No doubt you’ve seen photos of Antelope Canyon online. The dark red and orange rock slot canyons in Arizona are some of the most famous natural beauties in the United States. The swirling lines and shapes in the rocks are possibly one of the most recognizable locations in the world, and no trip through Arizona would be complete without checking it out.
But with so much attention, has it become a victim of its own success? Have the millions of annual tourists turned it into an unbearable tourist trap?
If you’re already dead set on visiting, perhaps the more important question for you is; is upper or lower Antelope Canyon better?
In case that wasn’t something you were already aware of, there are two Antelope Canyons; upper and lower. Both canyons are virtually across the street from one another and are owned and operated by the Navajo Nation. We used Antelope Canyon tours for the Upper Canyon tour, and Ken’s tours for Lower.
Upper Antelope Canyon:
Louise and I took the Upper Antelope Canyon tour on our last visit to the area, and it’s run slightly differently to the Lower Antelope tour. Upper Antelope Canyon is the canyon with the better reputation for photography and light rays, and I think part of the reason for that is that the canyon is a bit broader and allows more space for taking wider shots that we found quite difficult in Lower Antelope Canyon. Whatever the reason is, most of the famous shots you’ll see are generally from Upper Antelope Canyon and they run special 90 minute photography tours if that’s something you’re interested in.
To access Upper Antelope Canyon you’re loaded into a converted flatbed truck with about 10 others and driven a couple of minutes to the entrance of the canyon in the desert. Your truck will be one of about a dozen headed towards the canyon. As soon as you jump off the truck, it’s just a few steps and you’re straight into the canyon. Once inside, your group will slowly wind through the canyon, exploring the incredible different rock formations and textures as you go.
The entire canyon is level, so it’s very easy to navigate even if you’re not too mobile.
As the tour is so busy, your guide will only give you a couple of seconds to compose any shots you’re trying to get. Stragglers are not tolerated so if you see a shot, make sure your camera is on the right settings and don’t hesitate! You might only have a second before someone else walks into the shot anyway!
The major downside of Upper Antelope Canyon compared to Lower is that the entrance is the same as the exit. This is a serious issue for photographers because not only do you have to worry about the people in your own tour group photobombing you, you also have to worry about other tour groups wandering into your shot as they head back out. Considering how many groups are jammed into the canyon with each tour, the chances of getting a decent shot are pretty slim.
If you’re serious about getting photos in Antelope Canyon, the only option is to pay for an early photography tour or to make sure you’re literally the first or last tour of the day. We took the first tour of the day (8am) and managed to get some cool shots with no people, but on the way back out it was literally impossible as we crossed paths with other groups.
Getting into Lower Antelope Canyon
This was the tour we did last week, and it was a fairly different experience to Upper Antelope Canyon.
From the main administration building, you’ll be designated a guide and then you and your group will take a small five minute walk to the start of the slot canyon. At least 100 people walked over together.
To enter, there’s a very steep staircase that descends sharply to the canyon floor. Naturally not all tourists are equally able bodied or comfortable with heights, so the line very quickly backs up to the top. In fact, we were the first tour group of the day and we waited up there for a good five minutes before we could descend. Our guide told us that in peak season (mid summer), people often have to line up for 2 hours before they can enter. Standing in the blistering desert heat at midday for 2 hours sounds like a perfect hell to me. We seriously recommend taking one of the earlier tours.
Lower Antelope Canyon
Once you’re down in the canyon, you’ll follow the dry riverbed upstream towards the entrance, which fortunately isn’t the same as the entrance this time. Whereas Upper Antelope Canyon is pretty wide for the most part, there were several points where Lower Antelope Canyon narrows to the width of your foot, and there are several ladders that you have to climb to get ‘upstream’. From our perspective, the walk is far more interesting than Upper Antelope, and there are plenty of tight turns where you can distance yourselves from the crowds.
At the beginning, we felt like the crowds were even worse than the crowds at Upper Antelope, but actually it turned out to be the opposite. Along the way, the tight turns and ladders start to separate the groups so you can get those all important photos!
All in, it cost Louise and me exactly $50 USD each to enter Lower Canyon, and it’s roughly the same for Upper as well (incl. $8 Navajo Reservation entrance fee). The 11.30am tour of Upper is slightly more expensive, and my guess is because the light enters at the perfect angle for light rays around this time.
Our tour was cash only, and we had a very frantic drive around the limited services in the area trying to track down some cash! Bring cash! If you’re in a pinch, there’s a 24 hour ATM at the Altier Credit Union approx 5 minutes from the Canyon.
So to the question of whether or not it’s worth it?
From a photographer’s perspective, it was kind of a disappointment. The crowds made the tour infuriating because our intention was to get some beautiful photos and it was pretty difficult. You can only block crowds so much, and it makes the whole experience pretty stressful. If you have specific shots in mind then you’re very likely to struggle, but if you can be flexible and just take shots of beautiful things as they appear you should find it a lot more satisfying.
From a tourist perspective, it really is an unbeatable experience. Most people are walking around with a sense of wonder and reverence, so even though it’s incredible busy, the other tourists aren’t generally disruptive. As something I’d wanted to see for many years, it was more beautiful than I ever could have imagined, and having the crowds there really wasn’t too much of a bother for me. It is important to accept that it will be insanely busy though. Most photos give a sense that it isn’t but it’s all smoke and mirrors. I guarantee it will be packed whenever you visit.
It’s understandable to feel like the area could do with some regulation and number control, but for the Navajo people this is an incredible source of income in an otherwise pretty desolate place. It’s great to be able to support the community, and putting up with a few crowds to support it really does feel like a good thing.
The only downside is that there’s such a huge volume of people coming through that we found the staff to be pretty jaded and tough on the tourists. There’s very limited patience for anyone trying to take a little more time with a photo, and at times there’s even yelling at individuals who are straggling. I suppose it’s understandable for standards to slip when you’re guaranteed to be 100% full at all times, but it was hard to not feel like cattle as a result.
Is Upper or Lower Antelope Canyon better?
Honestly, I think I preferred Lower Antelope Canyon. It definitely felt longer than Upper Canyon, and there were far more interesting features to enjoy. If you want the famous light rays then Upper Canyon is probably best, but in terms of our experience I think I would definitely recommend Lower if you could only choose one. If I was less able bodied I’d definitely find Upper Canyon easier though.
Ultimately, if you’re visiting the area, I’d recommend taking both tours. You might as well, huh? Just make sure to book in advance because if you just show up on the day you’re probably going to be disappointed or have to waste half the day waiting for a “no-show” spot. If you’re a bigger group then you’ll definitely want to book in advance.
Looking for other things to do while you’re in Arizona? Check out our post on hiking Cathedral Rock!