The USA’s Southwest is widely known for its stunning landscapes, and chief among them in popularity is Antelope Canyon. The winding maze of narrow canyons is famous for producing sunbeam-soaked conditions professional and amateur photographers love, and it’s easy to get lost in the fantasy of walking through them, admiring some of nature’s finest work.
Our mission to visit Antelope Canyon started much like most journeys do these days: an Instagram search. Our Southwest road trip had already taken us from El Paso to White Sands National Monument, through Albuquerque and Chaco Canyon, and into Monument Valley and Four Corners. With Bryce Canyon National Park already on our itinerary, we realized our route would take us right through Page, Arizona, the launching point for Antelope Canyon tours. Combined with the canyon’s close proximity to Horseshoe Bend, it took just a few minutes of scrolling through Instagram to decide our trip wouldn’t be complete until we had experienced both locations for ourselves. The photos were nothing short of magical: rays of sun illuminating the canyon’s interior, casting a warm, rosy light on the walls shaped and smoothed by rainwater and erosion.The half day we spent exploring Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend provided a little bit of everything: a chance to see the power of nature’s forces firsthand, an opportunity to cross off a bit of a bucket list item, and an unexpected lesson in expectations versus reality—an important aspect of vacation planning that even we overlook from time to time!
If you are considering adding Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend to your vacation itinerary, here are some of the tips we hope will help you to make the most of your experience.
Located on Navajo land, the upper portion of Antelope Canyon is also known by the name Tsé bighánílíní: the place where water runs through rocks. It’s a fitting description for a place completely shaped by water. Over the centuries, rainwater entered, and sometimes filled, the canyon, eroding it as the water swept the sand away and left dramatic curves in the sandstone that have been smoothed by the same process. To walk through Antelope Canyon is to practically see the memory of each rainstorm; the walls have taken on the shape of waves, and they run deep into the region’s landscape. Today, flash floods still contribute to the ever-changing construction of Antelope Canyon, and rainwater from nearby locations can seep into the canyon to create unexpected, dangerous amounts of fast-moving water that continue to smooth and shape its walls.
How Do You Get to Antelope Canyon?
While it’s not exactly convenient to most locations, Antelope Canyon is likely to be on the way to other destinations on your Southwest USA itinerary. Located approximately two hours from both Monument Valley on the Utah/Arizona border and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Antelope Canyon is close to Page, a decently-sized town with amenities like hotels and restaurants. It’s also a decent overnight trip (or extended day trip) from places like Flagstaff, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada. While you won’t find many public transportation options, full-service tours operate from larger cities and can provide you with a ride if self-driving isn’t preferred or isn’t an option.
Do You Need an Antelope Canyon Tour?
If you are thinking of visiting Antelope Canyon, you will need to be part of a formal tour. Because the slot canyons are on Navajo land, an authorized Navajo guide is required to escort you to the canyon and conduct a guided tour. Although there are economic reasons that tours are required, there are safety reasons that necessitate tours as well. Because Antelope Canyon still floods to this day, sometimes from rain that falls beyond the immediate region on what would otherwise appear to be a dry day, local guides who know the region and weather conditions can ensure visitors only enter during safe conditions.Most tours leave from the nearby town of Page, and a short tour-provided ride will take you from Page’s main streets to the canyon’s entrance. There are numerous tour companies available, many with great reviews and numerous start times that align with most schedules. Making a reservation in advance is all but compulsory: tours often sell out, especially in the summer months when they are at peak popularity. While you may be able to find a tour without a reservation, you may also find lack of availability or compatible start times can leave you disappointed.
Which Section of Antelope Canyon Should You Visit?
Antelope Canyon is largely divided into two sections: the popular, and more touristy, Upper Canyon, and the less-visited Lower Canyon.
Upper Antelope Canyon is the portion you often see depicted in glowing Instagram photos. It’s easier to traverse; the canyon is mostly flat and does not require the use of stairs or ladders to explore, which makes it accessible to most populations. It’s also better suited to the famous sunbeam photos that capture the attention of most tourists as they decide whether to add Antelope Canyon to their itineraries. Sunbeams are most prevalent in summer months, when the sun is high enough in the sky to peek through the cracks in the sandstone to illuminate the canyon. Because Upper Antelope Canyon is widely regarded as easier to visit, it is more popular and more crowded. Depending on the time of year—or time of day—you can find yourself shoulder-to-shoulder with throngs of people eager to capture great photos.
Lower Antelope Canyon is your less-visited, more rugged alternative. If you aren’t focused on the sunbeam photos, visiting the lower portion of the canyon is a great way to miss some of the crowds and experience a more leisurely visit. It’s not a great choice for all travelers, though; the lower canyon is not as flat and does require climbing stairs and ladders, which can eliminate it as an opportunity for some visitors. The colors are different in the lower canyon as well; while the upper canyon boasts vibrant, warm shades of red and orange, the lower canyon has cooler hues that can look blue and purple in the light.
If you can’t choose, and mobility is not a concern, most companies offer the chance to experience the upper and lower canyon in a single day. While you will need to pay for two tours or a single, more expensive tour, if Antelope Canyon is a key destination for you it would be worthwhile to invest in both experiences.
