15

of the Most Stunning Canyons on Earth

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Canyons reliably provide some of nature’s most dramatic landscapes. Formed over thousands, often millions, of years by the process of erosion, most canyons begin as plateaus. Over time, water and weathering disperse the softer rock, leaving the harder remains as stunning testaments to the power of time. Found on every continent (and sometimes referred to as gorges), these fissures present both fascinating geology and endless opportunities for recreation — as challenging playgrounds for climbing, hiking, and rafting. Here are 15 of the most remote, grand, and beautiful canyons in the world.

15

Kali Gandaki Gorge (Nepal)

View of the river and Kali Gandaki canyon with stone remains near the village of Ghasa.
Credit: Maksim Semin/ Shutterstock

It’s unsurprising that some of the world’s deepest canyons would be located in the Himalayas, the mountain range that’s home to the planet’s tallest peak. A tributary of the mighty Ganges, the Kali Gandaki river cleaves a gorge between the 26,795-foot Dhaulagiri and 26,545-foot Annapurna Mountains. It is named for the Hindu goddess Kali, the personification of nature’s power. The river flows through the ancient “forbidden” Kingdom of Mustang and served as a conduit for the salt trade between Tibet and India, eventually connecting with the storied Silk Road. Today the gorge is a favorite for adventurous trekkers and whitewater rafting enthusiasts.

14

Grand Canyon (Arizona)

View of the west side of the Grand Canyon right before sunset.
Credit: Tim Hart/ Unsplash

For millions of years, the Colorado River and its tributaries have patiently flowed through layers of rock laid down for over 2 billion years on the Colorado Plateau. The result is a stunning formation that — at 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide — covers more square miles than the entire state of Rhode Island. The steep walls of the Grand Canyon contain close to a thousand caves, some used as shelter and for granaries by Native Americans; artifacts show evidence of continuous habitation going back 12,000 years. Protected as a national park since 1919, Grand Canyon National Park sees 6 million visitors a year, making it the second-most popular park in the United States.

13

Colca Canyon (Peru)

Panoramic view in the Colca Canyon, located in Peru.
Credit: kovgabor79/ iStock

High in the rugged Andes, the Colca River has tumbled through volcanic soil to carve a canyon nearly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. The canyon and river valley have been inhabited since long before the height of the Inca civilization in the 15th and 16th centuries, and pre-Inca terraced farmlands are still in use. A world-class destination for kayakers, Colca Canyon is also one of the best places on the planet to see the enormous and endangered Andean condor, along with the world’s largest hummingbird, alpacas, and vizcachas — which are unusually large rodents that resemble rabbits.

12

Taroko Gorge (Taiwan)

View of the bridge crossing the Taroko Gorge in Taiwan.
Credit: ThePonAek/ Shutterstock

The island nation of Taiwan is situated in a seismically active zone. Formed by the collision of two tectonic plates, Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range (the country’s largest) continues to rise incrementally each year. The blue-green waters of the Liwu River and Taiwan’s heavy rains slowly eroded the surrounding marble to form Taroka’s spectacular canyon. Now part of Taroko National Park, which spreads from the Central Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, the namesake gorge is the centerpiece of one of Taiwan’s biggest tourist draws — an area with temples, suspension bridges, and hot springs.

11

Waimea Canyon (Hawaii)

View of the mountains under the clouds at Waimea Canyon.
Credit: Jason Weingardt/ Unsplash

“The Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Waimea Canyon is a stunning geological wonder located on the western side of the wild and rugged island of Kauai. Made famous in the film Jurassic Park, the canyon stretches 14 miles long and more than a mile wide, with a maximum depth of 3,600 feet. Unlike most canyons, which are formed by rivers, Waimea came into existence when a portion of the volcanic island collapsed about 4 million years ago. The resulting depression filled with lava flows, which over time were eroded by Kauai’s abundant rainfall. A hiker’s paradise, the scenic canyon is protected as a state park, open daily (no overnights allowed). Don’t miss the three-mile round-trip hike to the top of Waipo'o Falls.

10

Dadès Gorges (Morocco)

View of the Gorges Dades Atlas mountains in Morocco.
Credit: Lukas Bischoff Photograph/ Shutterstock

Running through Morocco’s Central Atlas Mountains and carved by the Dadès River are the orange limestone cliffs of the Dadès Gorges, a series of canyons (or wadi) rise up to 1,600 feet from the desert floor. The final section narrows to a rocky single track hemmed in by sheer smooth walls. While there’s often very low flow in drier months, the river becomes a raging, erosive torrent during the rainy season (November to March). The river flows through fields of roses; olive, almond, and date groves; and picturesque Berber villages. On the romantically named Road of a Thousand Kasbahs, dramatic switchbacks through the canyons make for one of the most scenic stretches of road found anywhere in the world.

9

Verdon Gorge (France)

View of the beautiful canyon in the alps of high Provence, France.
Credit: Erich Fend/ iStock

In dreamy Provence, France’s largest canyon carves through 15 miles of white limestone in the Alpine foothills. The walls of the ravine rise almost half a mile high above the blue-green waters of the Verdon River. The narrow, twisting roads around the rim of the gorge are lined with small villages that are crowded in high season with vehicles and cyclists, and the cliffs are often dotted with rock climbers. For a different view of the gorge, rent a canoe or kayak and stop for a memorable swim at one of the canyon’s small beaches.

