27 Oct 2014

US Road-trip - Antelope Canyon & Horseshoe Bend, Arizona

I was kind of dreading Antelope Canyon. As a photographer, you cannot possibly pass through Page and not visit it, as it is too much of an iconic photographic location to ignore. Its beauty and proximity to the Grand Canyon have also placed it firmly on the tourist trail of northern Arizona. I knew that visiting it would not be a terribly enjoyable experience, given its popularity with tourists and photographers - all the reviews I'd read about it mentioned the dreadful crowds, but also that it was beautiful and unmissable at the same time.

I had researched the various ways to visit the place, which was an effort in itself, and had learned that the best option (or rather, the least bad) would be to get the photographer's permit for Lower Antelope Canyon, which entitles you to two hours to wander through the narrow canyon, without needing to be accompanied by a guide or on a tour. For this you must each carry a DSLR and a tripod and pay $50 (about $22 more than the regular guided tour). This sounded pretty perfect for me. If I'd wanted to go to Upper Antelope Canyon (the one with the usually over-exposed light-shafts) and take my tripod, then I would have paid more like $150 for a photographers tour, and my husband would have had to have gone on a normal tour (also about $50). This way, we paid the $50 each, my husband got to pretend to be a photographer by carrying my spare equipment (he lost his interest in photography a few years back), and we got to wander around at our own pace. The lower canyon has narrow metal staircases to climb down, which we hoped would put off a certain number of potential visitors.

The decision having been made to visit the Lower Antelope Canyon, then, we rocked up at 11 o'clock on a sunny Saturday morning, having driven the short distance from Monument Valley. If there's any chance of rain in the region the canyon can be closed, as it is at risk from flash floods, but this was not an issue on the day we visited. As expected, 11 am on a Saturday, even in the slightly off-season early October, is not a great time to visit. There are two operators based in the lower canyon, each sending down a group of about 15 people every 15 minutes or so, so there's a constant flow of new arrivals in the canyon. We had to walk to the canyon entrance with a group, but after that we were on our own.

As we waited at the top of the first ladder that takes you down into the canyon we could hear the chattering from people inside. We didn't have to wait for the group at the top, so climbed down into the narrow canyon. A few people were hanging around in the small chamber at the foot of the ladder. I moved on a little and tried to set my tripod up to take a few shots of people coming down the ladder, but soon realised that this wasn't going to be easy. No shot was going to be easy given the lack of space. And we were never going to be "on our own"- perhaps one might be if one visited at 3pm on a Tuesday in late January.

We spent the next hour and a half basically perched in slight recesses and nooks, waiting for tour groups and other photographers to go past, trying to find a little space and peace. It didn't really happen. Most shots I took were extremely rushed, and pointed upwards to avoid the inclusion of people wandering through. I wanted a couple of shots with people in, to give it a bit of scale, but not all the time, the whole way through. There was no opportunity for actually looking around and surveying the scene to find the most attractive composition. Tour guides instructed tourists where to point their camera in order to get the same shot as everyone else. We managed one corny self-portrait, standing in a hole that everyone posed in, taken using the self-timer.

At the hole we passed a Chinese photographer who didn't have much concept of personal space, waiting, moving aside, or taking it in turns to capture interesting views. When he wasn't shooting he carried his camera at the end of the tripod with the tripod over one shoulder, nearly hitting the camera against other people or the walls of the canyon. He didn't seem to be aware that he might not only damage his camera, but also make nasty scrapes along the soft sandstone walls (or someone's head!).

For the second half of our allotted time I gave up using the tripod and just pushed up the ISO and opened the aperture wider, neither of which were ideal (I didn't want grainy shots of the beautiful twisted walls and I wanted a good strong depth of field). But I couldn't bear the pain involved in trying to get steady, clear, deep shots and the time they took, with all the other people continuously moving through. Exposure was hard enough with the huge variety of available light, with little at the bottom and extreme brightness towards the top of the canyon, but the crowds just made it worse. I used a circular polarising filter to change the reflection of the light, but this required even longer shutter speeds. The image stabiliser on the new lens helped, but it was still challenging to get a decent shot.

