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Everyone wants to Instagram the world’s most beautiful canyon. Should they?

A sudden burst of tourism to a photogenic natural wonder is transforming a small town, and a tribe. 

Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Page, Arizona, has always been a small town. The 4 million visitors who come here annually, though, that’s new. For the past decade, locals have been mildly flummoxed about the massive surge of people to their home, with its population of fewer than 8,000 and somewhat remote locale. Nestled at the northernmost edge of the Arizona desert, it’s a solid two-hour drive from the Flagstaff airport and five from the larger hubs of Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Residents of Page do know, though, that many of those tourists come to see the same thing. On the night I arrive in early May, the bartender at the Courtyard Marriott cantina off the town’s main drag describes it to me thusly: “It’s rocks.”

I first see the rocks early the next morning with a tour group, which is the only way you are allowed to visit them. Before our guide tells us his name, which we find out is Anthony, he asks us the most crucial question of the day: “Do you all have iPhones?”

Anthony instructs all of us except the kid with the Samsung to open our camera apps, click the icon in the top right corner, and swipe to a setting called “Vivid Warm.”

Vivid Warm is a built-in photo filter that increases contrast and gives everything a burnt orange-ish tint. But at Antelope Canyon, a sandstone formation on Navajo land with famously undulating walls, Vivid Warm is more than that: It’s what helps make the often inconvenient and expensive trip here worth it.

The promise of perfect photos is why we and dozens of other people from rival tour groups are packed into industrial-size vans at 8 in the morning, and Anthony knows how to take all the best ones. Tours of Antelope Canyon are organized by photo op, and as we walk through the narrowing crack, we pause every 10 feet or so to capture a different image.

Antelope Canyon’s wavy sandstone walls
Antelope Canyon’s wavy sandstone walls are pure Instagram bait.
Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

“That’s the Standing Bear,” Anthony says, pointing to a red-orange rock formation that looks like a bear sticking its nose up at the sky. There are faces, sunrises, a dragon’s eye, and toward the middle, the Heart. “You almost got it,” he encourages one woman, although after a while, we all just line up behind him and wordlessly hand him our phones.

For 45 minutes, we politely smush our bodies against the canyon’s walls to avoid ruining other people’s shots. Though we’re told not to take any on the way back, everyone breaks the rules. There is a sheepish, giddy camaraderie among my group as we extract absolutely everything we can from this place and put it into our pockets.

Though there are a great many slot canyons made of equally remarkable sandstone within a few-mile radius of Page, Antelope Canyon is the famous one, and telling people not to come here because it’s too crowded is like telling someone they shouldn’t go to the top of the Empire State Building because the view from any other skyscraper is just as good. However true it may be, it doesn’t hold a candle to the fact that this one is imbued with an unreplicable aura of specialness. Which means that the more people come here and share photos of it on social media, the more other people will want to do the same.

This is how Antelope Canyon — whose extraordinary beauty is almost transcendent — transformed into a place where for about 70 bucks (plus the cost of actually getting there), you can jostle your way past dozens of other tourists for a shot at one of the prettiest photos in the world. Whether you actually enjoy your time here, and whether what you’re doing is even morally sound is, as with most tourist attractions in the Instagram age, secondary.

The town of Page didn’t exist until 1957, and only existed at all because it had to. In the early 20th century, a series of floods destroyed large swaths of farmland to its south; to keep the Colorado River at bay, the US Bureau of Reclamation authorized the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. Its workers needed a place to stay during the decade-long process, and so the government exchanged a plot of land with the Navajo Nation that would become Page.

The dam is also responsible for what was once the town’s main tourist attraction, the reservoir Lake Powell. In the latter half of the 20th century, boaters, mostly from elsewhere in the Southwest, would stop in Page for gas and groceries and then head out on the lake for days-long vacations. For decades, Page was a tourist town that didn’t really have to do much for its tourists besides provide the on-land necessities: a marina, a few hotels, and some decent lunch spots.