8

Antelope Canyon (Arizona)

A man exploring the Antelope Canyon in Arizona.
Credit: OceanFishing/ iStock

Whereas most canyons are formed by the steady erosion of rivers, slot canyons are a different — and dramatic — anomaly. Much deeper than they are wide, slot canyons are formed when torrential monsoon waters rush violently through softer rocks, such as the sandstone found at Antelope Canyon, located in the Navajo Nation near the border between Arizona and Utah. The more accessible Upper Canyon is a favorite with photographers, who shoot dramatic images of sunbeams pouring into orange and purple-colored crevasses. Antelope’s Lower Canyon is physically more challenging and thus less touristed. All entry is restricted exclusively to tours led by authorized guides.

7

Fish River Canyon (Namibia)

Fish River Canyon from the viewpoint near Hobas, Namibia.
Credit: Hector Ruiz Villar/ Shutterstock

About 180 million years ago, a tectonic uplift ruptured the supercontinent of Gondwana into three pieces, which we now call South America, Africa, and Antarctica. That event set the stage for Africa’s largest canyon (and the second-largest worldwide after the Grand Canyon). Erosion, glaciation, and time helped the Fish River carve a gargantuan ravine stretching 100 miles, now Namibia’s second most-visited tourist attraction. Located in one of the world’s harshest environments, Fish Canyon can be explored on an arduous five-day hike during the cooler months. (Permits are required.) Driving the route requires a rugged 4x4, but any vehicle can make it to the spectacular viewpoint overlooking Hell’s Bend, near the Hobas trailhead.

6

Tiger Leaping Gorge (China)

View of the Tiger Leaping Gorge in China.
Credit: Paul Kiss/ Shutterstock

Pandas, tigers, and ancient temples call southwest China’s Yunnan province home. Near the city of Shangri-La, the Jinsha River (a tributary of the upper Yangtze) has carved a misty and mystical canyon separating two mighty mountains. A series of furious rapids roar between the 18,360-foot Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the 17,703-foot Haba Snow Mountain, and the gorge’s cliffs stretch more than 12,000 feet deep. Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the most iconic treks in China, and hikers brave landslides and heavy rains on both the upper and lower trails. Don’t miss Tiger Leaping Stone, where the gorge’s namesake tiger was said to have escaped hunters by leaping across the narrows.

5

Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon (Iceland)

Green Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, near Kirkjubæjarklaustur Village in Iceland.
Credit: Pedro Carrilho/ Shutterstock

Easier to admire than to pronounce, Iceland’s Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon impresses even in a country known for stupendous scenery. Much younger than other canyons on this list, it was created “only” about 9,000 years ago; during the last ice age, the canyon was carved by a stream cascading from a lagoon left by a retreating glacier. Even with its fairyland vegetation and picturesque waterfall, Fjaðrárgljúfur remained relatively under the radar until being featured in a 2015 Justin Bieber video. Easily accessible from the main ring road near Kirkjubæjarklaustur, Fjaðrárgljúfur is about a 3.5-hour drive from the capital of Reykjavík.

4

Samariá Gorge (Crete)

A goat exploring the Samariá Gorge in Greece.
Credit: Aniek_S/ Shutterstock

Cutting through the wild White Mountains of Crete (Greece’s largest island) and ending at the shores of the Libyan Sea, Samariá Gorge is Europe’s second-biggest canyon, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and the only national park on the island. Normally open from the beginning of May to late October, the 8.9-mile trail through the canyon is lavish with spring wildflowers and home to the rare and endemic wild Cretan goats, known as kri-kri. The gorge’s most dramatic section is called the Gates, an extremely narrow passage where walls soar upwards of 1,000 feet tall on either side.

3

Blyde River Canyon (South Africa)

The three rondavels and the Blyde River Canyon at sunset in South Africa.
Credit: ChrisB/ iStock

While many of Earth’s canyons are arid and rocky, Blyde River Canyon (aka Motlatse Canyon) is a riot of lush greenery. Running through the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province, the 16-mile canyon begins at the confluence of the Motlatse and Sefogane rivers. Part of the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, the canyon is home to all of South Africa’s primate species, along with hippos, crocodiles, and a wide variety of birds. Don’t miss the unusual Kadishi Tufa Waterfall, which resembles a weeping face.

2

Itaimbezinho Canyon (Brazil)

Cascade and Canyon Itaimbezinho in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.
Credit: agustavop/ iStock

Itaimbezinho Canyon (which translates to “sharp stone” in the Indigenous Tupi-Guarani language) is located in the remote plateaus of southern Brazil, within Aparados da Serra National Park. One of Brazil’s first national parks, the 40-square-mile park protects the canyon and a surprisingly rich assortment of wildlife, including cougars, ocelots, and the rare maned wolf. The largest canyon in South America, the Itaimbezinho’s ochre walls rise nearly half a mile above the Rio do Boi. At Elbow Lookout, don’t miss Cascade of the Swallows, where a gap behind the waterfall shelters small birds that dip in and out of the spray.

1

Copper Canyon (Mexico)

View of Copper Canyon and Basaseachi Waterfall in Mexico.
Credit: Antonio Jacome/ iStock

In the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains of northern Mexico, the state of Chihuahua boasts a system of six massive but distinct canyons, which collectively dwarf Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Together referred to as Copper Canyon, they were formed by six rivers that flow into the Rio Fuerte on its journey to the Gulf of Mexico, and take their name from the coppery green shade of their steep walls. An ambitious railway system serves the canyons. A marvel of engineering (and perseverance), the Copper Canyon Railway crosses 39 bridges and passes through 86 tunnels on its almost 400-mile run from the city of Chihuahua to the Pacific Ocean. The Indigenous people of the canyons, the Rarámuri, are famed for their long-distance running, covering miles of steep terrain on high-altitude runs that can last for days.

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