Instagram photos of Antelope Canyon deceived us. On our recent visit, the ‘serene’ canyon was busier than a New York subway, and tour guides staged most of the shots.
Sure, we know that people only post their very best photos on Instagram. And we knew Antelope Canyon was bound to be crowded. But our experience wasn’t quite what we had anticipated. Here’s the truth about the place.
It’s as Beautiful as the Pictures Depict
This actually came as a surprise to us. The smooth, red-orange walls were actually smooth and red-orange. The beams of light shining down onto the sandy passageway were mesmerizing. And the contorted, narrow canyon walls were mind-boggling, soaring 100-plus feet overhead.
Every turn presented a new, breathtaking vantage point, continually wowing us along the 100-yard walk. Thankfully, the beauty of this canyon is real and exceeded the high expectations the edited Instagram photos had given us.
The Crowds Are Insane
Antelope Canyon is on a Navajo reservation near Page, Ariz., and is not governed by a federal public land organization such as the National Park Service. The only legal way to see the canyon is to go on a guided tour.
Currently, there are four “Upper Antelope Canyon” outfitters. Each outfitter gives about 18 tours per day, guiding at least 75 people on each tour. That equates to a minimum of 600 people going through the 100-yard canyon every hour between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. The result is an astonishingly crowded, shoulder-bumping slot canyon.
There is no place in the canyon without a crowd of people. There is no quiet place in the canyon. At any given moment, you have throngs of people in front of you, behind you, and exiting the canyon to the left of you. It’s an out-and-back tour, with guides yelling for their passengers to “keep walking” or “stay to the right.”
So with these crowds, how do people get those unobstructed photos of the canyon?
Every Photo Is Staged
Especially on the photo-specific tours, guides take it upon themselves to stage the perfect photo for their paying customers. On a few occasions, we were rushed out of a room in the canyon to clear the way for a barrage of tripod-rearing visitors behind us, ready to take a shot with no people in it.
At another spot, our guide proceeded to pick up a handful of sand and toss it into the sunbeam shining through the canyon, setting up an epically staged photo of sand floating down from the rim above.
My personal favorite was when a guide ahead of us whipped out an ice scooper. After tweaking everyone’s DSLR settings and straightening-up tripods, he began to vigorously scoop sand onto a ledge, building the pile up until it cascaded down in a majestic sand waterfall to the ground below. I’ll admit, we took the chance and captured the shot along with 20 others, just after the guide scurried around the bend and out of camera view.
Along the way, our guide would stop at various points, grab someone’s camera, take a shot, and encourage us to capture that same angle with our cameras. It was helpful, no doubt. But in the end, we took very few images of our own artistic accord.
Though our particular tour was dubbed a sightseeing tour, it was dominated by photography. Putting the camera down and enjoying the view took a conscious effort. However, at the end of the day, we came home with incredible photographs that we marveled at for hours afterward.
The Canyon and Tour Are Short
Upper Antelope Canyon is the more popular and scenic section of the canyon. Its length is a mere 100 yards, and the tours are 90 minutes, including the 2-mile drive to the entrance and back. We’ve explored slot canyons that extend for miles, so the football-field length of this one surprised us.
The only legal way to explore Antelope Canyon is via a guided tour. Reservations for these tours book months in advance. In fact, we booked ours three months in advance and secured the last spots for our desired 11 a.m. time slot. Many different tours exist, such as photography tours, sightseeing tours, and those that also visit other slot canyons.
For the cheapest Upper Antelope Canyon tour, expect to pay around $50-75 per person depending on the timing. “Primetime” for the canyon, when you can expect the best lighting, is from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. For a 2.5-hour photography tour, you’ll be looking at $160 per person. The tour companies often sell out all 18 guided tours each day.
Overall, we did find visiting Antelope Canyon worthwhile. It’s a magnificent slot canyon — the most perfect one we’ve ever seen. We recommend paying it a visit, especially because you’re better prepared now for what to expect.
Sure, take some epic photos, but don’t forget to stare in awe at the natural marvel that is Antelope Canyon.
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