The cathedral-like canyons of the American Southwest are often considered the region’s defining natural feature. This includes the slim, winding variety known as the slot canyon. It is a rarity in the deserts of northern Arizona, this beguiling landform, but it takes perhaps its most mysterious and suggestive form here, at a place called Antelope Canyon.
With its undulating, 130-foot walls of creamy sandstone, Antelope Canyon has long been an important site for the region’s Navajo people. It is named after the pronghorn antelope that used to graze in the canyon's shade; in addition to being sacred, this was once a favored spot for hunting among the Navajo, who would spot their quarry at one end of the canyon then dash undetected through its narrow passageways in order to make their kill.
While the antelope are no longer here, the canyon remains a natural refuge of sorts. It is a protected site today; the Navajo own the land and control visitor access. From the outside, Antelope Canyon appears as little more than a crooked slash in the earth. It consists of an upper and a lower portion. Accessible at ground level is the Upper Canyon—or Tsé bighánílíní, “The place where water runs through the rocks.” Light here strikes a straight, skinny beam to the floor that is usually seen best at mid-morning. The Lower Canyon—Hazdistazí, or “spiral rock arches”—is narrower and darker; sunlit spots appear and disappear almost randomly throughout the day, like shadow dancers on the inner walls.
The walls, reminiscent of frozen waves, are some of nature’s finest artwork. Wind and rainwater have rushed deeply through these passages over the millennia, eroding and polishing them into an illusion of sculpted permanence. The walls are comprised of revealing layers, stripes discernible by color and rock type. Like a tree with its telltale rings, Antelope Canyon shows its age. Its spiritual qualities, on the other hand, are harder to measure.