Playing the Slots

Thursday, November 21, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Page, AZ

One of the signature experiences around the isolated town of Page (pop. 7,316) is visiting a slot canyon.  Slots are formed in arid areas when flash floods propel water through soft rock, such as the Navajo sandstone south of Lake Powell, cutting a narrow canyon.  Slot canyons are significantly deeper than they are wide, and in this area they are usually very photogenic with layers of red and orange sandstone formed in swirls and waves over many millions of years.
Though a slot canyon hike was on our list of things to do while we were in Page, our first sighting of one of the tour vehicles gave us pause.  Travel out into the sandy desert—with temperatures in the 40s—jostling on the open back of a pickup truck on a bench?  Not likely.  The slot canyons began to lose their luster until, while searching for a letterbox in town, we came across a business called Slot Canyon Hummer Adventures.  OK, that's what we're talking about.  As it turned out, there was much more to like about this tour company than their closed vehicles equipped with seatbelts.

Around Page, all the slot canyons are on Navajo land.  Most of the Navajo tour operators take hikers to Lower or Upper Antelope Canyons in groups of 20 or so on the back of 4WD trucks.  Since all these tour operators pack hikers into the same canyons, nightmare stories are common of visitors being crowded in a slot canyon with upwards of 200 people pressed by tour guides to take their photos and keep moving.

The Hummer tour company operates tours in a different set of canyons, thanks to an exclusive agreement with a local Navajo landowner.  Never do they take more than 10 visitors to the same canyon simultaneously.  And since we were in the off-season, our tour consisted of just the two of us and our very knowledgeable and congenial guide Matt.  Yes, we paid a bit more ($105 vs. $35), but the variation in the cost was disproportionate to the overwhelmingly better experience.

About seven miles outside of Page, Matt guided the Hummer onto a sandy dirt track on private property.  After a mile or so on this primitive road, the Hummer came into its own as it climbed sand hills and crawled up rocks, taking us another mile into the desert landscape to a spot where even the Hummer could go no farther.  A short 150-yard hike through a natural trail took us to the entrance of what tour operators call the Secret Canyon.  As we walked, the enthusiastic Matt identified various desert plants we were passing and explained how each was traditionally used by the Navajo—for food, medicine, construction, crafts.

For the next two hours, Matt educated us on meteorology, geology, botany, zoology, and—much to our surprise—photography.  A native of south Florida, Matt clearly loves the Arizona desert, where he has spent the last 15 years.  He spent high school summers hiking and off-roading in the area and is thrilled to be doing the same as an occupation.

In his experiences leading canyon tours for professional photographers, Matt has picked up quite a store of knowledge about how to best capture the light and color that makes these slot canyons so striking.   Guiding three or four tours seven days a week during the busy season, he has seen virtually every camera tourists typically carry and can quickly demonstrate to guests the best settings on their own cameras to help them take home photographic treasures from their canyon adventure.  And, of course, he knows all the best spots and angles for photos in this canyon.  To get a great photo of his guests, he will even "chimney climb" (scale the canyon walls by alternating between toe holds on opposite walls) to get to the right spot.

After this exhilarating hike, we returned to Page and enjoyed a delicious lunch at The Cut Bistro, a food truck highly recommended on Trip Advisor, and tracked down across the street from the high school by Matt, whose friend Liam happens to be the chef.  With only a loose menu to choose from, we asked about a vegetarian option.  Liam whipped up some stir fried tofu and veggies in a peanut sauce, wrapped them in a pita, and we devoured them in short order.

Once sated, we took off with our Matt map of the Page area.  After we returned from our canyon hike, our passionate guide had eagerly shared his recommendations of the best local places to visit.  Our first stop was the Hanging Garden trail near the Lake Powell Dam.  A half-mile hike through striking red rock topography took us to an impossibly fertile garden hidden in an alcove under the mesa top, high above Lake Powell.

Hanging Garden
Even in late November, maidenhair ferns were thriving, thanks to a seep spring that pulls in rare rain water and slowly feeds it out to these surprising desert inhabitants. Tracks left by four-legged visitors suggest that animals enjoy this oasis as well as the plants.  The elevated location also offered fantastic panoramic views.

As we finished our hike back to the car, rain began falling, foiling our plan to make the hike to the famous Horshoe Bend of the Colorado River.  That may not matter.  With the uncertainty of what the winter storm the Weather Channel is calling Boreas will do to our plans to head to Utah tomorrow, we may be in Page a little longer and have another opportunity to check out Horseshoe Bend.

Matt explained how flash floods form slot canyons.
Trail to Hanging Garden

Hanging Garden trail

Along the trail to the hanging garden

Alternate to the private Hummer tour