The Navajo Sandstone curved like flowing water. The narrow passage snaked like a meandering stream while above me the blue sky peeked through the narrow opening at the top of the canyon walls. The patterns and texture of the rock told the story of its creation by the rains and floodwaters of the summer monsoons in Arizona.

This was Secret Canyon, a slot canyon hidden in the hills outside of Page, Arizona.

What are slot canyons?

Slot Canyons start as narrow cracks in the rock. Over millions of years, rainwater and flooding widens and deepens the opening and the result is a narrow, tall passage through the rocks of the plateau, that can be miles long.

Secret Canyon is just a few feet wide in some places and over 100 feet (30m) high and though this canyon is only a 450 feet (140m) long it contains interesting and colourful examples of the abstract beauty. It is part of the drainage system of Upper Waterholes Canyon.

Getting to the canyon

Trey, my Navajo guide, was driving the truck along the wash of red sand as the road dipped and curved through the desert. Several miles after leaving Highway 89 we came to the end of the road where our transport stopped.

I would hike the rest of the way to the spilt in the canyon wall that served as the entrance to my destination. I was with a group of photographers on a tour to this unusual slot canyon located on private land of a local Navajo family.

It was discovered over 100 years ago and the Navajo have protected it ever since. It is also called Horseshoe Bend Slot Canyon as it is near to that iconic viewpoint.

I passed the smallest natural arch I had ever seen. A miniature version of those famous sandstone formations in Utah.  After a short hike the mouth of Secret Canyon came into view at the bottom of a small wash.  I entered between the high rock walls.  The walls seemed to close in as they narrowed to just a couple of feet wide.  I somehow felt alone here even with my fellow shutterbugs nearby.

I wandered around marvelling at the way the water had carved the rock into so many different shapes and textures. The nooks and crannies hid long lost tumbleweeds. A barren tree branch had been swept into the confined passages only to be lodged against a narrow opening. How long had it been there?  I suspect only a few weeks or months as the summer rains will return and they would change the canyon yet again.

I had to get down on my knees and pointed my camera almost straight up to capture the blue sky against the reddish orange sandstone. The deep shadows and reflected light make shooting images difficult but with good equipment and technique capturing images of the natural beauty is possible.

Slot Canyon: Wall of Secrets
Wall of Secrets (c) Jim Chamberlain

Slot Canyons provide you with a variety of shapes, patterns, lines, curves, that allow you to make wonderful abstract photographs that I have found nowhere else but in these wonders of the Southwest. The textures and shapes with the variety of shadows also create potential for stunning black and white images too.

I could really appreciate the difference between Secret Canyon and the more popular Antelope Canyon.  Antelope is a beautiful slot canyon but has so many visitors that it feels more like an amusement ride than a natural experience.

Secret Canyon tours are limited to 15 persons for each 2 hour excursion. The smaller number of people really allow you to experience the unusual beauty of a slot canyon.

If you want to take great pictures then I recommend the Secret Canyon tour as it is much easier to get the time and space to do that without people constantly wandering into the view of your lens. Even Lower Antelope Canyon now prohibits tripods making almost impossible to photograph that section.

Canyon X

A couple of days later I visited the second “secret slot canyon” that most visitors never see. Canyon X is also on private land and it used to be much more difficult to visit than today. I visited this exotic slot four years ago and was allowed to explore it by myself for over two hours. I was excited to return and try to capture its beauty with my newer equipment and techniques.

Canyon X
Canyon X (c) Jim Chamberlain

The journey to Canyon X begins MP 307.8 on Highway 98 near Page, AZ on the Navajo Nation Reservation.  The trip to the entrance was smooth and dusty but well graded over the three miles from the highway and an a much easier driver than my previous trip.  The road used to require 4 wheel drive over a narrow bumpy dirt road where one curve was being kept from washing away by old washing machines and appliances.  Not any longer.

I had to hike 100 meters to get to the bottom of the wash where the first of the two sections of this slot canyon starts.  The smaller one is only 100 feet long but has wonderful formations. One near the entrance I called the “Monster”.

The second larger and more impressive part of Canyon X starts about a few hundred feet along a sandy wash where small lizards scampered.  The narrow entrance causes you to turn almost sideways to enter but inside the cool darkness hides some of the most special views of any slot canyon.  The largest formation is called “the Lady in Red” and it soars upward to the top of the 150 feet deep canyon.  Here you can capture the sunburst if you are touring during the right time – usually late morning to early afternoon.  I could spend hours here just taking in the natural creations.

My 90 minutes in the canyon was soon over and I dreaded the hike out.  I remember the cardiac stressing scramble up the sandy and steep exit from my earlier trip.  This time I was pleasantly surprised to see an ATV ready and waiting at the bottom of the hill we had hiked down. It carried me and my gear quickly and comfortably up the hill to my vehicle.  What a nice surprise and a lot less work.

I could not help wondering as I left Canyon X, how long before it became as popular as Antelope Canyon. I fear with the improvements made and the ease of access now to this wonderful place that in the years ahead it will no longer be a “Secret Canyon of the Navajo”.

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