We actually left the canyon before our time was up - it just wasn't an enjoyable experience, in spite of the amazing sculpted walls. We didn't need to worry about being late (they charge an additional $20 for every 20 minutes late you return the pass). My husband was definitely relieved to be out of there - he'd just stood around a bit aimlessly while I desperately tried to take a clean shot.

Feeling slightly shell-shocked by the whole experience, we drove on into Page, where we were staying in a rather characterless motel in the centre of the town. Just up from the motel we ate in an open-air Texas BBQ place, washed down by a well-earned Sierra Nevade IPA, before heading back to rest for a couple of hours. The wifi was decent enough, so I managed to download some star-stacking software and played around with my Monument Valley night shots until it was time to head out for sunset.

I was also slightly dreading visiting Horseshoe Bend too. It's another iconic location that I've seen many photographs of, and I knew it would also be busy with the same tourists that had been crammed into the slot canyons during the day. It was another must-visit place, though, with an almost 360 degree, horseshoe-shaped meander of the Colorado River, set down at the bottom of a deep canyon, with an almost-island-like hill sticking up in the middle of the bend. We drove the couple of miles up there from Page, parked in the already-packed car park and wandered up the short trail to the edge of the canyon. My husband had a brief look down into the canyon but then sat and read again, away from the edge. I found a couple of different spots along the cliff from where I watched the sun soon disappear below the horizon behind the bend. It wasn't nearly as scary as some of the reports I'd read by previous visitors. Yes, we were perched on the edge of a tall, steep cliff, but you didn't have to get right to the edge to look down. People do like to exaggerate!

Like Antelope Canyon earlier it was teeming with people, including huge numbers of loud Chinese tourists and photographers; there was a constant rabble, interspersed with sudden cackles of laughter or mock screams as people peered over the edge. At one point one woman squeezed next to me and just missed hitting my tripod and camera with her backpack by an inch (I had my hand in front of the camera shielding it just in case she had knocked it). It wasn't as if the cliff-top was short of space for seeing the bend, but she clearly fancied my viewing spot. It didn't make for a relaxing sunset-viewing experience, that's for sure. The cloudless sky prevented a spectacular sunset, but it was still a striking view. Immediately after the sun had dipped below the horizon the rock turned from an orangey-red hue to a pale magenta one. The hoards quickly dispersed, scurrying away like ants, eager to get back to town for the next feeding time, no doubt. I stayed for a while, watching boats come around the bend on the river leaving graceful trails in the glowing glassy blue water. Some people were camping down on the shore - I could just make out some tiny canoes and the dots of people pottering about camp; I think I would have preferred being down there with them.

Eventually we headed back to the motel, where we drank cheap Californian champagne out of plastic cups to belatedly celebrate our wedding anniversary (they wouldn't make an exception and give us a couple of real glasses from the bar). We tried to eat in the attached Indian & Thai restaurant, but it closed at 9, so we went to a nearby Mexican restaurant and ate more mushy food. It had been a strange day, starting with playing chicken in the road with Chinese photographers overlooking Monument Valley, struggling to squeeze through the crowded Lower Antelope Canyon with the masses and still hope to come out with a few decent shots, finished off with a cloudless sunset at Horseshoe Bend perched at the top of a huge cliff, being nearly jostled by noisy people desperate to get their shot.

We left Page the following morning on our way to Zion; if I ever return it'll be off-season, mid-week, and perhaps I'll venture down to the Colorado River to see the geological wonders from a different perspective. I won't be rushing back, though. I couldn't have not visited either of the two sights, given the route we were taking, but I can't say either of us particularly enjoyed the place!

Next stop: Zion National Park, Utah

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