I had always wondered where some famous photos of the reddish sculpture from. After booking some non-refundable hotel room in Las Vegas, I stumbled upon Antelope Canyon on Google Maps and wow, it was what I had been looking for a long time! Since our trip would be in 2 days, I thought it would be nice to stay in Las Vegas for a day and take a day trip to Antelope Canyon for a photography trip.
Why not Antelope Canyon?
Antelope Canyon is the product of millions of years of water erosion. In fact, the Navajo name for Upper Antelope Canyon is “Tse’ bighanilini,” which means “the place where water runs through rocks.” Antelope Canyon was formed by erosion of Navajo Sandstone, primarily due to flash flooding and secondarily due to other sub-aerial processes. Rainwater, especially during monsoon season, runs into the extensive basin above the slot canyon sections, picking up speed and sand as it rushes into the narrow passageways. Over time the passageways eroded away, making the corridors deeper and smoothing hard edges in such a way as to form characteristic “flowing” shapes in the rock.
To my dismay, Antelope Canyon is within Navajo Reservation so we can’t just walk in and stay as long as we can 🙁 The canyon requires permit and tour guides to access the canyon as some stupid people did come down there and destroy the beauty of the canyon.
I saw so many beautiful pictures of the canyon walls climbing 120 feet above the streambed, making a cathedral of red-hued, swirling sandstone, and sometimes with the memorizing light beam from above. It was my dream to take such pictures so I would pay to just be able to see it! Well, I was too late! All the tours to Upper Antelope as well as Lower Antelope Canyon were all sold out, even the expensive Photography tours. It was such a disappointment that I wouldn’t be able to see it.
Fortunately, as I clicked around the websites of all the tour companies, I found the Cathedral Canyon tour of Chief Tsosi that had only 2 seats left right at noon. To my calculation, if we leave at around 7AM from Las Vegas, we would be able to make it on time for the tour so I booked immediately. We got 10% discount for the tour because it was winter time.
After a day of spontaneous purchasing, I thought to myself of why I would rush to buy the expensive tour and whether it would be good as I didn’t see many pictures of the Cathedral Canyon. Maybe it was not as good as the Antelope Canyon, so they wouldn’t go there…
Then I thought of how we would return after 2.5 hours there. If we left at 3PM, we would be driving in the dark to Las Vegas at around 5PM as it was Winter. What if we were the only one driving on the desert road like the Yosemite trip we made last October? I didn’t want to be a victim of some criminals that I had seen on the Forensic Files 😛 I know you may think that I’m paranoid but the chicken inside me has kept me alive through 18 years living in Vietnam, so I would trust my instinct!
As I made some planning, I tried to cancel the tour because they said they would refund in full amount if we cancelled 72 hours ahead. Well, that was a lie! The website couldn’t finish the transaction for some stupid reasons that I couldn’t comprehend even though I am a Software engineer. Then, I clicked on the Save button and some miracle happened, we were moved into the Upper Antelope Canyon tour at 12PM even though the tour was sold out! They sent me a new email that I would be refunded $100 since the Upper Antelope Canyon tour would be cheaper. I can’t believe who developed such a stupid system!
The next days, I tried to call them to confirm that we had changed to the new tour successfully and whether I would receive any refund. However, their phone line was always busy for some reasons and I could never reach them so we went ahead with our plan without confirming :\
Road-trip to Antelope Canyon
We woke up at 5AM and walked down to Nook Express inside the LINQ hotel to have some quick breakfast and coffee. After some delay, we finally started at around 6:40AM from Las Vegas and I was sure that we would arrive there at around 11AM to check in for the 12PM tour.
Well, things are not always as I plan! As we passed the Utah border, the estimate arrival time moved from 10:45AM to 11:45AM because of the Mountain Time! WTF! We would be late since we would have to stop for some gas and restroom, so there was not way we would be able to check in on time! I was dreaded as I had paid $170 for the tour and I hadn’t received $100 refund as I changed the tour either. I frantically called them but it was always busy signal again!