Best Time of Day To Visit Antelope Canyon?
For travelers who want to seek out the sunbeams in the upper canyon, look for specific sunbeam tours that coordinate with the expected time of day when the beams will be on display. Tours focused on the sunbeams often leave in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon to ensure you arrive as the sunlight pours into the canyon. Other tours are offered throughout the day, with some departing close to sunrise and others beginning toward the end of the day. If visiting Antelope Canyon is driven by your desire to experience the place, not the photographs you can take, there isn’t a bad time of day to visit. Remember that the vibrancy of the canyon is dictated by forces beyond your control: on a cloudy day, the colors will be duller and won’t look quite like those you may see online. Still, even without the sunshine the canyons are a beautiful place to visit.
Antelope Canyon Experience: Expectations Vs. Reality
We reserved our Antelope Canyon tour months before we arrived in Page, and we were grateful to drive to the departure point under blue, sunny skies. We selected a premium, mid-morning tour that featured the sunbeams, and when it was time to depart we were a bit dismayed to be joined by almost 60 other people. The tour company accommodated everyone who was willing to spend a bit more for the “sunbeam tour,” and we filled six open-air trucks that lined up to shuttle us from the tour office to Antelope Canyon. The ride was a quick, 15-minute journey on main roads before the trucks veered off onto a dusty path leading to the canyon’s opening.Our driver served as our guide, and through brash humor with a dose of candor she walked us through the canyon at a quick pace, pausing to point out interesting geological features and to remind the group to keep up with her pace. This was easier said than done; our tour company was not the only company running simultaneous tours that morning, and many additional travelers were being ushered through at the same time. The majority of our hour was spent taking rushed photographs, pressing ourselves to the walls of the canyon to allow others to pass by, and struggling to hear our guide over the other guides and tourists. It was cramped, hot, and uncomfortable; at one point, our guide told us the mid-morning tours were the worst part of her day due to the crowding. I wish we would have known that before making our reservation—I could see her point!
Still, the crowding was for one singular purpose: the magical moments when the sunbeams cascaded over the sandstone. When the time arrived, we struggled to find a spot among the dozens of people clamoring for the same space. Efforts to find enough elbow room to appreciate the view were further complicated by an additional photography tour, which had taken up residence in a prime spot. Armed with two rows of tripods that doubled as a fortification of their rights to the space (photography tours are more expensive than premium walking tours!), the rest of us tried our best to find a place to stand that didn’t impede the photographer’s shots while affording us a view of the phenomenon we also wanted to see.
It was difficult to take a great photo in Antelope Canyon. Reflecting on the images I remembered, Instagram influencers in long dresses looking up toward the sun without a single other person around, I couldn’t imagine how those photos were possible. Where I stood, stuck in a crowd of people growing progressively more frustrated by the cramped space as the sun continued its gradual shift out of the canyon, it occurred to me that our visit to Antelope Canyon was a great study in expectations vs. realities as travelers. In my mind, and in my preparation for the trip, I imagined I would be able to get similar pictures that would compete with some of the great shots I saw online. In reality, most of my pictures featured dazed tourists and poor lighting.
Still, the experience was worth it. While the crowds didn’t contribute to my enjoyment of Antelope Canyon, they didn’t dictate my experience. I loved getting to marvel at how the walls of the canyon gracefully curved like waves, formed by a process unencumbered by humans and left entirely up to nature. I enjoyed the moments where I could find peace, with my camera down by my side as I took in the view with my own eyes. And while good pictures were hard to take, I did leave with a handful that are almost as good as the Instagram shots that inspired my journey in the first place.
Antelope Canyon isn’t always as hectic as my visit was, but it’s a great reminder that an open mind and a commitment to making the best of any situation are the best tools a traveler can pack.
Tips for Visiting Antelope Canyon
If you are planning a trip to Antelope Canyon, here are a few tips that might help you make the most of your experience.
► Wear appropriate shoes
Antelope Canyon is dusty and filled with sand, so leave the heels at home and choose shoes that will provide more structure and support to your walk. Closed-toed shoes like sneakers are a good idea, and if you don’t mind the sand open-toed sandals can work as well.
► Align your expectations
We were surprised by the crowds when we arrived at Antelope Canyon, and it’s a good idea to align your expectations for your experience with the reality of what you may encounter. If you select a popular sunbeam tour as we did, know that you will most likely have plenty of company during your visit. Those tours are popular for a reason; you may find the benefits of seeing the sunbeams outweigh the inconvenience of the crowds.
► Know your camera
If you don’t know how to use your camera’s features, Antelope Canyon isn’t conducive to learning how to get the best photos. While many guides can provide a few, limited tips related to angles and canyon features, spend some time learning about the settings on your camera so you can be nimble and prepared to take great photos while you are there. We encountered several people who brought new cameras but didn’t know about their settings or features, and many of them left with dark, overexposed, or disappointing shots.
