Note: This park states that its indefinitely closed, but this is a great story about a wheelchair hiker hiking a very difficult trail–making it happen.
Antelope Canyon in Arizona is separated into two canyons: Lower Antelope Canyon and Upper Antelope Canyon. Lower Antelope Canyon is not wheelchair accessible at all as there are stairs that you need to climb down to the slot canyon.
I would not consider Upper Antelope Canyon wheelchair accessible neither. In my research, most websites said that it was not. But when there’s a will, there’s a way! This is how I did it.
Research: Know the Foundation
First off, I researched Upper Antelope Canyon by visiting YouTube and searching images online to see what the canyons may look like. I discovered that Upper Antelope Canyon is flat and is level to the ground. Unfortunately, the floor is made of sand. The sand can be fairly hard or just as soft as beach sand depending on the time of year and weather. I would not recommend going through the canyon when it is raining or if the sand is muddy.
I would say that someone who has less functionality than I do (I’m a T-5 paraplegic) would have a difficult time experiencing Upper Antelope Canyon as you need to get in and out of a 4X4 vehicle to get to the opening of Upper Antelope Canyon. And also the sand is a huge obstacle to navigate. But I am not deterring anyone from trying. Maybe they already have gone through it, great!
There are a few Navajo tour operators* that can get you into Upper Antelope Canyon. I decided to use Adventurous Antelope Canyon Photo Tours, www.navajoantelopecanyon.com, on the southeast side of Highway 98. The nice lady whom I talked to said that I may be able to see two or three chambers inside the canyon. She told me that some tourists in wheelchairs have tried to navigate the sand by having someone pull them backwards. With regular slim wheelchair tires, I would say this is extremely challenging.
Adventurous Antelope Canyon Photo Tours had big lifted Chevy Suburbans that drove their customers to the opening of Upper Antelope Canyon from their site. I would have to get into the vehicle somehow. I was able to sit in the front passenger seat by transferring to the car floor first and then having someone lift my legs as I used my arms to push me up to the passenger seat. Once inside, it was comfortable and a little bumpy as we drove 10 minute ride along a dried up river bed to the entrance.
Some of the other tour agencies used 4X4 trucks with seats on both sides of the truck bed that you would have to climb up to. I found some pics online of their trucks. This looked too challenging to get into in a timely fashion, especially when herded with lots of other people. At the entrance, I got out of the Suburban doing the reverse; car floor first, then transferring into my wheelchair.
*NOTE: The Navajo nation and tour operates under Mountain Standard Time (no Daylight Savings Time) so you should verify the time with your tour agency and make sure you have the correct time. You should arrive at least 30 minutes before your tour. I showed up earlier than that as I needed some time to get into the SUV tour vehicle.
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The Right Equipment
Knowing that the sand would be a huge challenge, I brought my wide 2.5” wide mountain bike wheels and 12” front FreeWheel attachment as my front casters would be useless in the sand. I had my friend push me using my push handles from behind; but even then, in super soft sand, someone had to pull from the front to get through certain parts.
Inside Upper Antelope Canyon, the wavy rock formations are just spectacular and beautiful! During sunlight, the light beams through like in a cathedral. Sometimes the tour guides will toss up sand to give us the opportunity to catch the sand in the sunlight, giving us a special effect. Throughout the day, there can be huge crowds and the tour guides try to move everyone along at a steady pace. Summer is especially busy and can be very hot, so try to avoid peak season.
Surprisingly, my wheelchair, which is probably 30” wide, was able to make it through the entire slot canyon. When I reached the other end of Upper Antelope Canyon, the other tour guides were excited that I made it through, giving me high fives and fist pumps. I don’t know if I am the first wheeler to go all the way through Upper Antelope Canyon, but I sure like to think so. It was just amazing!
About ten minutes from Antelope Canyon is the famous Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River. The trail leading to the viewpoint is 3/4 mile one way. The beginning of the trail is very steep, sandy and a bit rocky. Afterwards, it’s a fairly long walk downhill to view Horseshoe Bend. I would suggest having multiple people to help push you. Or if you want to try pushing your wheelchair to get there yourself, leave ample time, like 2 hours to make it round trip. Thin wheelchair tires would be difficult to push through the sand, rocks and dirt, so having big fat wheels with mountain bike tires would be very helpful.