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Tuesday, September 8, 2015 : Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, Vermilion Cliffs

 

We have an appointment at Antelope Canyon at noon. Like yesterday, the least we can say is that we are in no rush.

 

Since all the tables inside are busy, we have breakfast outside. It's really not a problem, the weather is gorgeous. Beware of sunburns !

 

We spend a short moment on Skype with the family, return the keys and leave the hotel. Tonight, we will be at North Rim, in Grand Canyon National Park.

 

We directly drive to Adventurous Antelope Canyon, one of the four Navajo companies organizing Antelope Canyon visits. Since the canyon is on Navajo Nation territory, it is part of a tribal park, and only the Navajo are licensed to organize visits. Our reservation has been properly recorded, we are registered and, as yesterday, we have a lot of time ahead of us.

 

So we take the car and drive to Horseshoe Bend again.

 

Too beautiful. We can't get bored !

 

Horseshoe Bend

Horseshoe Bend

 

This morning, the site is way less croded than last night, and we quite easily find a space in the parking lot. Of course, the pastel shades of sunset are no longer there, but we don't care.

 

The sky is clear, sunshine reflecting on the rocks gives the Colorado yellow and green shades we had never noticed before. They are clearly visible on the picture.

 

The stunning Horseshoe Bend site really makes a few extra miles worthwhile.

 

We then drive back to Adventurous Antelope Canyon.

 

It is soon our turn to be called. Our group only has 8 people. We are welcomed by Roman, our guide, a genuine Navajo, who also acts as our driver. The entrance of Antelope Canyon is actually about a 15-minute AWD van drive away, half on an unpaved trail, half on a fortunately dry riverbed.

 

During the drive, I chat with a couple from Florida.

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Upper Antelope Canyon entrance

Upper Antelope Canyon entrance

 

At Antelope Canyon entrance, 20-odd AWD vans are parked, with as many visitors groups similar to ours. That makes a lot of people in a kind of cramped canyon !

 

Roman explains he was born and raised in the area and knows the canyon like the back of his hand. The next minutes show us he is really up to the task.

 

He also has a great photographic eye. A few times, he helps Marie find the best settings on her camera, including ISO, and the correct angles. After 3 or 4 shots, she's got Roman's tips.

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Upper Antelope Canyon

Upper Antelope Canyon

 

The canyon is packed, like a subway corridor at rush hour. And yet, we are in September. I can't even help but think about the crowd during school vacation !

 

Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon, rather short, very narrow, in which light never directly shines. To take pictures, you have to turn off automatic mode, increase ISO setting to near max ... and try your best at using sunlight reflecting against canyon sides.t

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Upper Antelope Canyon

Upper Antelope Canyon

 

Groups pretty closely follow each other inside Antelope Canyon. To take pictures, Marie has minimal time to work the details, we have to move along fast, very fast. Barely enough time to gaze at the scenery, fine-tune the settings, take a few pictures, and it is already time to leave.

 

Marie is nevertheless beginning to understand how to set her camera's sensitivity (ISO: 3,200) and play with indirect sunlight against the canyon sides. Her pictures keep on getting better, and Roman is less and less involved.

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Upper Antelope Canyon

Upper Antelope Canyon

 

Antelope Canyon is made of two parts : Lower Antelope Canyon and Upper Antelope Canyon, which we are visiting. Both are located on the course of a river that drains vast expanses of land. Let's consider that, in such a narrow canyon, floods can be as dramatic as they are swift. At some point, Roman shows me a mark, about 20 ft high : it is the level water has reached during a previous flood. Of course, in case of storm hazard, the canyon is closed to visits.

 

During flash floods, the canyon fills up with both water and sand. Water drains very fast. Sand takes a little more time, but visits resume as soon as the canyon is empty.

 

After all, Upper Antelope Canyon is only 660 ft long, no more than 6 to 9 ft wide, sometimes less, and at most 120 ft deep.

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Upper Antelope Canyon

Upper Antelope Canyon

 

Lighting effects are of course subjected to the height of the sun above the horizon. Too early, sun is too low and there are no reflections. Too late, sun is too high. In this season, mid- and late-morning are the most recommended times.

 

For the same reason, Upper Antelope Canyon is great to visit between March and October. Outside those suitable months, sun does not go high enough in the sky to give those nice reflections.

 

And at all times, the sensitivity of the photographer's eye really makes a difference.

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Upper Antelope Canyon

Upper Antelope Canyon

 

The very specific light inside the canyon makes photography really hard. Too much sensitivity or aperture, and parts of the picture are over-exposed. Too little, and the exact opposite happens. The art of taking pictures inside Antelope Canyon is a permanent search for a compromise between "too much" and "not enough", knowing that some parts of the picture are lit by a reflection falling exactly there, while others are in the shade.

 

The picture above, which I consider pretty good (I did not take it ...) is quite significant of this constraint. The opening of the canyon is brilliantly lit, the sides carry those beautiful orange reflections, while the upper and lower parts, in the shade, look almost black. However, they are just different sides of the very same rock.