Lake Powell as seen from Page, Arizona
Before the Instagram era, Lake Powell used to be the most popular tourist destination in Page, Arizona.
NurPhoto/Getty Images

Lake Powell’s water levels have dropped significantly since 1999, and the lake is currently battling the worst drought in its history due in part to the effects of climate change. Out-of-towners flock still there in the summers, but it isn’t the main draw of going all the way to Page anymore. That would be Antelope Canyon and its fellow natural wonder turned Instagram trap Horseshoe Bend, which during the social media era have transformed Page from a vacation season drive-by into a year-round international destination.

Antelope Canyon is about 15 minutes away from Page on the Navajo Nation, a 27,000-square-mile area of land that expands across northeastern Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. It is the largest territory retained by a Native American tribe, bigger than 10 US states, and is self-governing. It used to be that anyone could simply walk inside the canyon; though it was on the reservation, for decades, kids from Page High School would drive there and party at night.

Tourism kicked off quietly in the late 1970s, when a Navajo man named Rick Begay who ran cattle in Antelope Canyon came across a European traveler looking for a “magically lighted” slot canyon. He realized his family could start charging to guide visitors through it, so he established a tour company that still exists to this day. Many people who visited were nature photographers, and once they began publishing their pictures in magazines like National Geographic and Arizona Highways, interest in the area increased. A few other guide businesses launched in the ’80s and ’90s as a result, but for the average tourist, Antelope Canyon still remained relatively under the radar.

Antelope Canyon’s Windows 7 desktop theme
Antelope Canyon’s inclusion in Microsoft’s Windows 7 desktop themes introduced the formation to hundreds of millions of people.
Duncan Lawler/Microsoft

In 1997, a flash flood killed 11 hikers, their bodies skinned raw by a rapid rush of water that swelled 11 feet high in a matter of minutes. Afterward, the Navajo Nation government turned Antelope Canyon into a protected area, implementing stronger restrictions on who could visit, and when. It also set official guidelines on how tour companies could operate there; those guidelines continue to evolve, and as of the past couple of years, tour companies need to be majority Navajo-owned, according to Navajo tourism industry professionals.

It wasn’t until 2009 when Microsoft included a series of photos from Antelope Canyon in its Windows 7 desktop background themes that this place entered the imaginations of hundreds of millions of people. Actually, that’s not fair. First came Britney Spears, who in 2002 reserved the canyon by buying out every tour to shoot the music video for “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” wherein the canyon walls provide a very apt, if a bit obvious, metaphor for the lyric “feels like I’m caught in the middle.”

It was also in the aughts that Peter Lik took a photograph of Antelope Canyon that would become “Phantom,” which he says sold for $6.5 million in 2014, which would make it the most expensive photograph in history. (Though this feat made international news, that number fell under immediate scrutiny in the art world. A New York Times profile reported that Lik had price-gouged through limiting reprints; for “Phantom,” he printed just a single black-and-white copy, which supposedly convinced a private collector to purchase it for an astronomical price. The same profile paints the Australian photographer as a deluded playboy who conned his way into the art world by creating bland images that appeal to the rich and tasteless. “I’m God,” he said, referring to the fact that his work was being sold at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Lik did not respond to requests for comment.)

Peter Lik’s “Phantom” photo, which depicts Antelope Canyon’s famous light beams
Peter Lik’s “Phantom” photo, which depicts Antelope Canyon’s famous light beams, sold for a reported $6.5 million in 2014.
Peter Lik/ArtNews

Today, anyone who visits Antelope Canyon can easily take what is essentially the exact same photograph, which in 2019 is the key to this place’s success. “About five years ago, we were like, ‘What’s going on? Why are people coming here all of a sudden?” says Page Mayor Levi Tappan when I meet him at Dam Bar & Grille, a divey restaurant in a strip mall. Because governing a town of under 8,000 is not a full-time job, Tappan has kept his position as an ultrasound technician at the hospital across the street, and so is wearing scrubs.

What was going on is that everybody became photographers thanks to the high-quality cameras we suddenly had on our phones and the fact that we were now expected to curate visually impeccable versions of our lives online. “We say it’s because of Instagram,” Tappan says, speaking for himself as well as the National Park Service. “It’s amazing to me — I’ve always loved the outdoors, but I guess everyone wants to be outdoors now too.”

