Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon in the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation near Page, Arizona. Its ambient light and features carved by extreme weather over the centuries offer unique opportunities to capture colour, shape, form and texture through the photographic lens. A source of never-ending interest that changes throughout the day and across the seasons, Upper Canyon deserves more than one visit to understand the fullness of its personality. In this article, Rough Guides writer and photographer Gemma Roxanne Lake reveals its lesser-known side in her reminiscence of it in winter.
A whirlpool of concentric bands in differing shades of red, Upper Canyon, or “Tse’ bighanilini” (“the place where water runs through rocks”), is an otherworldly terrain more akin to Mars than Planet Earth. In the shadows cast by the ever-changing light on the irregular grooves, there exists another world in geologic form, where rocks resembling various earthbound creatures come to life on the striated, cinnamon-coloured walls.
That day in January 2019, the temperature was verging towards arctic and, in an area typically characterised by desert conditions barren of vegetation, snow extended far into the horizon sparing only fragments of rock at higher elevations. It was late morning and the temperature was averaging -6°C. A cloud of vapour hung about me with every breath.
In the distance, a gaggle of tourists shifted impatiently from one foot to the other, blowing air into their hands and sipping from steaming cups. The colourful sandstone canyon draws photographers from throughout the world – more so in summer, when the sun is higher in the sky and sends light beams down to the canyon floor. Since 1997, when the site became part of the Navajo Tribal Park, the canyon has only been accessible with an authorised Navajo tour guide.
Feeling numb in the freezing air after what felt like an eternity of standing in sub-zero conditions, I was relieved to see my guide beckoning me over to a warm, air-conditioned truck. We bounced down the stony, frost-hardened track to the canyon entrance. As I opened the door and stepped back into the freezing desert, a rush of cold air jarred my senses. The long-anticipated photography tour I’d booked months ago through Navajo Tours had finally become my reality.
We made our way over to the canyon, pausing briefly to ‘reframe our minds’ and ‘prepare for protection and respect’. Given the canyon’s spiritual significance as ‘a symbol of Mother Nature’s gifts and power’, this is common practice in Navajo culture. The canyon’s familiar shades of red stood like an insignia of summer against the interminable white surroundings.
Through cold-induced tears, I followed my guide into the mouth of the canyon, along the cavernous, meandering corridors, and toward the womb-like centre. Peering up at the 120ft walls rising from the streambed, I was dwarfed by its size and spiritual significance, and stunned into a silent reverence.
The canyon bears resemblance to a number of familiar shapes – this one being the ‘heart’. But at that moment, I saw in it an unlikely yin-yang relationship between a pensive wolf and a hollow-cheeked human face, twisted into a menacing grimace like the many faces of sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.
Forever in flux, the canyon changes face with the monsoon season, when flash floods engulf its narrow passageways and redefine its identity with abrasive sediment picked up along the way. In this picture, the long, languorous strokes left by extreme weather evoke movement and fluidity, like the rush and rapid effervescence of tidal currents surging over oceanic crust.
Other surface irregularities revealed themselves to me in the form of a cluster of cuestas, under what looked like a sepia haze. As with undecided clouds tumbling over mountain peaks, the formation altered with the sun as it wavered in and out of the unrelenting snow flurries.
My eye was immediately drawn to this portion of Upper Canyon, which when the light hit, shone resplendent with various and vivid hues of terracotta, folding in and around every time-worn jut and groove.
The clouds finally conceded when I took this picture (see above) and through pure luck, the winter sun revealed the canyon’s vibrant sedimentary layers in rings spiralling up to the sky, bringing the tour to a truly memorable conclusion.