Even in non-covid times, you need perseverance and a bit of luck to see Upper Antelope Canyon, a swirling fantasyland of flame-colored rock in northern Arizona.

First, you must reserve a guided tour through a company authorized by the Navajo Nation, where the Southwest’s most-photographed slot canyon is located. Then, you need to get to Page, a small northern Arizona town on the high desert that’s more than three hours from any major airport. Lastly, your tour must fall on a day when there’s no heavy rain, which can cause dangerous flash floods. Add the pandemic, and the chance of experiencing Upper Antelope may seem as ethereal as the canyon itself.

That’s why, on a recent morning in August, I could scarcely believe I was standing inside the first “room” of Upper Antelope Canyon, a narrow, 660-foot-long gorge chiseled from soft sandstone by millions of years of wind and water erosion. Surrounded by the sinuous layers of stone arching overhead, my husband, Brian, and I — both writers — kept repeating “wow” and “amazing,” truly at a loss for adjectives. I understood why Australian photographer Peter Lik’s photo of a shaft of light slanting through this space was bought for $6.5 million in 2014 — to date said to be the most expensive photograph ever sold.

As we gawked, our Navajo guide, Cindy Begay of Roger Ekis’s Antelope Canyon Tours, told us to turn back to the entrance to see how the terra-cotta-hued walls formed the outline of a candle flame — just one of many whimsical shapes and tricks of the eye that awaited.

When I planned our family’s two-week road trip through the geologic marvels of Utah, Arizona and Nevada, Antelope Canyon was at the top of my list of must-sees. As a travel-obsessed parent with a toddler in tow, I’m always looking for activities that provide a feeling of adventure without being dangerous or too physically challenging. Ever since I had read that we could safely and easily tour this spectacular slot canyon, I had yearned to take my family there, a desire that only deepened during the long pandemic months stuck in our downtown D.C. apartment.

I initially made reservations for the trip in spring 2020, naively assuming travel would be possible by that August. Meanwhile, because of the pandemic, the Navajo Nation closed both Upper Antelope Canyon and its more physically challenging counterpart, Lower Antelope Canyon, to tours for the rest of that year. (Both canyons have been part of the Navajo Nation’s Lake Powell Tribal Park since 1997.)

The nation left open the possibility that the sites would reopen in 2021, so after I had rescheduled for this August, it became my nightly habit to feed the cats, brush my teeth and check the tour website for an update. On July 8 at midnight, I saw the glorious words “We are OPEN!” — albeit at a limited capacity — and immediately booked a tour for me, Brian and our 3-year-old, Everett.

Uncertainty returned with the spread of the delta variant, and the tour company emailed us in early August cautioning that the Navajo government might reduce the number of tourists allowed in the canyon. Instead, the government revised its mask policy, so all visitors to Navajo parks must always wear masks — even for photos. No worries there: We were elated to be going and appreciative that our safety was being taken seriously.

The morning of our tour, we drove a convenient three minutes from our hotel, perched on a rim overlooking the Colorado River’s massive Glen Canyon Dam, to the tour agency’s office in downtown Page. Built in the 1960s during the construction of the dam, Page is a welcoming hub for visitors to Antelope Canyon and Lake Powell, the nation’s second-largest artificial lake and a popular boating spot within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

After we lugged our gigantic car seat (families take note, the tour is BYOCS) into the cab of a four-wheel-drive pickup, the rest of our small group piled onto benches in the back of the truck, and Begay began our drive to the canyon. As Page faded into a landscape of coppery mesas, she turned onto a dirt “road” — actually a wide, dry streambed — masterfully navigating the vehicle through deep, bumpy ruts. Then she parked in front of a rock wall with a vertical slit, a modest entrance that belies the treasure within.

As we huddled inside the canyon’s cool sanctuary, Begay told us that no one knows when people found Upper Antelope Canyon, in part because the Navajo do not have a written language that would have recorded such an event. The Navajo name for Upper Antelope Canyon is Tse’ bighanilini, which translates to, “The place where water runs through rocks.” As Begay explained: “My language is a visual language, and when the Navajo saw the water running through this canyon, that’s exactly what they called it.”

Pronghorn antelope that once roamed through the canyon inspired its English name, but nowadays, great horned owls are the main animal in residence, nesting in the higher reaches of the canyon. The aptly named Cathedral room, a large, open space with excellent acoustics and shafts of light streaming from the top, elicited “oohs” and “aahs” from our group, confusing Everett as to the native wildlife: “There are monkeys. I hear it, Mama!” he exclaimed.