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Antelope Canyon was already iconic before Instagram happened, but Instagram is what brought an influx of celebrities, wannabe celebrities, brands, and ultimately lots and lots of regular people who want a pretty photo on their own feed. On social media, Antelope Canyon has become more than a beautiful image of rocks in the desert — it’s a status symbol, a luxurious backdrop over which to perform one’s adventurousness and wanderlust. Anyone who’s anyone has Instagrammed it: Kendall Jenner. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s son. Wendi Deng Murdoch. Multiple Real Housewives and the winning couple from The Bachelor. Probably that kid from your high school who’s trying to become an influencer now.

There are a few reasons Antelope Canyon became the geological Disneyland in an area teeming with natural beauty: First, it is flat. At no point in your visit to Antelope Canyon do you have to climb anything, which makes it accessible to most. Second, the wide berth at the bottom means more people can fit inside, and the narrow crack at the top means that at a very specific point in the day (between 11:30 am and 12:15 pm) at a very specific time of year (late spring to early fall), sunlight pours into the space. This creates a UFO-like beam that, if you happen to be on a tour during peak hours, absolutely everyone will flip over. Once the rays begin to break through, guides choreograph visitors so that everyone can get the shot. Then one of them will throw a handful of sand into the beam so that the sunlight reflects off the grains as they fall to the ground, creating an illusion of glittering smoke.

Antelope Canyon has become such an Instagram trap that in 2018, the Instagram-famous beauty company Glossier constructed a mock version of the canyon in its Los Angeles boutique, which exists explicitly for people to take selfies in. Cellular service in the actual canyon remains limited.

At its most elemental, this beautiful thing that all of us immediately and instinctively point our cameras at is 190-million-year-old rock within the Navajo Sandstone formation of the American Southwest, which gets its signature fiery color from the iron oxide it contains. The laziest way to describe the topography of the walls is to compare it to waves, although to be fair, that’s what they are: The Navajo name for Upper Antelope Canyon is Tsé bighánílíní, or “the place where water runs through rocks.” Like all slot canyons, this one was formed by periodic floods that eroded the sandstone over time.

Antelope Canyon, with its towering walls and natural skylight, looks like a church, or rather, churches look like it. It is beautiful, yes — humans are drawn to curvilinear spaces as opposed to angular ones, and warm tones are inherently comforting — but it is also more complicated than that.

“The idea of the sublime is a little bit different than beautiful,” explains Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Aesthetic Brain. “There is a beauty to the space, but it is also overwhelming in the sense that you feel small and insignificant, and almost associated with some anxiety. There’s something about being forced to look upward that seems to convey both elevation and a sense of your own smallness.”

Photos of Antelope Canyon evoke solitude — and distort the reality of being in the space.
Rebecca Jennings for Vox

What makes it so photogenic, though, is that there is no visual noise. There are no awkwardly bent-over trees or ugly telephone wires to detract from the pure shape and color of the canyon. Basically, Chatterjee says, “the photographer doesn’t have to do a lot of work.” This makes it extremely popular for anyone with a smartphone, and why most of your energy inside Antelope Canyon will be spent trying not to walk directly into somebody else.

So much of the beauty in Antelope Canyon photos comes from how well they evoke solitude: the assumption is that its beauty is being experienced alone. This is the goal and the challenge of any Antelope Canyon photo, or really any aspirational travel photo: capturing the purity of a landscape even when it’s engulfed by crowds. Putting yourself in the frame, minus the strangers around you, gives the false sense of solitude an especially existential bent — viewers might reasonably believe you were having some sort of profound emotional experience, even though during the actual photo-taking you were far more concerned with how said photo would turn out. At Antelope Canyon, the ideal Instagram post should look so quiet that one would imagine even the faintest sounds echoing off every groove in the sandstone.

There are indeed echoes, but they are not the crunches of stepped-on rocks or softly whispered “wows.” They are the warnings of “Stay to the right!” and the requests of “Will you get one of me?” Any softly whispered “wows” come when we look back at our own phone screens, marveling at what this place lets us capture.

