Sunday, March 19
We had an easy 100 mile drive into Page AZ where we will spend the next few days. High on the list of things I wanted to do again was photograph in Lower Antelope Canyon. They offer a professional photographers “special deal” where we can walk unescorted for 2 hours through the canyon with our tripods. The professional qualifications seem to consist of having a big camera and tripod. We qualify! Unfortunately the reality was that the professional option is not offered during Spring/Summer because of the swarms of folks wanting access.
Neither of us wanted to do the group tours because no tripods are allowed and one must stay with the group. There’s not much light in the slots, so that would mean high ISO’s and short exposure times, i.e. handheld. Upper Antelope still offered photo specials, but that experience is like cows being herded to slaughter.I looked around at some of the other slot tours and came upon Canyon X, a lesser known part of Antelope Canyon. There is also Secret Canyon and a couple of others worth looking into. Canyon X offers many of the same appealing features as Upper and Lower Antelope, but in a less dramatic setting. The sinewy curves and glowing light are there, but I had to work a little more getting compositions that weren’t too confusing.I called the tour operator, got a voicemail and a quick call back. It was Jacqueline Tsinigine, the owner/operator of the property, who was friendly and casual and told me to come by anytime. They would take us down to the trail. We still needed a guide, but they would pretty much leave us on our own while we worked. So we got 3 hours virtually unaccompanied for $68 each.
The tour is actually in 2 different small areas of the canyon. For the first part, we met Jacqueline at the take-off point about 8 miles south of Lower Antelope. There were only a couple of cars in the dusty lot so it looked like good timing. We threw our cameras and tripods into her Bronco and she ferried us down the 2 miles of sandy road to the start of the short hike down.
We picked up our guide there. He was trying to get out of escorting us down because he was in a roping competition in an hour and wanted to get going. He did bring us down, but then handed us off to another young guide who was already there with 3 other photographers. Our new guide was setting up a shot for the photographers by throwing sand in the air so light beams were created. We jumped in on the fun.The three had been there for a while, so our guide left with them on the short hike to the next portion of the canyon about 300 yards away. So we were left alone to explore. This part of Canyon X was just a couple of twists and turns, maybe 50 yards in length. There were a lot of images in that short space. Lovely twists and turns of sculpted sandstone, wonderful cracks and curves as well. Light was bouncing off the walls from above and constantly changing. After exploring here for a good hour, we decided we should try to find our guide again. We exited the slot and began looking around to where the next part of the canyon was. I couldn’t really see it directly, but there wasn’t anywhere else to go but down canyon, so we strolled down this much wider portion.The next slot was maybe 300 yards down, so it was just a shot time before we were at next entrance. We found our guide, who was just finishing up with the other 3. We were only there a few minutes before they left for the return trip. Again we were left on our own and had the canyon to ourselves. This portion was also just a few turns long – maybe 100 yards – but again there was lots to work with. The sun had crossed over the high canyon opening by now, so light down in the deeper parts of the slot was very low and less dramatic, but we still spent another hour poking around. Just about the time we were finishing up, another guide leading a middle-age hispanic couple came by. She asked us who our guide was, and I replied, “Which one?” We all kind of giggled and shrugged. We walked back out of this slot and leisurely made our way back up the canyon toward the trail out. Along here we began looking more closely at the canyon wall of this wider section. Some nice formations here too. The guide and her 2 charges caught up with us and we all walked back up together. The climb out from the canyon was back up the same two very wide sandy switchbacks we’d walked down before. Steel grating laid along one edge of the path, greatly eased the slog back up. Once on top, our young Navajo guide piled all four of us in her truck, and we were motored back to the lot. All tolled, only 5 other people were in the canyon while we were. This is a great alternative to hiking the other slots during busy times. I would still prefer Lower Antelope on the pro option because of the longer, more dramatic route, but this one was the best option today.