Begay proved herself a whiz at smartphone photography, drawing on her intimate knowledge of the canyon and its most picturesque angles. Unlike other tours I’ve taken, where you might not want to bother the guide to take multiple pictures, Begay frequently asked for our phones, positioning us for impromptu photo shoots. She also taught us to take pictures in darker corners, which yielded rich and resonant images popping with unexpected colors, such as electric blue. In one of our favorite images, Begay sat us in front of a wall whose shadows created the effect of angel wings sprouting from our backs.

We used our imaginations to see the shape of a bear, paws outstretched, in a giant rock, and the stony profile of George Washington. On her phone, Begay showed us an older photo of George, asking what was different. It turns out we were standing several feet lower than George’s face in the image, a striking example of the power and dynamism of flash floods. Big floods, she said, sweep the fine red sand out; smaller floods bring it back in.

Huge cedar logs wedged in the upper walls of the canyon also attest to these strong, swift waters that helped form it, eroding passageways and smoothing the rock into eye-pleasing curves. Geologists estimate huge windblown sand dunes hardened into what is called Navajo sandstone around 200 million years ago.

About halfway through the quarter-mile walk, we entered what Begay called the Darkroom, the dimmest and deepest part of the canyon, where the walls spiraled 120 feet above us. “It’s dark outside, I’m going to take a nap,” Everett announced, plopping on the ground to play in the sand.

As our group fell silent, Begay explained that the canyon is sacred to the Navajo, some of whom may say a prayer before they walk inside or give a little offering of corn pollen to the holy people they believe exist here. Some traditional Navajo may not even enter.

Beyond the Navajo, “the canyon does touch people in different ways,” she said. “Last year, a lady started singing ‘Amazing Grace.’ It was so beautiful. The canyon just settled, and she sang.” Other visitors have walked up to the wall, closed their eyes and meditated or prayed. One person broke into a chant.

Children generally have less reverential experiences, tending to cry inside the tight spaces. “But he’s doing a good job,” she said, glancing at little Everett, who was dutifully wearing his dinosaur mask.

As we wound through the last stretch of canyon, which she called Nature’s Hallway, Begay showed us colorful formations on the rock called Navajo, or desert, varnish — the product of thousands of years of rain causing minerals such as iron to streak down the walls.

I wasn’t quite ready to return to the real world and the stifling 100-degree heat. Before 2020, visitors would get to see the canyon in reverse by going back the way they had come, squeezing past the people in the tour group after them, but pandemic regulations now require people to walk around the canyon, up several flights of metal stairs. As we huffed uphill, though, I realized the hike allowed for more time to get to know Begay, who spoke some Navajo for us. One visitor asked her whether other spectacular slot canyons like Upper Antelope exist. A few, Begay said, and she’s visited them, but “there’s nothing like this.”

I could only agree. I had seen dozens of jaw-dropping canyons on our tri-state road trip, but Upper Antelope is something of a unicorn: so rare, beautiful and awe-inspiring that it has etched itself forever in my memory.

Dell’Amore is a National Geographic editor based in the District. Find her on Twitter: @cdellamore.

Please Note

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice webpage.

If you go

Where to stay

Best Western View of Lake Powell Hotel

716 Rimview Dr., Page

928-645-8868

On the edge of the Glen Canyon Rim, this hotel offers scenic panoramas of the desert — particularly from the hot tub or outdoor pool. Rooms from $92 per night.

Where to eat

Dam Bar and Grille

644 N. Navajo Dr., Page

928-645-2161

The “coldest beer in town” pairs well with delicious battered cod tacos. Entrees from about $16.

What to do

Roger Ekis’s Antelope Canyon Tours

22 S. Lake Powell Blvd., Page

855-574-9102

A Navajo guide interprets the highlights of Upper Antelope Canyon during this 1.5-hour tour, the company’s most popular. The total walking distance is less than a mile. Tickets $77 per adult and children 8 and over; $67 children 7 and under. An $8 fee added to adult tickets goes to the Navajo parks system. Advance reservations required.

Lake Powell Boat Tours

100 Wahweap Blvd., Page

888-896-3829

A relaxing cruise through Lake Powell features views of the Glen Canyon Dam, the second-highest concrete arch dam in the United States, as well as the impressive Navajo Canyon, whose 600-foot-high rock walls are covered in desert varnish. Tickets about $77 per adult; about $51 per child ages 3 to 12. Unless you have an annual pass, a $30 fee per vehicle is required to enter the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Information

— C.D.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel domestically and around the world. You will find the latest developments at washingtonpost.com/coronavirus