Antelope Canyon is at once one of the most beautiful places I have ever been and one of the most frustrating. It is a place whose otherworldliness demands so much, yet does not allow the time or space required to contemplate it. This is not the canyon’s fault but mine; as a guest here and a paying customer, I am the direct cause of its unpleasantness.

Of course, when people ask how it is, I will lie. Because how could anyone with the privilege to visit a place so pretty be even the smallest bit disappointed? What right do I have? When my friends say, “I want to go there!” I will say, “Yes, go!” forgetting the fact that the going is not the fun part. To be there is to be filled with the familiar irritation of traveling to see a place that other people also want to see. It is not dissimilar to the rage of being stuck in traffic, wherein that anger is directed at everyone else on the highway even though they are doing the exact same thing as you.

Taking pictures of nature — and placing yourself in them — has been happening for as long as we’d had cameras, as evidenced by this photo of a woman camping in the late 19th or early 20th century.
Print Collector/Getty Images
Tourists clamor to photograph a hula show in Honolulu, circa 1955.
Three Lions/Getty Images

But disdain for Instagrammy wanderlusters obscures the fact that tourism has always been about picture-taking. A Wired feature from 2018 details the symbiotic history between photography and travel from the earliest days of standardized tourism in the 18th century, when guidebooks inspired visitors to travel by publishing “picturesque” views that looked like paintings. That relationship became cyclical — with the invention of the lightweight Kodak camera, tourists would end up photographing the same subjects they’d already seen in pictures.

Is this bad? On an individual level, not necessarily. Though there are studies that confirm a general belief that too much photo-taking is superficial and makes our experiences less rich, other researchers have come to different conclusions. Alixandra Barasch, an assistant professor of marketing at New York University who studies the social aspects of consumption, has found that taking photos can actually help people engage with their surroundings, as they notice details they otherwise would have missed and make considered decisions about what to capture.

That benefit is rendered null, however, when people take photos with the intent of sharing them on, say, Instagram. “We call that process their self-presentational concern,” Barasch says. “It’s the anxiety we get from trying to get the perfect photo, thinking about how other people are going to evaluate us based on that. The photos become more posed and presentational, and that in and of itself can detract from people’s enjoyment of the experience.”

I ask her where, exactly, the idea that too much photo-taking is bad for us comes from. Is it our desire to live life in the moment? Our fear of technology? Concerns over privacy? None of the above, she says. It’s because other people are annoying, and when someone is trying to get a perfect photo directly in front of you at a concert or inside a canyon, it makes your own experience markedly worse.

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Person looking up in orange slot canyon PT.II

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This was the precise feeling I had while silently chastising the frenzied crowds of Antelope Canyon. As I stood among all those people, I thought about how much better it would be if I were the only one here, and was pretty sure that everyone else was thinking the same.

In its proximity to an accidental Instagram museum, Page is now facing many of the issues tourist towns endure — skyrocketing rents, rising tensions between locals and visitors who don’t understand northern Arizona traffic laws — without the infrastructure to handle them.

There’s also the physical reminder of a stark class divide between those who visit and those who live here: the Amangiri resort, which locals talk about in hushed tones. It’s so exclusive that barely any of its guests arrive by land; instead, several helicopters are tasked with transporting A-listers, which Mayor Tappan says has included Tom Hanks and David Beckham, to and from the resort. There’s a rumor that Kanye West ate at the local Denny’s once, but nobody can say for sure.

One of the quirkier phenomenons happening right now in Page is that the word “Antelope” has become very popular. Tappan says that because Google searches for “Antelope Canyon” have risen so rapidly (according to Google News Lab, search interest has risen by more than 660 percent in the US since 2010, the year Instagram launched), businesses are starting to incorporate the word into their names — there’s now an Antelope Point Marina and an Antelope Canyon Suites. There’s even a canyon, once known as Canyon X, that now bills itself as “Antelope Canyon X.”

The Antelope Point Marina on Lake Powell.
The Antelope Point Marina on Lake Powell.
David McNew/Getty Images

It’s a very specific kind of irony that Page is also in close proximity to another natural phenomenon whose radical rise in popularity was caused almost exclusively by Instagram, Horseshoe Bend. It’s a formerly unmarked lookout over a curve in the Colorado River, and in the past five years, the town has allocated $4 million to build parking lots and bathrooms to accommodate the now 2 million visitors that come to see it annually.

