On location: The Secret Canyon

The natural world is full of places that have become famous as iconic subjects of landscape photographers. Think of the Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park or the view across Lago Pehoe towards the Cuernos del Paine in Patagonia. Without a doubt the Colorado Plateau in the southwest of the United States holds more of these icons that any other region on earth; and the Antelope Slot Canyon is probably the most famous and over-photographed object of interest. This is absolutely justified, as it is an out-of-this-world beautiful place, but for landscape photographers two questions arise with that: Are you willing to shoot an icon that has been pictured by millions of other people? And how will you deal with the crowds that visit the canyon and the short time frames that are designated to every group to walk through it? There is an answer two both of these questions: Secret Canyon. It’s a smaller slot canyon near Antelope that is almost equally magic and has a strict visitor limitation that allows you to shoot almost alone for hours! If that sounds like right up your alley, then read about the secrets of Secret Canyon here.

If you’ve read the intro and are still with me here there will be no need to explain why the slot canyons of the Colorado Plateau are of great interest for landscape photographers. Their unparalleled combination of shapes, colors, textures, and light makes them an ever changing alluring subject. Though the condition of their shaping are more or less the same – thick sandstone layers that have been carved by rushing water over an extended period of time – the different slot canyons have their distinctive look and feel. The Zebra Slot Canyon near Escalante for instance attracts photographers with a narrow view of regular shaped and striped sand stone walls, while Antelope is known for its vast, cathedral-like interiors. The Secret Canyon is more like Antelope than Zebra, but features some unique elements too.

The entrance

Perhaps the most inspiring and unique thing about Secret Canyon is what you see first when you arrive at the entrance. Out of nowhere in the dry plain a small path starts to wind into a slowly deepening canyon, about 2-3 meters wide. Suddenly, you reach a point where the walls come closer and form a slot less then a meter wide. The canyon is still wide open at the top so expect direct light on the delicately layered sand stone that forms the entrance of the canyon. It’s a marvellous sight and a look into the geological history of the place. Red sand was sedimented almost 200 million years ago in a vast and shallow ocean and you can clearly spot slight variations in the conditions of this process resulting in a wonderful banding in the Navajo sandstone. With the rise of the Colorado Plateau the sandstone leaned and broke, which allowed rain water to enter small cracks and deepening and widening them. With every flash flood this process continues and the canyon walls are further abraded by water and mud. All of that you can see at the entrance of Secret Canyon, and it’s damn pretty too!

The canyon

After passing the layered walls of the entrance you walk for some hundred meters in southern direction into a slot that is approximately one meter wide and five to ten meters deep. It’s never that narrow that you’ll need artistic skills to navigate, nor is it so wide that it can accommodate a group of more than two persons next to each other. Setting up a tripod is perfectly possible almost everywhere in the slot.

When you’re down in the realm of the sand stone, the incoming light is the essential factor. In Secret Canyon you loose sight of the sky for most of the walk, but there are small openings everywhere. That’s perfect for photography, as most of the light is indirect and reflected by the walls – and at noon (exactly!) there are light beams all over the place. Although rather small, the possibilities for composing photographs are legion. There are attractive overhanging rocks, there are wider cave-like openings in the upper part, and sometimes there is driftwood or small plants. Just be sure to bring your widest lens with you as you’ll be shooting objects within a distance range of one to five meters.

The loneliness

Until this point, Secret Canyon seems a good alternative to Antelope, albeit it’s a tad smaller in scale and therefore perhaps lacks a little of the grandeur of the wide halls of the latter. But what really sets Secret Canyon apart is the loneliness that you’ll experience when visiting. The canyon is hidden on private land a few miles from Highway 89 (from Page to Grand Canyon and Flagstaff) and the access is prohibited with one exception: A company in Page (Slot Canyon Hummer Adventure) offers tours to Secret Canyon and handles the spot availability very restrictively. On a three-hour Photo Tour (two of which you’ll be spending in the canyon) there will be no more than six people in the slot at the same time. Trying to get rid of tourists standing in your way, trying to find a spot for a tripod or the two seconds when you can fire a shot – which is pretty much the experience in Antelope – is definitely nothing you’ll experience in Secret Canyon. This has its price (150$ p.p.) but it’s worth it!

The fun

On top of that there is some serious fun involved in accessing the slot canyon. Slot Canyon Hummer Adventure take you in a Hummer (close your climate change eyes for some hours please!) off-road into the high desert and make sure that there are some sand dunes to slide in and some rocks to climb with the vehicle. Not that this is the decisive factor for the tour, but it’s way more entertaining than standing in a row next to a parking lot waiting for your time slot to enter. The driver will take you into the canyon, highlights some rocks and views from time to time, but will be rather invisible for most of your time. He’s very experienced in throwing sand into light beams, too!