There’s nothing wrong with a bit of #wanderlust but it seems like some of those travelgrams are turning into tramplegrams.
The growth of social media combined with low-cost airfares and Airbnb has propelled travel numbers to new levels and destinations are starting to learn that more visitors is not always better. It’s great that the travel bug has become so contagious but the world’s most popular hotspots—especially some of the delicate ones—can only handle so much traffic. Just take a look at Greece’s Santorini where crowds have overwhelmed the constricted cobblestone paths so much so that it now feels like you’re navigating through a crowded night club. Or how about the droves on Mount Everest, which now leave behind hundreds of tons of trash that must be airlifted out each year.
A little closer to home, overtourism has hit one of North America’s most photographed destinations: Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona. The scenic spot has become so busy that they’ve been forced to cancel a portion of their tours. Located about an hour away from the Grand Canyon, you’ve surely seen the iconic photos from both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon; it’s been used as the desktop background by Microsoft’s Windows as well as the wallpaper of many smartphone brands.
Those looking to get the perfect snap of the slot canyon’s signature sandstone have recently found themselves facing extraordinary wait times. Upper Antelope Canyon had queues of up to five hours long for photo tours in early December—and that was with a pre-booked timeslot in what is supposed to be the slower time of the year. As a result, those deluxe photo tours have been permanently discontinued. There’s no more setting up shop in the canyon for hours with a tripod and DSLR as it simply cuts down the time for everyone else. The good news is that the regular guided tours will still continue (guided tours are the only way to see it) and you can still snap pics with your phones and regular cameras, but this shows just what happens when too many people want to visit.
As we planned our trip, we had read about the overcrowding online as a number of people had been mentioning (in reviews) that it was difficult to take photos of the canyon clear of bystanders. YouTubers evaluated different tour operators, suggesting some guides were better at getting you clear photos while others weren’t as adept. The overall picture that was painted was that this was a bit of a conveyor belt experience. Instead of absorbing one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, it sounded like we’d be shuffled through it.
As I swiped through Instagram photos to observe optimal shooting angles of the canyon, I discovered that my travel friend and professional photographer Claudio Bezerra had just been there, so I turned to him to get his insight. Based on his experience, he recommended I see Lower Antelope Canyon and go with Ken’s Tours, which I followed through with. You can opt for a General Tour for $40, which has a maximum group size of 10 or a Deluxe Tour, which is $80 and has a maximum group size of four people. Keep in mind that all tours also stack on a $8.00 Navajo Park Permit, a 6 percent Navajo sales tax and a 6 percent processing fee per reservation. We went with the Deluxe Tour and on our day, they had enough guides that they took us out in twosomes. As we walked to the canyon, I was optimistic it wouldn’t be too crowded but that quickly changed.
Upon the entrance to the canyon, which—from a distance—looks no more than a crack in the ground, was a massive crowd. There were at least 150 other people waiting for their turn to climb down the steep ladder into the canyon and start their tour. I started to see what the online reviews had referred to.
However, I can report back that the canyon operators did a fantastic job of spreading out the groups and that this was the only crowd I saw that day. It appears that the operators are doing a better job of coordinating with each other—or at least they were on this day—and they managed to space clusters out so that everyone got their clear shots. Once we eased into Lower Antelope Canyon and were enveloped by the red-orange sandstone, we really didn’t bump into too many other people.
The experience itself is quite surreal as you move through these scenic sections of stone and sand. The light enters from the sky above, dancing on the walls to create different shades of orange, amber, ginger, red and everything in between. It feels like you’re in this giant fissure; as if two mountains were pulled apart and you adventured down underneath to walk in the cracks created. It’s hard to believe that this was all conceived by water running through the rocks over thousands of years.
Our photos came out clean of strangers and although we didn’t use a tripod, it truly wasn’t necessary. It’s nearly impossible to take a bad photo inside—no matter your skill level—and the tour operators know the best shooting spots. So, here’s to hoping that the cancellation of the deluxe photo tours is part of the managing of overtourism as they aim allow more basic tours to run smoothly and with much more reasonable wait times.
If you’re seeing Antelope Canyon, we have a few final thoughts to improve your visit:
1. Plan Ahead
You’re up in Page, Arizona, which might give you the impression that it’s a quiet, slow spot and you can just show up for the adventure at your convenience. However, while the town of about 7,500 people is quiet, the canyon sees four million people per year, so treat this as you would any other destination teeming with tourists. The only way to see the canyon is on a guided tour, so book your spots early. The longer you wait, the less chance you’ll have to find an opening.
2. Beware Of Page
Antelope Canyon is located in Page, Arizona, which is not the safest of cities. Who knew? We surely didn’t but we did get an early taste. As we drove into Page at night, a walking dead zombie (drunk or drugged up, disheveled person) stumbled out of the tall weeds right into oncoming traffic on a two-lane highway. As the car in front slowed to avoid running them over, we swerved around and kept it moving with no interest to find out how that movie ended. You’re best not to spend a lot of time in town and if you do, keep your eyes peeled.
3. Visit Horseshoe Bend
If you’re making the visit to Page, make sure you check out Horseshoe Bend, which is about 10 minutes away from Antelope Canyon. It’s another photogenic spot that’s well worth the stop. Also, keep in mind that Page is located on Lake Powell, which is a reservoir of the Colorado River. There are lots of lovely water activities to engage in—especially in the summer months. But those looking for a more leisurely experience on the lake should take in a sunrise or sunset. Both Stud Horse Point and Wahweap Overlook will offer excellent views.