How to deal with these changes has become a weighty concern, as the morality of tourism has grown more dubious in recent years. The hordes of people traveling vast distances to snap photographs of various phenomena in Page, Arizona, in the Southwest generally, and in places like Machu Picchu and New Zealand and Iceland have become a worldwide scourge. At best, tourists are an annoying side effect of the economic boost they provide; at worst, they are destructive to both culture and nature.

Tappan is optimistic that one day, Page will become a thriving destination that rivals Jackson Hole or Moab, with a larger but still livable population of around 20,000, plus the millions who visit.

But what the municipality of Page is facing is far less existential than what Antelope Canyon’s skyrocketing popularity has forced the Navajo to contend with. We’ve seen what happens when nature goes viral, but what if a natural site also happens to belong to a culture for whom nature is extraordinarily sacred?

Traditional Navajo dwellings called hogans, like this one near Antelope Canyon, are still very common on the reservation.
Don James

Like all the Antelope Canyon tour guides I meet, Anthony is Navajo, and what he does not tell us on the tour is that he’s not supposed to be there. “We’re taught not to be in caves because we see that as the water’s home and the wind’s home,” he says.

“Each family teaches differently, but I was taught that if you go in there constantly,” he says of the canyon, “it’ll affect you. It’s the same thing as messing with certain plants: If you step on them, it’ll affect the plants, who will hold you responsible.” Elders advise that before entering any cave or canyon, you pause to collect your thoughts and consider what purpose you’re serving by going inside. Antelope Canyon was formed by the water, the wind, and the sand; it’s a creation carved by nature, not by humans. It’s believed that if you’re not of sound mind before entering, then spiritually, you too will get caught up in the whirlwind.

Anthony doesn’t typically talk about his Navajo heritage on the tour. “People don’t really ask about that,” he says. “They just want to focus on the canyon.” It’s doubtful many people are on this tour because they care passionately about rocks, though. It is the pictures of the rocks that bring people to Antelope Canyon.

The Navajo Nation exists because of an 1868 treaty that came after years of ethnic cleansing attempts by the US government. From 1863 to 1866, thousands of Navajo were forced to undergo the Long Walk, a 300-mile march to imprisonment in present-day New Mexico; the effects of this traumatic event still permeate the Navajo cultural psyche. Every inch of the land is accounted for in trusts for Navajo families, and though the Navajo welcome visitors, when you visit the reservation without a guide, you are technically trespassing.

Visitors hop on a tour company truck to get to the mouth of Antelope Canyon.
Visitors hop on a tour truck to get to the mouth of Antelope Canyon. All tour companies must be majority Navajo-owned.
Don James

The fact that Antelope Canyon was made into a protected area, accessible only via Navajo-operated tours, has been quite lucrative for the families with claim to the land where it sits. They are the ones who have been able to launch the tour companies that bring tourists to the site, charging them anywhere from $60 to $78 per visit, depending on the time of day. (Before the boom, prices were far lower; in 2006, it cost more like $15 to visit the canyon.)

Tour companies were not prepared for such an influx of visitors, nor did they realize how much an increase in crowds would affect the quality of the tours. A few years ago, after enough complaints from customers about the congestion hurting their experience, the Nation set stricter limitations on capacity. Today, there are four tour companies that operate in Upper Antelope Canyon, each of which has assigned entry times to prevent bottlenecking. In that same time span, tour operators also began putting more emphasis on photography instead of explaining what the canyon means to the Navajo, according to multiple Navajo tourism professionals, likely due to customers’ near-singular interest in picture-taking.

“We opened up Antelope Canyon thinking, this is a nice little attraction; it’s got some vibrant colors,” says Donovan Hanley, who works in outreach for tribal tourism destinations and has previously worked for the Navajo Nation in tourism marketing. “We didn’t really see what it was going to do. We weren’t ready for that.”