Monday, March 20
We weren’t ready to leave the area quite yet. It’s still been pretty warm with most days in the mid 80’s – easily 15 degrees above normal. But mornings are cool and it doesn’t really get warm until afternoon. So we decided on an early hike, and Cathedral Wash was one I’d read about in our photography guide and from friends who’d also done it.The hike starts about 2.5 miles down the road to Lee’s Ferry and runs down Cathedral Wash anywhere from 3.1 to 4.2 miles out and back, depending on where you read it. I did a hike recording on a new app, called, All Trails that put it at 2.2 one way. It is a communal app where everyone contributes their hikes and reviews of the trail. It i remarkable how many of the hikes we do are included on this app from other users. It is free in it’s basic form, but I chose to subscribe for $35/year to get access to downloadable maps that can be used while out of cell range. I can also make hike recordings tracked by the phones GPS function. How it can track with no cell reception is beyond me, but it works. Before getting to the hike, we stopped at the Navajo Bridge that crosses the Colorado to have a look. Out on the bridge were a number of people huddled around a woman with a tracking antenna. I saw a couple of birds that looked much like vultures. The turned out to be a pair of condors. We waited a while to see if they would take flight, but it was getting warm already and we needed to get going. At the trailhead located at a turnout along the road, there were just 2 other vehicles parked. We met one older fellow whose wife was doing the hike on her own because he’d hurt his back. This gave me pause because the hike features quite a few 4-6 foot drop-offs and one 20-30 drop from ledges that need some real care to negotiate. I wasn’t sure we would be able to make it.We started off well enough down the wash. It wa rocky and sandy as a wash would be, and as we walked along downhill, the walls got higher and higher. This also provided lots of shade and made hiking quite comfortable. The walls of the wash were quite varied in how they showed erosion. Some places had rocks long embedded, now half revealed. Other spots were just the opposite, with miniature caves pockmarking the walls. We eventually ran into the man’s wife walking back up the wash. She was stymied by the one huge drop-off and decided not to attempt it. A smart move. After a number of twists and turns and small to medium drop-offs, we came to the dry waterfall.I walked all along the rim looking for a way down. Several places look feasible, but I just wasn’t sure. I was about to give up, when down the canyon, the only other hikers on the trail were coming back up. Talk about your basic luck! We watched as they worked their way back and forth up and along the ledges. It was a bit difficult going and great care needed to be taken, but it went well for both of us. I probably would not have attempted this path without having seen someone else do it first. There were still more drop-offs and a number of very narrow ledges that required finger holds while our backends stuck out over the long drops. I found it great fun and more interesting than the photographs I was taking. Mary was less fun-filled, but did well. Eventually we began to hear, first as a whisper, then a roar, the Colorado river as we wound our way down the wash. We emerged just as a couple of kayakers began shooting the mild rapids just in front of us. We were in time to watch another batch of kayaks and rafts run by. We enjoyed our lunch on a big rock at the edge of the river. A nice water cooled breeze came by every so often, but it was quite hot so we finished lunch, looked around a bit more and started back. While the way back was all up hill, it was gradual, except for the now climbing up all the drop-offs we’d negotiated.The dry waterfall remained the big problem. At it’s base I stood there awhile not able to figure out how to get back up. I remembered how I’d gotten down, but getting back up that way took a while to figure out. It involved standing on a wobbly rock, then lifting myself up backwards to sit on a small ledge. I then had to get my legs underneath me while holding on to tiny finger holds, then lifting myself up and over the ledge. I had no idea how Mary was going to get up. I was too high on the ledge to even grab a hand. She had to get herself up to the first ledge and get herself turned around on her own, which she did, then I was able to grab a hand, and after some cajoling, her other hand – oh the trust – and pull her up. Which I did.Mary’s adrenaline was really pumping now it it fueled her most of the way back. We were both tired and hot by the time we got back around 3 pm, but happy to have done it. The scrambling work we had to do made for a really interesting hike – though for different reasons hikes usually interest me. At the technical details of moving over this terrain forced my attention in a different direction and made it fun in a different way.
We will be making our way to Farmington, NM for a few days to restock and do wash and wait out a storm that is supposed to come this way. Not good timing for walking around in the Bisti Badlands wilderness. All those hard mud hill turn to sludge at the slightest drops. We shall see.