Under the Desert

The next morning we woke up early, around 6am, and I picked up some snacks from the hotel breakfast station. Then we went to the Navajo reservation, and checked in for our tour of Lower Antelope Canyon.

I’ve had a picture torn out of a calendar from here since I was in my teens, so it’s been on my list of places to visit since then. There are two Antelope canyons — Upper and Lower. Both are part of the same wash (a.k.a. arroyo) — riverbeds in the desert that are normally dry, but flash flood after heavy rains, which may occur miles away.

Upper Antelope is a channel through sandstone that rises above the surrounding desert, which means the path through it is at ground level. That makes it more accessible, and hence much more popular and crowded. Lower Antelope, on the other hand, is cut into the desert floor, which means it appears to be nothing more than some sandstone along the ground in a slight basin as you approach. When you get very close, you can see that there are narrow gaps in the stone, but it doesn’t look like it could possibly go down very far. You walk past the canyon and enter at the other end, and the whole way there it just looks like… nothing. Where could we possibly be going? There’s no canyon here, and it’s hot, and dusty.

Photo by Alex Proimos via Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0

Then you reach the far end of the canyon, and walk right up to the edge, where there’s a railing. It still just looks like a little crack in the rock, but you climb down a sequence of steep stairs (imagine a NYC fire escape, but leading deep into the earth — about 120 feet deep, to be specific).

After several flights of stairs, you wind up at the bottom, shocked at far down you’ve come. It’s about as wide as a hallway, but the similarity ends there. You start to explore, winding your way through the canyon, in single file most of the way.

Your guide keeps the group together, pointing out particularly interesting rock formations, but no matter which direction you look, everything you can see is stunning.

Sometimes you can see the sky above, other times not. Sometimes you have to duck or twist through narrow spaces, other times it opens out into rooms. The Navajo word for this place means “spiral rock arches” but others just call it “The Corkscrew” — both terms are accurate. Everywhere the force of floodwater has carved the sandstone into fantastic shapes, so smooth it almost feels fake to the touch, with the layers giving it endless variety.

The colors are incredible — oranges and purples and reds and browns — and you realize you could sit in any spot and just stare around for hours without getting bored. At a few points along the way you encounter photographers, who have paid extra for more time to linger in the passageway, setting up their tripods and waiting for just the right light. You wish you were a proper photographer, but you’re not, so you do your best:


You’re allowed about an hour to work your way through the canyon (which is only a quarter-mile long), and then you reach more stairs at the end and climb your way out, back into the desert heat.

Random dude for scale

After we left the canyon, I dragged us on a side trip to attempt a visit to the Navajo coal power plant down the road, because I dearly love the juxtaposition of industry with nature. The plant wasn’t open to the public for tours, unfortunately, but we had a nice drive through a different part of the desert.

Then we went back into town for lunch, to a tucked-away crepe shop I’d picked out in advance. There were a couple locals, and a nice kid behind the counter, with a lady who appeared to be the owner cooking in the back. The menu advertised gluten-free crepes. “Oooh, I wonder if their gluten-free crepes are buckwheat” my mom said enthusiastically, so I encouraged her to ask. The boy working the register wasn’t sure, so he went to get the cook (I’m guessing she was his aunt). “Oh, those? Nah, not buckwheat. They’ve got some rice flour, some tappy-oky, a little xanthan gum… they’re pretty terrible, really. I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone.” I loved the honesty we encountered around food on this trip — it became an ongoing thing. Even the waiter back at Giada in Las Vegas:

Me: “I’ll have the sunrise polenta waffle, please.”
Waiter: “Oh, that’s a GREAT choice. It comes with this freshly-infused maple syrup that’s just a little bit floral, and a really light bechamel, and the waffle is so fluffy and the pancetta gives it an amazing little burst of saltiness… it’s delicious.”
Me: “Sounds great!”
Mom: “And I’ll have the breakfast contadina.”
Waiter: “Ok!”
Mom: “…aren’t you going to tell me how exciting mine is? Maybe I should order what she did…”
Waiter: “Oh! The contadina is good too… It’s just… simpler?”


(both items were great)
(so were the gluten-inclusive crepes)

Anyway, after our quiet crepe lunch, it was time to head north in search of our next adventure!

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