► Consider a mask
If you have sensitivities to dust or poor air conditions, a breathable mask (like one you would wear in a hospital) or a scarf may be one item you don’t want to leave behind. Antelope Canyon is a very dusty place, and although breathing in the dust may not be harmful to most people you may find it to be uncomfortable. If you are prone to breathing issues, a mask is a great item to bring along to make your journey easier.
► Bring water
Antelope Canyon is filled with sand, and the dry conditions may make you thirstier than usual. While you can’t take food on your Antelope Canyon tour, pack extra water to stave off dehydration.
► Leave your bags behind
Antelope Canyon tours do not allow guests to bring bags with them, so bring only the items you need and can carry when getting ready to depart. The canyons are often crowded enough that bags can pose a danger to other travelers, and visitors who are not careful of their belongings may accidentally damage the canyons. Consider bringing a bottle of water and a camera, and tuck your ID and a credit card into a pocket in case of an emergency.
After a morning at Antelope Canyon, we were eager to reemerge into the sunshine and explore our next stop: Horseshoe Bend. Appropriately named, Horseshoe Bend is a bend in the Colorado River that resembles a horseshoe shape when observed from above. Before leaving Page for Bryce Canyon, that is exactly what we did: we trekked to the viewing deck for an aerial view of one of the USA’s most beautiful spots.Unlike Antelope Canyon, you don’t need a tour or a guide to visit Horseshoe Bend. We parked in the large parking lot and began the first leg of the 1.5-mile round-trip walk to the viewing point. The pathway, while well-defined, is also primarily comprised of sand and rocks, which didn’t bother us on the downhill walk to the ledge but was a factor in our exhaustion when it converted into an uphill walk in 95-degree heat on our return to our car. The crowds were thinner at Horseshoe Bend than they were at Antelope Canyon, and we took the walk at a leisurely pace.
As Horseshoe Bend reveals itself, it becomes immediately clear why the natural wonder has enjoyed a surge of popularity in the last few years. Fueled by Instagram, it’s hard not to be impressed by the deep blue river that flows around towering rock formations. We paused for quite a while to take photos and enjoy the scene; like Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend is off-the-beaten-path enough that it does not make sense to visit frequently or regularly. We lingered for more than 20 minutes before embarking on the next phase of our journey, but we were glad to have enjoyed even a brief visit to Horseshoe Bend.
Tips for Visiting Horseshoe Bend
Although a visit to Horseshoe Bend is straightforward, here are a few tips to help you maximize your time spent there!
► It’s not free to visit (anymore)
In early 2019, Horseshoe Bend started charging a per-vehicle admission fee in order to access the site. Expect to spend 10 USD to park your car; that fee will grant all passengers access to Horseshoe Bend. If you have a National Parks Annual Pass you will still be required to pay the fee.
► Be careful!
Guard rails are not a big part of the landscape at Horseshoe Bend, and the drop off from the scenic viewpoint to the river below is staggering. We saw more than a few daring visitors dangle their toes and heels over the edge as they posed for photos, a risk that sometimes bordered on dangerous. Be aware of the unevenness of the landscape and consider how looking down from almost 5,000 feet above sea level might impact you as you decide how close to the edge you want to stand. I experienced a touch of vertigo that kept me firmly planted a couple of yards away from the edge, but the added security also helped me enjoy the view a bit more.
► Bring water
Like Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend is a hot, dry, and sandy destination. Unlike Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend does not benefit from shade: you will face direct sunlight during your entire visit. Pack some extra water to be sure dehydration isn’t an issue.
► Consider an early or late visit
The sun is strong at Horseshoe Bend, and you may enjoy your visit during the early or later hours of the day when crowds are thinner and temperatures are cooler. Morning light can be tricky and may cast a shadow over the river, but it’s entirely possible to get great pictures and have a quieter experience during these off-hours.
Hotels Near Antelope Canyo and Horseshoe Bend
Our trip to Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend allowed us to visit in between Monument Valley and Bryce Canyon, but Page has several hotel options that would be perfect for an overnight stay. We love the convenience and flexibility of Booking.com, and we found hotels for each stop of our road trip using their platform. Take a look and see if there is a great choice for your upcoming trip!
Enjoy Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend!
We were glad to have the chance to visit both Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend during our Southwest USA road trip. Despite the crowds and the heat we encountered, the moments of looking up at the sunbeams illuminating the sandstone walls and out at the Colorado River meandering past the rock formations have stayed with us ever since our visit concluded. It has also provided a much-needed reminder about how we experience new places. I hoped for the experience I thought everyone has, with quiet corners for photos and reflection. Instead, I was met with the crazy chaos of fellow tourists trying to make the most of their vacation in their own way—and often within my personal space. Sure, the peace and quiet didn’t work out, but sharing the experience of Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend with so many others who prioritized those destinations for vacations just as I did felt pretty special, too. Traveling makes you part of a unique global community, and knowing there are other people on this planet who had the chance to see and do the same thing we did at the same time and place is a great reminder of how connected traveling can make us.
Now that I have seen the sunbeams, though, I might try again for a peaceful end-of-day tour when my travels take me back to Antelope Canyon. There’s no reason you can’t experience a place more than once, and Antelope Canyon just might require a repeat visit.
Looking for more places to visit in the American southwest? Here are a few to consider!