Thursday, April 22, 2010

Slot canyons

Technical note: All photos on this post were taken with Velvia 40 ISO slide film, f.22, using a tripod and exposure of between 3 and 30 seconds. No filters were used.
Excerpted from my online book: Glaciers to red rock: U.S. Highway 89

It's spring, blessed spring. Besides just breathing in the warm air and rejoicing at the disappeared snow, it's the perfect time to start planning your visit to the slot canyons of southern Utah and northern Arizona.

You’ve undoubtedly seen the pictures of the slot canyons of the Colorado Plateau, especially if you’ve wandered other parts of U.S. 89. Stop at photo studios in Jackson or Salt Lake City and you’ll see them. The pictures of the magical slot canyons unique to this part of the world can be found throughout southern Utah and northern Arizona as well. Slot canyons are narrow canyons formed by wind and water through the desert sandstone that may be only two feet across at the bottom and rise on both sides a hundred or more feet. There are such canyons in the Escalante area and throughout southeastern Utah. Similar canyons can be found in Zion National Park. Along U.S. 89 there are two slot canyon areas of particular note: Buckskin Gulch west of Page in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the Antelope Canyons of the Navajo Nation just east of Page, Arizona.

First, a note of caution. A slot canyon can be a deathtrap in a flash flood. There are many tales of lives lost during heavy rains that can send a 40-foot wall of water rushing down a slot canyon. Before entering any slot canyon, be certain that rainstorms are not likely, either in the area directly above the canyon or in watershed areas adjacent to the canyon. It’s best to inquire locally for expert advice. August and September are the monsoon season on the Colorado Plateau when afternoon and evening thunderstorms are common. Spring rain showers are not unusual, either. June or July are the ideal months to visit the slot canyons, if you can handle the heat, or late fall is another good option.

Of the two canyons discussed here, Buckskin Gulch is the more satisfying hike, but the Antelope Canyons are the more visually spectacular (and most convenient to visit). Either will provide you with an experience you can have nowhere else.

Buckskin Gulch is the epitome of slot canyons to many desert hikers and a popular spot in late spring through mid-summer. It’s not quite as mystical in nature as the Antelope Canyons near Page, but the hike into and out of Buckskin is a world class experience nonetheless. To find the trailhead, take a dirt road less than a mile from milepost 25 on U.S. 89, about 38 miles east of Kanab (about 34 miles west of Page). The clearly marked trailhead is about eight and a half miles down the dirt road. To enter Buckskin Gulch, you must first hike through Wire Pass. The hike is fairly uneventful for the first mile or so, but then you enter the first stretch of narrows that can squeeze down to as little as two feet in width. From here, there are narrows through Wire Pass and in either direction at Buckskin Gulch, which begins where it forms a “T” with Wire Pass. You can make the hike as long or as short as you wish – just make sure you know where you’re at and how to find the exit. It’s best if you can make this hike with someone who has done it before. If that’s not possible, there are a number of excellent hiking guidebooks on the Grand Staircase region that provide helpful tips and maps.

The Antelope Canyons are an entirely different experience. To find the Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons, drive east out of Page on Arizona Highway 98 about three miles. On the right will be a sign for Antelope Canyon. This is the staging area where the Navajo charge guests to ride into Upper Antelope Canyon. The drive takes you right up to the mouth of the canyon, which is only about a football field long. But what it lacks in length it makes up for in remarkable scenery.

The best time to visit Upper Antelope Canyon is in the summer between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. During this time, shafts of light from the overhead sun will stream into the canyon at various angles and positions, creating a visual world unlike any you will have ever seen. Too many people spend an hour in the canyon and leave. If your schedule allows it, stay for at least two and up to four hours. The canyon will look vastly different as the light changes.

A number of private tour companies in Page take groups into canyon. This can be a good way to go, particularly if you want to take pictures. Tour operators can help you understand the canyon’s geology and history and provide helpful tips on the difficult photographic conditions inside the canyon. For amateur photographers, studying the conditions in the canyon beforehand is a must, and taking an experienced photo tour guide with you isn’t a bad idea, if you can afford it.

A couple of quick tips: Don’t think you can go into the canyon with any camera, use a flash, and get a decent photo. Good shots in slot canyons require long exposures using existing natural light (depending on ISO setting and lighting, exposures can be from three seconds to three minutes). For this type of photography, a good DSLR or high-quality film (if you're using an old-fashioned film camera), a tripod and some basic photographic knowledge are essential. In general, set your exposure to capture the mid-tones and allow the darker and lighter areas to under- and over-expose.

Lower Antelope Canyon is accessed from the other side Arizona 98 and also requires a fee paid to the Navajo Nation. It looks similar to the upper canyon but is much longer as it descends toward Lake Powell and is much more difficult to explore, with ropes and ladders providing access in some places. Also, this is the site of the tragic drowning of 14 amateur photographers in 1997 when a flash flood raced through the canyon. Besides creating a potential danger to hikers, flash floods also are constantly changing the canyons. Floods can raise or lower the canyon floors by more than 15 or 20 feet as they either scour the sandstone floors out or deposit new silt.


  1. Antelope canyons are very intriguing to see. Here are some more pictures:

  2. This was my first site in an investigation on visiting S. Utah for a spring break photo adventure. While the weather may prohibit a slot visit, I really appreciated your great basic information and details about accessing etc. Since I am a female on an adventure, I thought about finding a group or tour available. Thanks for unselfishly sharing..even camera settings! You rock.