Yet the Instagram tourist boom came at just the right time. The Navajo Nation is one of the poorest areas of the country, with unemployment affecting more than half the population. Those who visit Antelope Canyon will be struck by the presence of an enormous coal plant with three smokestacks that tower over the entrance. That’s the Navajo Generating Station, and after years of layoffs, it’s closing for good in December. Tappan says about 500 jobs will have been lost in total, though only about 100 people currently work there. Its closure also means the loss of nearly half of the Navajo’s annual operating budget, according to Len Necefer, an assistant professor of American Indian studies at the University of Arizona, a gap that many hope tourism will fill.

Many Navajo families don’t have running water, so they must fill containers and transport water back home.
Don James

But the Navajo are still early in the process of figuring out what that might look like. Necefer says there’s been a long and ongoing conversation around how to approach building up Navajo tourism infrastructure, which involves not only opening more hotels and businesses but also putting systems in place that would allow for large numbers of visitors to have minimal environmental impact.

“Most tribal land is closed to outsiders, and one of the things that I think the tribe is trying to contend with is, how do you deal with this influx of visitors who sometimes are doing crazy stuff?” He gives the example of a fundamentalist preacher who live-streamed a sermon about the end times from Monument Valley; when he wouldn’t leave, tribal police removed him. “It’s pretty poignant when you have communities that have felt disempowered to control their own destiny and future. There’s resentment of wanting the community that once was, but also realizing that in order for people to live in their communities, they have to have jobs and employment, and I think tourism could provide that.” (Representatives for the Navajo Nation government and tourism department did not agree to comment for this story as of press time, despite repeated requests.)

To evaluate its existing tourism industry and figure out how to adapt to the increased interest in it, the Navajo Nation tourism department and the Arizona Office of Tourism commissioned an 18-month economic impact study from Arizona State University that took place during 2017 and 2018. Researchers would not share their exact findings with Vox, as they are proprietary to the tribe, but they did share that people who visited the Navajo reservation said they wanted to move away from mass, commercialized attractions and have more “meaningful” experiences.

“Everybody’s a little bit worried about getting those massive groups of tourists that trample things and don’t respect the culture,” says Monica Poling, a representative for the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association. There is also the question of how that culture is being mediated. “Is the culture a showpiece?” Poling says tribes are asking themselves. “Is it becoming less authentic in being put on as a show for tourism?”

A young Navajo woman gets her hair tied by a family member during a Kinaaldá coming-of-age ceremony.
Don James

Tourists are already a kind of universal pest, but when so many of them come from a group that has systematically and brutally attempted to erase the culture they’re visiting, the ethics are particularly fraught. Those who work in Native tourism can relay dozens of stories of visitors knocking on people’s doors on the reservations unannounced or taking pictures of Native people without asking permission.

Still, most Native tourism professionals expect the industry to grow significantly in the coming years, Poling says. Though this will likely translate to more jobs and more revenue for tribes, it will come at a cost.

I meet Patrick and Jeremy, two locals in their mid-20s, at a Chamber of Commerce barbecue in the backyard of a Rodeway Inn just over the Utah border. Neither of them is from here, but they’ve been working at a marina on Lake Powell for the past four summers and now live in Page permanently.

They’re not the first to tell me that Antelope Canyon is kind of for suckers, but they’re the first to tell me that there are precisely 96 slot canyons in the greater Lake Powell area that are nearly as photogenic. The next day, we pack up Jeremy’s bright red truck with sunscreen and Tower Station IPAs and they drive me through the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and up to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, whose rolling gray rubble looks like it belongs on the moon.

When we finish the 45-minute drive up the mountain roads, we sit on the edge of an enormous lookout, staring at a maze of orange and brown canyons and drinking some of Arizona’s best beer. Jeremy and Patrick are explaining to me the difference between a mesa and a butte (a mesa is wider than it is tall, a butte taller than it is wide) and lamenting President Trump’s decision to nearly halve the size of this protected land in order to sell it to mineral extractors. They reference the environmental activist and anarchist Edward Abbey, who once wrote, “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.” Every weekend, they try to live this way.

