Antelope Canyon on the Navajo reservation in Arizona has to be one of the most striking slot canyons in the American Southwest. These sandstone canyons are called ‘slot’ canyons because over time, water from flash floods eventually carves a channel through the soft sandstone. These channels become narrow passages when dry, hence the name ‘slot canyon’.
Antelope Canyon is one of the most famous of these canyons, notable for its dramatic swirling forms carved by water over millennia and the strange play of light deep inside its walls. Light from the sky filters down through openings at the top of the canyon then bounces around the sandstone to create a surreal world of col0r and form at the bottom.
It might feel strange to some when visiting any of these slot canyons because the surrounding desert doesn’t look like the sort of place where raging water is an issue. But it can be. Typically, storms develop in the intense heat of mid-summer in much of Arizona and New Mexico. These storms can drop staggering amounts of rain in short bursts. When all that water hits the often hard-baked desert floor, it doesn’t have a chance to absorb and runs in courses called, ‘washes’ by the local Navajo.
These washes can go from bone dry to raging torrent in sixty seconds. The water will carve through the relatively soft sandstone to create these slot canyons. It’s a process that still goes on today — my Navajo guide had pictures of the stairs we climbed to enter the canyon, about fifteen feet high, underwater.
The weather might be perfect outside the canyon, but a storm several miles away could deluge that very canyon in no time. It happens every year and YouTube has abundant videos of cars, animals and people being washed away in one of these flash floods.
For me, though, the exceptional beauty of these Southwest canyons is a magnetic draw. I don’t always find the dramatic forms and colors one does in places like Antelope Canyon, but I still savor the mysterious thrill of disappearing into a twisting red rock canyon.