Surprise Canyon (AZ)

Three years ago, we took the Antelope Canyon tour. As memorable as that tour was, hordes of tourists drawn by the fame of the canyon arrived from all over the world. To make matters worse, everyone was herded through the narrow passageways in numbers so thick that visions of being alone were delusions instead. Photographers were not allowed to bring tripods on the standard tours, but I discovered that by paying a bit more for a photographers’ tour, you got special dispensation.

In researching other tour opportunities in this area only a few weeks ago, I noticed that one company provided a Humvee tour to Canyon X that promised a relatively crowd-free experience to Surprise Canyon. The canyon would rival the beauty of the more famous slot canyon. As it turned out, only one other couple (from the UK) joined our tour on a day that was almost cloud-free, fortunate because of the downpour in the area only the day before. Getting to the canyon was half the fun; the Hummer negotiated rocky terrain, slick rock and sandy stretches, at one point tilting at what seemed like a pitch of 45°. Itself, the canyon is not very long. Nor was there any noticeable place with a hole in the rocks above to showcase a dramatic shaft of light for which Antelope Canyon is famous, maybe because the skies were somewhat cloudy. But the iridescent glow of the pinkish-orange sandstone was on full display. In retrospect, Antelope is the more spectacular because of its size and diversity but the crowds there can be quite the test. For experiencing a little of what these types of slot canyons offer, Surprise will fit the bill nicely.

Antelope Canyon (Page, AZ)

No trip to the Southwest would be complete without a visit to perhaps the most beautiful (and over-hyped) slot canyon in the world: Antelope Canyon. The breathtaking photographs are everywhere, in travel magazines, on the internet, and virtually anywhere you come across the subject of Southwest travel: narrow sandstone slots flanked by radiant walls of orange, gold and pink, and illuminated from above by brilliant shafts of sunlight.

This attraction is located just outside Page, Arizona. Because it’s located on Navajo land, you must purchase a tour from one of many Navajo-owned companies, all located along Lake Powell Boulevard in Page. The one we picked had a tour tailored specifically for photographers. Some internet bulletin board users have complained that the photography-centered tour is too structured: tourists shuttled from one place to the next, told where to take your shots, and never given much time to wander on one’s own. Still, you are taken to the prime spots. Guides know from experience what photographers want. I heard no complaints from anyone on our tour. In essence, you have to decide what you want with limited time (and money). Still, I am disappointed that you can’t experience the canyon without running into hordes of people.

A photographers' tour is geared to camera hounds

A photographers’ tour is geared to camera hounds

One of the benefits provided by Chief Tsosie (and possibly other guides who lead similar tours) is that he takes you to the photogenic spots and clears the areas of people so that your shots are not “spoiled” by human subjects, a practice that likely irks people on other tours. Another bonus for taking a photographers’ tour is that you can take along a tripod, which is prohibited on other tour types.

We arrived at the canyon around noon, after riding for about a half hour in an open-air Jeep over a rough, dry wash. Immediately upon entering, we were overwhelmed by the brilliant orange and pink colors for which Antelope is famous. With the sun directly overhead, the glow and reflections were otherworldly. It’s as if the entire walls were bathed in orange light. There were several places where a single shaft of sunlight beamed through a hole overhead, like a powerful floodlight was shining from above (top photo).

Although I brought along a tripod on this vacation, unfortunately I had the mounting bracket from another unit, rendering my tripod useless. I have to live with several blurry shots that fortunately are augmented by much better ones.

You can appreciate that Antelope Canyon is one of nature’s grand displays, one that will likely never be experienced anywhere else.

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Wire Pass (Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs)

The Southwest is famous for its slot canyons, narrow passageways carved out of sandstone by the erosive power of fast, flowing water. These canyons typically have very high, vertical walls, making them shadowy and dark for most of the day. They become illuminated to the floor only when the sun is directly overhead. Some passages can be very tight; claustrophobes will probably feel pretty uncomfortable. The most famous slot canyon in the Southwest is the Antelope Canyon in Arizona, which we visited later.

Our first experience with a slot canyon was Wire Pass in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument south of Zion. We had a hard time locating the access road. Luckily, we came across the Paria BLM office beyond the turnoff and were given directions. The unimproved dirt access road, washboarded and rutted its entire length of over 8 miles, led to the trailhead. The first mile of the trail was pretty unimpressive (boring) over dry scrubland. Eventually, the canyon entrance came into view. Entering the slot is like going into another world. Suddenly, you’re enclosed by high rock walls; the effect is like nothing you’ve experienced before.

Early in the hike, we nearly turned back because the path dropped steeply over a high boulder that didn’t seem to have a way of climbing back up when we peered over the edge. But, as luck would have it, a hiker was making her way back and climbed the rock using smaller rocks that were tucked under the rim.

Since we got there in mid-afternoon, the canyon walls were displayed in somber, purplish tones. Where the sun struck the walls higher up or in wider clearances, the beautiful orange and red tints glowed brilliantly.

Petroglyphs at Wire Pass

Petroglyphs at Wire Pass

Wire Pass eventually opened up to a large, open wash that connected to Buckskin Gulch a half mile further ahead. We turned back at the junction, since we needed to get to Page (Arizona) later in the afternoon. On the cliff faces at the junction, we saw our first Indian petroglyphs.

Many hikers who want to hike Buckskin Gulch take the Wire Pass hike to forgo the beginning, relatively uninteresting portion of Buckskin, the longest and deepest slot canyon in the Southwest. At the junction, one is free to continue southeast to the Paria River.

Crossroads at Buckskin Gulch

Crossroads at Buckskin Gulch

The Wire Pass trailhead is also the starting point for the permit-required hike into the spectacular sandstone area called The Wave, which we didn’t have time to do. The effect of parallel score lines over smooth, orange rolling rock has to be spectacular. This really should be on our to-do list for the next time.

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