It’s not much of a secret that Secret Canyon is an upper tributary of Water Holes Canyon. It seems more a secret in that Water Holes Canyon itself has not yet really been “discovered.” Despite their shared common drainage, there are more differences than similarities between the two.
One could be excused for missing the small turnout just before racing across the short bridge over Water Holes Canyon. After all, perhaps you stopped at Horseshoe Bend, just a few miles up Highway 89, and are now speeding your way towards Lee’s Ferry, Marble Canyon or maybe Flagstaff, much further south. You’re hitting 60+ with nary a state trooper in sight and the shallow dirt turnout just prior to the rickety-rickety-rickety of the bridge-crossing would hardly catch your attention. Too bad. It’s a neat little canyon with a couple of nifty narrows, though we found no real light-bouncing-off-deeply-glowing-high-steep-walls that one experiences in either Upper Antelope or Lower Antelope Canyons. That’s okay though. If it was rich with those orange and purple glowing walls it would also have crowds, tour guides, and a hefty entrance fee. It has none of these.
My usual way of researching trips to new-to-me areas is to first review relevant guide books I may have. A few years back I had purchased all three volumes of Laurent Martres’ Photographing the Southwest. They are indispensable guides for the landscape photographer. Perusing volume 2 which focuses on Arizona, I found an entry for Water Holes Canyon. It seemed like a good place to explore, but there was a remark about “backcountry permits.” I next googled the canyon’s name and found an updated (2015) entry on the online resource of American Southwest. This page clearly stated that we needed permits but that one could not obtain them on weekends. Of course, this was a Sunday. Nonetheless, we drove to the Lechee Chapter House, hoping for the gods of fortune to shine upon us. They were closed BUT the posted sign said that permits could be obtained at the Upper Antelope Canyon ticket office. So back we drove to that office, waited in line, only to be informed that they do not sell backcountry permits. However, the ticket seller said, “Why don’t you just go in?” and the smiling young Navajo woman — one of the guides — standing next to the ticket seller piped up “Just go down there yourself…everyone else does!” A soundtrack echoed in my mind: “Permits?! We don’t need no stinking permits! Ha-ha-ha!!” I looked at my companions, they shrugged and I said: “We did our due diligence…let’s roll!” or, something to that effect.
Back at the turnout there is a locked gate baring vehicular access with a No Trespassing! sign. However, no more than a few yards away is one of those cow-proof, walk-through gates with no sign and no lock. Through we went and down the rough and ready trail we dropped. Descending quickly to the wash bottom, I remembered that if one headed downstream, towards the Colorado River, the canyon quickly became a down-climbing experience, leading to necessary rappels. Instead, we heading upstream and further into the Navajo Nation.
The day was overcast and it is quite possible that with better light we might have experienced better reflected glows in the two set of short narrows we traversed. I’m not terribly convinced of that though, as the upper part of the canyon is relatively shallow with no huge overhanging walls that one can experience in other slot canyons. There were several places where some ingenious, energetic individual(s) lugged in ladder sections to help us non-climbers over otherwise dead-ends. They were not bolted in so it was clearly an “at-your-risk” type of experience. After about a mile and half the canyon did not terminate in a dry-fall but instead opened up into sandy wash. We were finished with the upper section of Water Holes Canyon.
It was getting late in the day and we had a destination in mind for our sunset spot. That meant that, once we re-grouped, we did not have time to explore the lower section of the canyon. Upon further reading, it appears that the lower canyon is where the actual “water holes” are to be found along with glowing walls, due to how precipitously the canyon floor drops and the walls rise. Without canyoneering gear (and experience!) I’m not sure how much further we could have gone, but it would have been nice to peer over the edge and see for oneself.
Next time, methinks.