I quickly thought about the trip and decided to move back to the Cathedral Canyon tour at 12:30PM so we would have enough time to check in. Luckily, there were still 2 available seats and the amount stayed the same (no $100 refund like before).
We arrived at the tour company at 11:45AM to check in and had some quick lunch and restroom.
As we waited there, we noticed several trucks came back with lots of tourist sitting in the back of the trucks like my school bus in Vietnam! “Sh*t!”, I thought to myself that I would experience similar dangerous things in my childhood and the chicken inside me started to scream again :-s
At 12:30, the tour guide herded us into the enclosed 4×4 wheel drive truck and I was so relieved! Unfortunately, I was the only one in the old truck that didn’t have any seat belt! Well played, fate!
An adventure to the remote Cathedral Canyon
The 2 trucks drove 14 of us to a remote area out of town and stopped at the 4 sister rocks. The tour guides dropped us there and let us wander around the area to take as many pictures as we could.
Suddenly, I heard some popping sound and I realized that it was from gun. There was some shooting range close by and one could easily hear some machine guns popping nearby so don’t be too alarmed if you hear some shooting nearby.
We left the area and drove on a bumpy sand path to the reddish area with lots of interesting rock formation. There was no other tour companies here since Chief Tsosi is currently the only one permitted to give permits to this place. Therefore, the tour guides leisurely allowed us to walk slowly and take pictures without rushing us like other tours.
Walking among the huge canyon is amazing and I was glad that it was not full of tourists to destroy its beauty! The sand beneath us was as fine as the one on the beach, so it must be underwater long time ago!
We finally reached a slot canyon where some parts were so narrow that you would need to squeeze through or crawl under some boulders:
At the end of the slot, one would see a flimsy stair to the Cathedral Canyon, which would be marvelous if there was some sunlight through it but since we were there in the late afternoon, it was not as nice I had hoped.
Because of the sand and dust, I brought 2 full-frame cameras with different lenses to avoid exchanging lenses: 5D Mark IV + 16-35mm f/2.8 III and 6D + 24-70mm f/2.8. Nevertheless, I still got some dust into my 16-35mm lens while I was trying to take picture of the top of the cathedral.
As this was not a Photography tour which didn’t allow any tripod or backpacks, I couldn’t bring all of my gears for this trip so everything was handheld. Therefore, my ISO was pretty high (12800) at f/8 and some pictures were blurry due to low light under the slot canyon. On the way back, I switched to f/2.8 and the ISO was much lower. I’ll prepare better next time!
The way back was more direct as we didn’t stop by any other places. At some point, I thought our truck would be stuck in the sand or roll down the sandy hill. The ride was so bumpy like roller coaster without the seat belt that I was so scared for my life! If anything happened, nobody would be able to reach us as there was no cell service in this remote land (and it did happen to this tour company before).
Back to Las Vegas
We headed back to Las Vegas after stopping by at Horseshoe Bend but it was so crowded that we couldn’t park! Many people parked along the highway as the parking was so full. In addition, we didn’t want to hike nearly 0.75 miles among hundreds or thousands of people with our gears, and it was getting dark so we decided to go back to Las Vegas.
The way back was not as scary as I thought since there were many cars heading to Las Vegas as well. There were even tour buses that kept tailgating us that we were more scared of it hitting us than driving alone in the dark!
The sky at that time was marvelous but we couldn’t stop at any point to take picture 🙁
- Water (especially in the Summer) to hike about 0.5 miles
- Good clothing to climb and hike (it could be chilly in the winter)
- No backpack or tripod if going in a normal tour
- Check-in at least 15 minutes before departure
- Good DSLR. You may need to set HDR as there are a wide range of exposure (very dark under the canyon but the sky is very bright)
- Do not exchange lenses here as dust can get into it
- Flash flood is a real danger so make sure to check before you go. 11 tourists were killed in the past in Lower Antelope Canyon due to a rain miles away.