The moon-like Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
Unlike Antelope Canyon, the beauty of the moon-like Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is difficult to capture in pictures.
Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

It is the kind of experience that makes traveling worthwhile at all — a spontaneous meeting of new friends, an adventure to a place few people ever get to see. But it’s infuriating for the exact opposite reason that Antelope Canyon is infuriating: This place does not photograph well. The camera can’t capture the stunning vastness of the expanse, and the sky is too bright, which makes the vibrant golden tones of the mesas and buttes look blue. Not even Vivid Warm can do it justice.

“That’s actually what I like about this place,” Jeremy says, laughing, as they watch me try to capture the moment in vain. “You’re having the best time and you try to take pictures, but you can’t get everything because it’s all around you. So you just throw your phone in your bag and say, ‘Okay, I’m just gonna live this one.’”

It would be a much more poetic end to this story to tell you that I throw my phone in my bag and decide to just live this one, and that when we leave the moon and hike up a giant sand mountain that you can only get to by boat, I don’t take any pictures. That would be a lie, of course. I take so many pictures! I capture Jeremy and Patrick pulling our boat into the sand and top-down shots of Jeremy’s homemade tacos. I attempt to take artsy photos of the shadows my feet make in the sand and the Glen Canyon Dam at sunset. I make them film me kneeboarding and jumping off a cliff, because both of these things are wildly exotic to me. I put them all on my Instagram story, where everyone I know will see them and reaffirm that I am, indeed, having fun.

This very ritual has become such a foundational aspect of traveling that it feels almost sacrilegious to engage in any remotely Instagrammy activity without documenting it on the platform. I can’t tell you what it’s like to go to a place like Antelope Canyon or spontaneously trek to a remote mountain and not share the proof on social media. I do not know if that makes me a tragically hollow and deeply narcissistic millennial, but I do know that it makes me just like every other tourist in Page, Arizona, in 2019.

Tourists inside Antelope Canyon.
Don James

A few days after I leave the Southwest, I call the photographer Eugene Tapahe, who grew up on the Navajo Nation and now takes portraits of its people and lands as a way of preserving them on film.

He understands why the families who have claim to the land around Antelope Canyon have welcomed its maturation into a world-renowned destination — people need jobs and money. But he wishes the tour guides would talk more about the Navajo relationship to the slot canyons and the importance of the land, like they did just a few years ago, instead of helping everyone get the right shot.

“To me, it’s a place of prayer; it’s a place of creation,” he says. “You can hear the heartbeat of the land. It’s really hard to explain to non-Native people how important land is to us. We cherish it more than life, really.”

It’s difficult for him to see what Antelope Canyon has become today. (“It’s Walmart,” he says with a laugh.) “People don’t go there for the right reasons. They go because they see wonderful pictures on social media. I always hear people saying, ‘I can mark that off my bucket list now.’ And I’m just like, ‘Really? That’s all you got out of going there?’”

Now, when Tapahe takes his camera with him to the outdoors, there are times when he chooses not to use it. “A lot of times I feel like this moment is for my spiritual growth, for my own need of being able to be a part of the land. I want to see what the land is trying to tell me.”

But Tapahe, like the Navajo Nation, must wrestle with the idea of profiting from what is sacred to him. “I’m doing photography because I want to document the land and capture these images before they’re gone. But at the same time, I’m going to these shows to sell my prints and photographs because I’m trying to make money to feed my family and fulfill my personal goals. It’s hard to make a judgment in that sense,” he says of the Antelope Canyon tour operators.

On my second visit, I try to enter the canyon the right way. I keep my phone in my pocket and attempt to experience the rocks with my senses rather than through a pixelated screen. People come to Antelope Canyon because it looks like a place one could have a spiritual epiphany, after all, and perhaps this time I will find one.

At 11:30 in the morning, the beams of light begin to descend. A brief mania strikes the group: Our shouts get louder and our movements more frenzied as we jockey for the best angle at which to photograph. The beams are unbearably pretty, and the fact that there are a hundred people with smartphones scrambling to capture them feels like we are starved of something, despite how much this place has given us.

Though they will come again tomorrow, these beams will not last long. And so after a few minutes of observing not the canyon but human beings in the presence of something divine, I take out my iPhone like everyone else, and set it to Vivid Warm.

Antelope Canyon Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images
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