TRIP DATES: June 13, 2018 | Slideshow | Photo Album
The anchor for our trip was one of the shortest, yet most beautiful, hikes we will ever enjoy: a walk through the Upper Antelope Slot Canyon. Its popularity and location in the Navajo reservation require one take a guided tour with a licensed operator. Months ahead of time I opted to book with the company founded by the late Ray Tsosie. I knew we would prefer a mid-day tour so that hopefully sun rays would penetrate into the narrow canyon for memorable photographs.
At 10 a.m. we dutifully showed up at the tour store, a converted gas station in downtown Page. We checked in and waited to board one of the old pickups outfitted with passenger benches in its bed for the ride from downtown Page. Our guide was Leonard Nez, a tall Navajo with a dry wit. He took our tickets as we boarded with a group of German tourists and told us to hang on.
He meant it. We cruised the 4.5 miles to turn off Highway 98 at a wide and dry section of Antelope Creek’s bed. Then we had a very bouncy and fun three-mile ride along the sandy creek bed to where the creek cut a 500-foot long narrow slot the Navajo call Tsé bighánílíní, which means ‘the place where water runs through rocks’. When we pulled up at the entrance to the canyon, Leonard got out, and with black humor, silently pointed and counted his jolted passengers to see if anyone had fallen out along the way.
Rainwater, especially during monsoon season from mid-June to late September, collects in the Antelope Creek basin above the slot canyon sections. Its velocity and sand load increase as it rushes into the narrow slots, eroding passageways. Another similar short section of canyon farther downstream, the Lower Antelope Slot Canyon, can also be toured. That part is longer than the Upper Canyon, and narrower in spots, with some uneven footing and has five flights of stairs, while the Upper Canyon is a smooth and level walk with more frequent sunbeams.
Leonard ensured we had no packs. Some folks in the past spread cremation ashes in the canyon, requiring that it be closed so a medicine man could bless and cleanse it. Flash flooding also closes the canyon, of course, and a 36-hour flood in 2006 kept the Lower Canyon closed for months; 11 tourists died there in 1997.
Our visit, however, was sunny and hot with no rain. It was a relief to enter the canyon’s shadows, with Leonard rapidly taking and setting each of our cameras for better shots.
The beautiful smoothed sandstone walls rose high above our group, and Leonard began stopping and using a laser pointer to help us imagine bears, famous profiles and faces, and other animals from the undulating shapes and projections. We passed a tree limb that had been stranded high up on the walls for many years after it was deposited by a flood.
Leonard enjoyed taking clever shots for us, such as the eye and the wave, and threw sand high into the air when we encountered a sunbeam, making its track through the air visible.
Expertly herding us along, giving directions and guidance in various languages, Leonard led us through the sinuous passage. When needed, he redirected inconsiderate tourists who got lost in their own little world. The colors shifted with the angle of the rays and the width of the slot, until we reached the far end of the twisting passage.
There we relaxed before reversing our path. As some oblivious Asian women chattered away, Leonard sat and played the triple flute for us, prompting a crow overhead to caw loudly.
On the rapid return through the canyon to the truck, I took Leonard’s advice to silently and discreetly duck behind one of the photography tour groups so I could get a nice shot of one of the light shafts.
Our group of Germans with a couple of Okies boarded the truck to bounce our happy way back to Page. This brief but memorable experience was Wendy’s favorite part of our trip.
We returned to Gone West for lunch before heading out on a 4.5 hour 270 mile journey east and north to Moab, Utah where we would visit Dead Horse Point and drive along a beautiful stretch of the Colorado River.
Arid Adventure, Part 5: Moab >
< Arid Adventure, Part 3: Down the Grand Staircase to Lake Powell
What an extraordinary tour guide! You’ll have us all asking for him by name.