Antelope Canyon, an awe-inspiring and spiritual slot canyon near Page, went from seeing millions of visitors every year to seeing zero when the pandemic hit. We were two of those visitors before COVID-19 set in, participating in a tour of the upper canyon that left us eager to bring our kids back with us.
On that tour, our Navajo guide told us how water and wind formed the swirling sandstone canyon, demonstrated it for us on a smaller scale and shared with us how his ancestors believed in a spiritual presence there. It was an unforgettable experience, for sure. One of our favorite photos from that tour hangs over our entryway, and the kids see it every day. Just about as often, they asked when they could go see it for themselves.
Because the canyon is located on the Navajo reservation, it was closed throughout the pandemic. The impact the pandemic has had on the Navajo is well documented, and we followed along with updates, anxiously awaiting good news about the health of the people who lived there, the progress they made with vaccinations (they were actually lauded as a national model) and the sentiment from tribal leadership on when and how the canyons would reopen.
After being closed for more than a year, the Navajo reservation recently voted to open the canyon again to tours — right after we returned from a trip to the area to visit Lake Powell and Horseshoe Bend, two other Instagram darlings right alongside Antelope Canyon.
But, before we went, we lucked out. We learned of a water-based entry to the canyon, accessible from Lake Powell. So, we seized the opportunity to get back in there and allow the kids to experience a place they already seemed so familiar with.
Having experienced a guided, land-based tour and now an unguided, water-based tour of Antelope Canyon, we thought it would be helpful to share how to do either. Because now that it’s open again, it’s time to get out there and experience it while respecting the sanctity of the canyon and what it means to the Navajo tribe. The best part about both? The trial is relatively flat and sandy, free of major obstacles or boulders to scale, so kids should have no problem exploring Antelope Canyon.
By land. There are a few options to choose from if you decide to explore Antelope Canyon as part of a guided, land-based tour. All of the land-based tours are guided, and there is so much value in learning from the Navajo guides who share ancestral stories and interesting insights about the formation of the canyon. We have only experienced the Lower Antelope Canyon tour, which required us to descend a steep metal ladder to the canyon floor. Our guide, with the Dixie Ellis tour company, let us know that backpacks weren’t allowed in order to protect the canyon walls and that the summer season is typically the busiest. If you want more time to take photos, consider looking into a photography tour, but we came away with dozens upon dozens of incredible photos despite taking a standard tour.
By water. If you have access to Lake Powell, consider getting to Antelope Canyon by water. A narrow canyon south of the Antelope Point Launch Ramp (not far from Antelope Point Marina) leads directly to the trailhead. There are no permits required to access the trailhead, and hikers do not need a guide — but as people who value these special places, we encourage common sense and respect for the area. We were able to drive our speedboat back to the trailhead and anchor it, using our jet skis to ferry our crew from the water to land. To our surprise, we saw someone in there with a houseboat, which we wouldn’t recommend. But, if you don’t have access to a speedboat, there is a tour company that rents kayaks from the Antelope Point Launch Ramp. If kayaking, whether you own or rent, plan to go early to avoid afternoon wind and choppy water, and expect to need about five hours to complete the entire trip.
The hike through the canyon is an out-and-back style hike, which means whatever you missed coming in, you can catch on the way out. We packed snacks and carried water bladders because we were unsure about how exposed the trail was, but we found out it offered shade about half the time. The best part about the hike, besides the otherworldly landscape, is that you decide how far to go. We hiked until the swirling sandstone came to an end and then chose to explore a side canyon for a while. But your ending point is entirely up to you, so long as you don’t trespass on protected land.
Visiting Navajo Nation
East of Page, Arizona, in the LeChee Chapter of Navajo Nation, Antelope Canyon includes two separate, scenic slot canyon sections: Upper Antelope Canyon and Lower Antelope Canyon. Photos of these sandstone slot canyons are beautiful and iconic, and the area is considered a spiritual place to the Navajo people. Antelope Canyon is visited through guided tours in part because rains during monsoon season — even rain several miles away — can quickly flood the slot canyons. Visit navajonationparks.org to learn about tours into Navajo Nation’s scenic destinations at Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly. NOTE: The Navajo Reservation has a mask mandate, requiring ages 2 and older (even ages 12 and older who are vaccinated) to wear a face covering while on Navajo land.
Lisa Van Loo is a Gilbert freelance journalist. Ron Abelar is an avid outdoorsman and photographer. Together, they are parenting five children. Follow them on Instagram @RaisingOutdoorKids