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The Crack and the Corkscrew

Antelope Canyon in Arizona has been molded by centuries of powerful flash floods and the gradual erosion of sandstone.


Southwestern United States showcases some of the most striking desert landscapes in the world. Among these, few are more visually stunning and picturesque than Antelope Canyon in Arizona. Here, both Upper Antelope Canyon, nicknamed “The Crack,” and Lower Antelope Canyon, popularly called “The Corkscrew,” display nature’s power and artistry, featuring towering sandstone passageways molded by eons of water flow. 

Located on Indian reservation lands near the northern border of Page, Antelope Canyon is considered sacred ground by the Navajo Indians. The area was opened to the general public in 1997, when the Navajo Nation deemed it an official Navajo Tribal Park. Ever since, Antelope Canyon has flourished as a major tourism draw, catalyzing economic opportunity for many local Navajo tour groups and revealing its natural beauty to visitors. 

Over thousands of years, powerful flash floods have eroded the existing layers of Navajo Sandstone, resulting in deep and narrow passageways called slot canyons. The relentless flow of water—both flash floods and rainwater—through these corridors has caused the slot canyons to plunge deeper, gradually forming lofty walls and tunnels that are now over 120 feet tall. The perpetual undulating motions of the flooding water have left unique flowing patterns over time, resulting in the distinctive spiraling contours and natural murals along the canyon’s walls. 

Antelope Canyon can only be accessed through organized tours led by authorized Navajo guides, who transport groups to the canyon entrance in trail rated 4x4 trucks. Due to the limited capacity inside the canyons and the large number of visitors, all tours are limited to just two hours. Upper Antelope Canyon—The Crack—is the most popular section. It is a 600-feet flat stretch and features photogenic beams of sunlight seeping through the wall tops. Lower Antelope Canyon—The Corkscrew—provides a more physically-challenging and adventurous experience, as visitors must descend into the canyon using built-in metal stairs and stepladders. While the lighting and photo opportunities may not be quite as impressive as The Crack, The Corkscrew is over 800 meters longer and not as densely crowded. Canyon expedition fees can range from $28 to $80 per person, depending on the size of the group—with higher charges for smaller photography groups during ideal lighting hours. 

Although spontaneous flash floods may have been integral to Antelope Canyon’s natural formation, they can also be a source of sudden and unpredictable danger to visitors. Tour groups and the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department vigilantly monitor monsoon activity and regional flooding patterns to ensure visitors’ safety at the canyon. Flash floods can strike the canyons without warning, even when no rainfall has occurred locally. The Navajo Nation has proactively taken steps to install alarm horns, safety nets, secure ladders and other safety features inside the canyons.

Antelope Canyon’s spectacular labyrinth of sandstone walls makes The Crack and The Corkscrew two of nature’s most unique masterpieces, beckoning visitors from all over the globe to witness its surreal lighting and color. Don’t forget your camera!

 

Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.