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Upper Antelope Canyon

Upper Antelope Canyon

 

River erosion, increased by the huge amount of sand carried during floods, has created unexpected shapes in all of Upper Antelope Canyon. Above our heads, we can see what looks like a tunnel.

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Upper Antelope Canyon

Upper Antelope Canyon

 

We are nearing Upper Antelope Canyon exit, which is actually its upper end. A little more light is reflected against the rocks, and there are no longer any of those badly underexposed parts on pictures. Erosion traces are also more visible.

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Upper Antelope Canyon exit

Upper Antelope Canyon exit

 

At Upper Antelope Canyon exit, we are back in direct daylight again.

 

When it is not dry, the river forcefully flows between the rocks and rushes into the canyon in front of us, like in a funnel. We therefore better understand why floods are so sudden and harsh, but also so short.

 

After a short rest, it is already time to cross the canyon again the other way.

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Upper Antelope Canyon

Upper Antelope Canyon

 

We already found the way up was fast, the way back is even more. Since we are supposed to have taken all the pictures we wanted, we have no time to fine-tune a setting or take a pose, we have to free the place as fast as we can for the next group, already on our heels. We take pictures almost while walking.

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Upper Antelope Canyon

Upper Antelope Canyon

 

However, by visiting the same places again but the other way, we notice places we had already seen, but with a different light and different reflections. Marie manages to take a few more pictures.

 

I also take plenty of pictures with my phone, though of a much lesser quality. You can't make the same usage of light, and you do not get the same results, with relatively sophisticated camera and lenses and with a simple smartphone.

 

At the end of the day, despite Upper Antelope Canyon stunning beauty and highly dramatic light effects, the visit is a relative disappointment, too fast to really enjoy it. We walk thru the canyon at a very steady pace, and that's too bad.

 

Most companies licensed for canyon visits also offer specific tours for photographers. Beyond the sound advice of a skilled guide like Roman, most of the difference, as far as I can see, resides in spending more time in the canyon. It is probably enough to avoid this less-than-pleasant feeling of a permanent urgency.

 

We wanted to see Antelope Canyon, we have seen it. The place is beautiful and deserves a visit.

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S Lake Powell Blvd & Elm St, downtown Page, AZ

S Lake Powell Blvd & Elm St, downtown Page, AZ

 

We drive thru downtown Page again, and I refill the car. I have second thoughts about finding gas stations these next two days.

 

While Marie visits the bathrooms, I take a picture of the crossroads in front of me. For an American, it has nothing remarkable. For us, Europeans, on the other hand, it is very telling. Indeed, traffic lights are on the other side of the street. If you stop right under the red light, like in Europe, you end up in the middle of the road, with all obviously implied danger. It is a little thing you quite easily get used to.

 

We then take US Route 89 again and pass on Glen Canyon Dam Bridge, just in front of the dam, like yesterday.

 

We leave Page on the same road we arrived 5 years ago, but with a much better weather. We have slightly more than 150 miles to drive.

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Vermilion Cliffs, US Route 89

Vermilion Cliffs, US Route 89

 

We follow US Route 89 to Kanab, UT, about 75 miles away. After the last branch of Lake Powell, the road mostly follows Vermilion Cliffs.

 

Those cliffs are the second of the five steps of Grand Staircase, the sequence of sedimentary rock layers that make up Colorado Plateau. Let's remember that those steps are neither faults nor monoclines, but merely mark the places where limestone layers have been eroded to the point of completely vanishing. Sediments which made up the plateau are indeed very soft.

 

Less than 10 miles after leaving Page, we once more cross the Arizona-Utah state line.

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Vermilion Cliffs, US Route 89

Vermilion Cliffs

 

There are several groups of Vermilion Cliffs. On our left, far beyond our sight, one of those groups has become a National Monument. On our right, more or less parallel to US Route 89, the cliffs are clearly visible and, this year, they are really vermillion, as shown on the picture.

 

About 25 miles after leaving Page, the road is absolutely straight for a while and lined with phone poles. By some odd memory shortcut, I perfectly remember passing at exactly the same place, in the same direction, with my parents and brothers, after a short bath in Lake Powell, on our way to Bryce Canyon.

 

That was in August 1980.

 

We then cross Kanab and take US Route 89A, to North Rim. For the last time of this trip, we cross the Utah-Arizona state line.

 

Shortly before Jacob Lake, the road crosses a plateau covered with burned tree stumps, the remains of an old fire, since younger trees are growing between dead trunks. It is both sad and beautiful.

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Grand Canyon National Park entrance

Grand Canyon National Park entrance

 

Grand Canyon National Park is made of two parts, South Rim, which concentrates about 90% of visitors and, quite logically, 90% of activities including the airport, and North Rim, much less developed and much less crowded by tourists. Each has its own charm. We have already visited South Rim, we wanted a change. Except Kaibab Trail, which more or less directly links both rims in a two-day trek, crossing the Colorado on a metal trestle, there is no direct link. By car, it takes a 210-mile drive.

