The Two Antelope Canyons

You must see at least one of them when you’re at Lake Powell.

Antelope Canyon SquareI’m working on an itinerary for a Flying M Air excursion client. They’ve decided to customize their Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure to add another day at Page, AZ, as well as an overnight stay at Bullfrog Basin about halfway up Lake Powell.

One of the things they wanted to add to their trip was a visit to Lower Antelope Canyon. The trip includes a visit to Upper Antelope Canyon, which is the attraction that gets the most visits. I felt it important to explain the difference between these two places and provide additional information on how they could be visited. I figured this information might help others plan their visit to the Page area.

Antelope Canyon: An Overview

Let’s start with an overview of what Antelope Canyon is and how it was formed.

Upper Antelope CanyonAntelope Canyon was formed mostly by the action of water in Antelope Creek, a south-to-north arroyo southeast of Page, AZ on the Navajo Reservation. During heavy rains to the south, the normally dry creek bed turns into a stream of water that rushes northward, sometimes at dangerous flood stage levels. (Indeed, 11 tourists were killed in Lower Antelope Canyon during a flash flood in 1997.)

Lower Antelope CanyonOver time, the water has carved a series of narrow slot canyons through the red rock sandstone. Two of these slots are open to the public. Upper Antelope Canyon is south of route 98 (see top satellite photo); Lower Antelope Canyon is north of route 98 (see bottom satellite photo). Examination of satellite images of the area show additional slot canyons along Antelope Creek, but they are not open to the public.

Both canyons have restricted access. You must pay a fee to the Navajo Nation and enter the canyon with a Navajo guide.

Both canyons have smooth, carved, Navajo sandstone walls that are quite beautiful. Antelope Canyon is one of the most photographed locations in the area.

Upper Antelope Canyon

Antelope CanyonUpper Antelope Canyon is, by far, the more visited of the two. I think there are two reasons for this:

  • Tour companies based a few miles away in Page take groups of tourists directly to the mouth of the canyon, making access convenient.
  • The floor of Upper Antelope Canyon is generally level, making the canyon very accessible, even to those who are less physically fit.

Upper Antelope Canyon is about 600 feet long, carved through what looks (from the air) like a single sandstone formation. Much of the canyon is so narrow that you can touch both walls with your hands at the same time. The downsteam opening of the canyon is bright with three big “rooms.” The rest of the canyon is much darker and narrower.

Most of the photos you see of Antelope Canyon were shot in Upper Antelope Canyon. At certain times of the day and year, shafts of light come down into the canyon. Photographers often kick up sand or dust into the light shafts for interesting photographic effects.

There are two ways to visit Upper Antelope Canyon:

  • Sign up for a tour with a Page-based tour company. The fee they charge covers the fee to the Navajo Nation as well as their fee for guide service. They will provide transportation from their location in town to the mouth of Upper Antelope Canyon, usually in a large, open-backed truck with bench seats. Your driver/guide will then walk you through the canyon. Afterwards, you’ll have about an hour to explore it on your own.
  • Drive up to the park entrance on Route 98, not far from the power plant. Pay a park entrance fee and park your car. Then pay a fee to tour the canyon. You can then wait on benches there until a tour is ready to go and climb aboard the same kind of open-backed truck to reach the mouth of the canyon. The driver/guide will walk you through the canyon and give you about an hour to explore it on your own.

They’re basically the same experience, but one requires you to wait outdoors in a relatively unpleasant environment while waiting for your tour to depart.

If you’re wondering which one is cheaper, there really isn’t much of a difference in price. I prefer using a tour company based in town, strictly for convenience. If you do decide to use a tour company, I recommend Antelope Canyon Tours.

You cannot drive your car to the mouth of the canyon. You must go with a guide.

If you are interested in photographing Upper Antelope Canyon, you must read this.

Lower Antelope Canyon

Lower EntranceLower Antelope Canyon has far fewer visitors than Upper. Unlike Upper, no tour companies — at least none to my knowledge — visit it. In addition, the canyon itself requires a decent amount of physical fitness. There are ladders, narrow passages, and various places where scrambling on the smooth sandstone is necessary. Heck, even the opening of the canyon, where you descend into a crack in the rock (shown here) seems designed to keep certain folks out: a fatty simply wouldn’t fit through it.

Lower Antelope CanyonThe great thing about Lower Antelope Canyon, however, is that you have up to four hours to explore it pretty much on your own. This gives you plenty of time to shoot photos or lose yourself in thought between the smooth sandstone walls. Because there are far fewer visitors, it’s a more relaxed and pleasant place to visit. You can probably guess that I prefer it.

Lower Antelope Canyon is only accessible by driving up to the parking area, paying the fee, and getting a guide to take you down. Sometimes a guide will take you straight down; other times they make you wait. The entrance to the canyon is walking distance from parking. The guide does not stay with you. Although you’re limited to four hours in the canyon, there’s no one keeping track. You can exit the canyon the same way you entered or climb out on a series of well-built ladders on the far end and walk back along the east wall of the canyon.

