opponent. But if you want a copy of The Monkey Wrench Gang” don’t look for it in the Carl Hayden Visitor Center (although there are several other of Abbey’s work available for sale).
A bit further up the road we entered the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and drove along part of Lake Powell shoreline. Scenic, but like so many “recreation areas” created by damming a river, we found it to be sterile. The area was more suited to power boats and other water toys. Not our cup of tea.

We found a very attractive campground that straddled the AZ-UT border (Wahweap Campground and RV Park) that offered great sites overlooking Lake Powell. We kicked ourselves for not having known about it...until we check the fees to park which were in our view, outrageous. Our site at the RV park we chose, while tight, was a lot more reasonable.
The next morning we packed up and made our way onward toward that big hole in the ground. Finally. Carol was going to have me see the Grand Canyon, come hell or high water.


  1. I loved the flute playing as well. Pretty cool slot for sure!