 

The two rims of Grand Canyon are at very different elevations. South Rim is located on a 7,100-ft high plateau, whereas North Rim, with a much more mountainous landscape, lies between 8,200 and 8,800 ft, for an average elevation difference of roughly 1,500 ft. One more time, this discrepancy is due to erosion, which has not been the same across the various limestone layers of the plateau. It also has consequences on vegetation : at North Rim, forest is much thicker and more typical of mountain regions than at South Rim, where it is a little sparser, with mostly Ponderosa pines and birch trees. Mountains meadows are only found at North Rim.

 

No need to look for a fault, there is none. Grand Canyon has entirely been carved by Colorado itself, over 5 1/2 million years. In geological terms, that is very, very young.

 

Grand Canyon National Park entrance is about 30 miles from Jacob Lake, the last inhabited place. We could as well say North Rim is in the middle of nowhere. It has nothing in common with Grand Canyon Village at South Rim, which is a real town. The park entrance is at the image of this accepted simplicity : a wooden cabin in the middle of the road, one lane in, one lane out, and that's it !

 

We will soon learn that this remoteness has less than trivial practical consequences.

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Bison, Grand Canyon National Park

Bison, Grand Canyon National Park

 

Soon after entering the park, we drive by a large meadow, where bison graze peacefully. With food in abundance and sheltered by the National Park, bison proliferate. The picture shows very young calves, probably no more than a few months old.

 

We are almost 8,900 ft high. This is the highest point of the road.

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Our room, Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim, AZ

Our room, Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim, AZ

 

We drive down to Grand Canyon Lodge, at 8,200 ft, at the end of a pine-covered mesa, just at the edge of Grand Canyon. Let's say that the viewpoint, from the lodge terraces, is enough to justify the whole trip. By the way, it is the only hotel in North Rim.

 

The lodge is made of a main building with lobby, reception desk and restaurant, and about 100 log cabins nested in the midst of pines. The place is absolutely charming, but imposes a few practical sacrifices :

 

  • Cabins are small, there is no bath, just a simple shower,
  • Although we are at a high elevation, heating is quite basic. Fortunately, wood is a good insulator,
  • There are no TVs in the cabins,
  • And most of all, there is no wi-fi and no phone. GSM mobile networks are spotty at best, in North Rim.

 

There are larger cabins, with rather similar amenities, more suited for groups of up to 6 people.

 

After we're settled in our cabin, we go for a walk around the place. We have some time before sunset.

 

Upon recommendation from the front desk, I make a reservation for dinner. The clerk almost apologizes for having a free table only at 8:45 pm. For us French people used to late dinners, this timing is perfect.

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Beautiful Grand Canyon, North Rim, AZ

Beautiful Grand Canyon

 

We have ample time for a walk before dinner. We choose to go to Bright Angel Point, a dramatic overlook just at the edge of the cliff. The walk is very easy, about 1/4 mi. long. It is one of the very few trails at North Rim accessible to people in wheelchairs.

 

From Bright Angel Point, the second big difference after elevation between South Rim and North Rim becomes pretty obvious. South Rim is a vertical cliff on one side of the canyon, North Rim is more like a set of many secondary canyons flowing into Grand Canyon. Indeed, North Kaibab Trail, which links North Rim to the trestle above the Colorado, follows one of those secondary canyons, Bright Angel Canyon, whereas South Kaibab Trail, its continuation to South Rim, had to be directly carved in the cliff. The average distance between North Rim and the Colorado is about twice the distance between South Rim and the river.

 

We take a minute to test mobile phone coverage. Neither Marie nor I can get any kind of network. We have to resign ourselves to being unreachable for the next two days.

 

Back from Bright Angel Point, we walk around the lodge main building, on the edge of the canyon. The viewpoint from the terraces is gorgeous, a real must-see, especially with a beautiful weather like today. Sunset promises to be great, and it is already attracting quite a lot of people. The tyniest piece of path or terrace is already occupied by photographers.

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Sunset at Grand Canyon

Sunset at Grand Canyon

 

Sun rapidly sets, under a completely clear sky. The sight is gorgeous. As far as I can see, Marie beautifully masters the art of taking sunset pictures.

 

We then walk back up to the lodge and have dinner. We are given a table next to the large windows, with a view of Grand Canyon that would be absolutely stunning ... if it were not now pitch black ! The food is great, and much less expensive than in Mesa Verde.

 

I read the history of the lodge. The main building was erected mostly with wood logs in 1927-28, but accidentally burned down in 1932. Rebuilt with more stonework and a sturdier roof in 1936-37, it still maintains a traditional aspect, with exposed wooden beams in the restaurant room, and log walls that give it an enduring rustic character of yesteryear. By the way, it is the only remaining lodge mostly made of wood in all national parks.

 

We then walk back to our log cabin, rustic but with a charm. The bed is narrow, it is not that warm, but we are in the heart of Grand Canyon. The place is magical.

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