Visiting Both

My clients want to visit both, which I think is a great idea. What better way to appreciate the difference between them?

Of course, since they are separate, there’s no easy way to visit both. You can save the park entrance fee — which I believe is about $6 — if you drive to Upper and then visit Lower on the same day. If you’re interested in photography, however, that means that you might not get the best light for both canyons. It all depends upon the time of year and angle of the sun. We’ll be there in March when the sun is nearly straight overhead at noon; midday seems like a good time to visit.

18 thoughts on “The Two Antelope Canyons

  1. Hello,
    Looking at the pictures you take it seems that the upper canyon is nicer; the lower one may be more fun to go through with the narrow passages and ladders. Having time only for one of them which one would you recommend?
    Thank you

    • For dramatic photography, upper probably is better. Light conditions aren’t quite as good in lower. But I prefer lower, which is never crowded.

  2. Hello Maria,
    Thanks for this great advice.
    Ken’s Tour is doing tour in the lower antelope canyon.
    I was wondering, in your article, you say that If we want to visit both, we might not be able the best light for both of them. I know that Upper antelope Canyon is better at mid-day for the light but do you know when is the better time for lower?
    Do you recommend the photography tours which are longer? And gives us more time in the canyon?
    Thanks for your great advice and have a nice day!

    • No matter how long the tour you take is, when you’re in upper antelope Canyon the main problem is the crowds. You’d be better off going at a time of year when there are less people around than to worry about how long your tour is.

      Also, I’m not sure why you’d want a guided tour of lower antelope Canyon. In all the times that I’ve visited it, no tour guide was needed. I much prefer walking it on my own, at my own pace, to being forced to follow a guide at his pace.

      Light is everything in both canyons. I’ve heard some people say that the best photographs have been made in the morning between 9 and 11. But light also depends on the time of year. I think that you could go to these canyons 20 times at varying times of the day and year and have different results each time. I can’t say what’s best.

      Good luck.

    • I just wanted to correct. The only way to visit the canyon is by Tour guides. It has never been self tour, unless you went in illegally. Since early 2000s there has been a company that has been providing tours. It also States on the Navajo Parks and recreation that you must have a permit to hike and A GUIDE. Please provide the correct information.

    • I’m sorry, but it’s YOU who is providing incorrect information.

      While a guide is always present at Upper Antelope Canyon on ALL of my visits there, Lower Antelope Canyon is not managed the same way — or at least it wasn’t when I’ve visited numerous times over the past 10 years. You go to the parking area, pay a fee, and are guided down into the canyon. But on all of my visits, the guide usually left visitors on their own at the very start of the canyon. Although they specified a time limit, there was no way they could ensure you got out on time because they simply were not with you.

      I do not provide inaccurate information on this blog and I certainly do not illegally trespass on Native American lands. (I’m actually pretty insulted that you should insinuate such a thing.) I write from experience, not hearsay or what I read in guide books.

      Have YOU been to Lower Antelope Canyon? If your movements there were restricted by a guide, I can only assume you were part of a bigger group that they wanted to manage or that it was very recently and their policies have changed. Or perhaps you paid a guide in town?

    • I was there last week. You must have a tour guide with you at all times in Lower Antelope Canyon.

    • This must be a new policy since I was there years ago. Although they SAID the tour guide had to be with you in Lower Antelope Canyon, EVERY time I went down there, the tour guide left us on our own. Could be because of new safety concerns.

      Thanks for the update.

  3. We will be traveling to Antelope Cyn mid November… if we are not there at around midday is the light sufficient to light to inside of the canyon??? Thank you so much for your answer…

    • Thank you for your reply. How do you reach Upper Antelope Canyon …. is the pull off marked?

    • Yes. But you can’t drive to the Canyon. You need to take a tour vehicle. Your best bet is to hook up with the tour company in town. You probably won’t need reservations this time of year, however, tours leave at specific times.

  4. If we’re going in mid March, what is the best time of day to go? I heard there aren’t many sunbeams during that time of year, so we were thinking about going to Upper in the early morning for the colorful walls, and then taking our time in Lower afterwards. I also heard late afternoon is a good time to shoot Horseshoe Bend, so that would work out well with that plan. What do you think? You sound like you have a lot of knowledge about the area.

    • It’s been a few years since I was there and I really can’t remember. I know I always sent clients midday, but I’ve been told that later in the afternoon is sometimes better.

      As for the “sunbeams” — you realize that look is man made by throwing sand into the air when the light is shining in, right? You can’t see rays of light without particles in the air so photographers routinely throw sand to get that affect.

  5. I’m going there in a few weeks. If I want to do a morning tour, would you recommend the Upper or Lower Canyon?

    • I have not been to both…. only the Lower Canyon… if it a somewhat dark morning and the sun is not shining thru…. then the Lower Canyon is your better bet…the opening to the surface is larger and lets in more light.


  6. Hi Maria,

    Any idea what we can expect if we do Lower Antelope Canyon in late Sep with regard to best time for optimum lighting for photographs?

What do you think?