Since the start of the pandemic, Antelope Canyon, considered by many to be the most beautiful slot canyon in the world, has been closed. The canyon lies on Navajo lands just outside Page, at the northern tip of Arizona, and – like all Navajo lands – has been closed to the public for health and safety. However, there is another way to experience Antelope Canyon – kayaking in from Lake Powell. This is the story of how to kayak Antelope Canyon, or “Jonathan vs a Kayak.”
Our story begins at 8am in Page itself, at Kayak Lake Powell. We are here to pick up our two-person kayak, for which we are told we don’t need any special equipment in order to put it on top of our Toyota Camry and transport it to the launch ramp about five miles away. A double kayak like this is heavy, weighing about 70 pounds, and always wants to stay right side up. This is great while in the water, as kayaks are unlikely to tip over, but hard when needing to be flipped and loaded upside down; after all, a rounded bottom will not stay stable on the makeshift roof rack provided, made from pool noodles and pvc pipe. Several minutes of expert maneuvering later, the thing feels relatively secure, and our workout has begun in earnest.
Kayakers for Antelope Canyon launch from the Antelope Point boat ramp. It is crowded; this is a popular trip for individuals and tours, made even more popular because it is the only way into the slot canyon right now. In theory, the ramp extends down to the water, making for an easy launch for a kayak. However, in April 2021, Lake Powell is only 38% full, so the boat ramp ends into a cliff. Kayakers are required to haul their kayaks down a steep sand hill to a tiny beach at the bottom, and launch from there. The kayak has wheels in the back, but such things don’t really work well on a sand dune, so gravity takes care of most of the work. I am already dreading having to muscle the thing back up the sand hill and over rocks to the ramp, and rightly so, but we will save that for a bit later. We make it to the water, and into the kayak, so we can safely mark the score as Jonathan 2, kayak 0. Victory is looking all but assured.
Lake Powell is huge. Long and narrow, it is, by volume, the second largest man-made reservoir in the United States. Even at its just more than a third full state, it holds a lot of water. Our kayak to the entrance of Antelope Creek is about a mile. One hangs a left out of the little beach area, and follows the beautiful rock edge of the lake to the first left turn on can make into the creek. It takes us a bit to get into a rhythm with our paddles, but once we do, we largely make decent time. The reds and yellows of the rocks make a sharp contrast to the blue of the water and sky, and the hard work of paddling is made easier by the beauty of the area. This isn’t a national park for nothing. Wind and waves can provide a challenge, though. Virtually any headwind seems to bring us to a near-standstill (not actually, but with the going so slow in comparison to when the wind gives a push, it seems so), and I am thankful we rescheduled our adventure by a couple days. Winds up here can be fierce, so it is best to pick a day where gusts are under ten miles per hour. Waves also provide an obstacle to quick progress. Lake Powell is incredibly popular with boaters who love that there is no speed limit on the water of the main lake itself. Even at 9am or so, some boats are out and zoom past. They are in the middle of the channel and we are on the side, so they pose no risk, but their wakes definitely provide a jostle.
We reach the entrance to Antelope Creek in relatively short order. It is marked, and signage indicates that this is a no-wake zone. We turn off the lake and enter the canyon. Antelope Canyon, at this point, is fairly wide, certainly wide enough for several kayaks abreast. We pass tour groups that need to move at a slower pace, but catch some great tidbits from the guides, especially when they point out the high water marks well above our heads, and even the remains of fresh-water sponges on the rock formations. We alternate between sun and shade, the rock cliffs towering over us, and take frequent breaks to just gaze in awe at the beauty around us. Small plants grow out of cracks in the rocks, birds circle overhead, and the occasional duck follows along hoping we open our snacks to share. We don’t, and they move along to the next kayak.
After what seems both like forever and barely an instant, we arrive at the end of the creek. With the water level so low – it is low enough to trigger water cuts in the entire southwestern US beginning next year if things don’t change, the first time in the history of Lakes Powell and Mead that this will happen – it is only about a mile and a half, or slightly more, from the entrance of the creek to the end. We maneuver around a sand bar that traps a jet ski of another tourist, and pull our kayak onto the beach. Removing our life jackets and donning backpacks, grateful we are wearing water shoes, we begin the trek into Antelope Canyon.
To be entirely honest, I’m not sure how far one can hike. We go about a mile, maybe a mile and a half, before turning around. While at most points the canyon is much wider than a narrow slot, it does have its pinch points where the rock formations are similar to what one sees in photos of Antelope Canyon as taken from the Navajo lands. The most scenic parts, however, are not legally accessible from Lake Powell, requiring trespassing. We don’t see any signage stating that we are leaving federal lands, and I doubt we even reach the end of what has normally been accessible by kayak. Water marks seem to me to always be visible. The canyon, though, is beautiful, even if it isn’t quite as beautiful as it is in other portions. We find a shady spot to eat some snacks, gaining energy for the return trip.
The breeze has picked up by the time we kayak back out of Antelope Creek and rejoin Lake Powell, and I am thankful we got an early start. More kayaks seem to be coming from the launch than returning to it, and those new arrivals are struggling more than we were. We shout words of encouragement where they seem to help, waving at nearly everyone. That last mile is grueling through a headwind. Where normally we could each have some moments to rest while the other paddled, to reach Antelope Point takes constant heavy work from both of us. Arms aching, we arrive back at the starting point, and from here, the kayak makes a remarkable comeback in our little competition.
When we arrived, it was a bit of a slog getting the kayak down the hill (more like a cliff made of sand, narrow and with rocks for funsies) and into the water, but we were aided by gravity. Coming back, gravity has turned into an enemy. The hill is steep enough that it’s tough for us both to find a level way to lift the kayak – and my back is aching from the exercise – and the going is incredibly slow. Fortunately, a nice guy from our rental company’s sister firm sees our struggle and helps. And, after I bring the car down to the ramp, he and another employee also do the heavy lifting of getting the kayak back onto the car. They do this all day every day, and should we do this again, we will pay the extra fee to just meet at the launch point with someone else doing the work.
Ten minutes later we are back at Kayak Lake Powell, the kayak is off of the Camry, and we are left with sore muscles and amazing memories. Kayaking Antelope Canyon isn’t for everyone. But for us, on this day, it was perfect. And in the tale of Jonathan vs a kayak, Jonathan came out on top. This time.
Like it? Pin it!