Sometimes called gullies, gulches, or gorges, canyons capture the imagination as few places can. These narrow, steep-sided valleys may be formed by the movement of rivers, glaciers, weathering and erosion, the uplift of tectonic plates, or even powerful undersea currents — but the mysterious landscapes create their own air of secrecy and suspense. The word “canyon” comes from the Spanish cañon, meaning “tube” or “pipe,” and canyons are found on every continent. Here are five spectacular canyons to visit.
Antelope Canyon – Arizona
The majority of canyons are formed by the slow but steady flow of rivers, but slot canyons are a dramatic departure from the norm. Deep and narrow, these eroded abysses are the result of torrential monsoon rains that send water rushing violently through soft rock. In the Navajo Nation, near the border between Arizona and Utah, Antelope Canyon is a photographer’s dream, where undulating crevasses in shades of orange and purple are illuminated by golden beams of sun.
While the hike to the Upper Canyon is fairly accessible, the Lower Canyon is especially challenging. Entry to both is controlled by permits, and access is restricted to tours led by authorized Navajo guides. Any slot canyon can be subject to potentially fatal flash floods, as waters from far away storms gather velocity in the narrow spaces, so visitors should always check weather forecasts and hike carefully.
Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon – Iceland
One of the planet’s most majestic — and most difficult to pronounce — canyons can be found along Iceland’s famed Ring Road, near the equally multisyllabic village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Fjaðrárgljúfur (meaning “Feather River Canyon”) was formed about 10,000 years ago. Runoff from receding glaciers deposited soft sediments that eventually filled up a lake, which was then in turn eroded by the glacial river. The canyon is an easy 2.5-mile up-and-back hike along the rim, with gorgeous views of the emerald cliffs set off by the blue of the serpentine river curling about 330 feet below.
Kali Gandaki Canyon – Nepal
The Himalayas are home to the highest mountains on the planet, and also to some of the world’s deepest gorges. In Nepal’s remote Mustang District, the gorge carved by the Kali Gandaki River passes between the Himalayan mountains of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna, both of which top out at over 26,000 feet. The gorge — which was historically used as a trade route between India and Tibet — bottoms out at a whopping 18,278 feet lower than Annapurna. But in neighboring Tibet, the deepest point of the (narrower) Yarlung Tsangpo Canyon reaches 19,714 feet — which, by many accounts, makes it the world’s deepest gorge.
Motlatse Canyon – South Africa
Some 200 million years ago, Madagascar and Antarctica tore themselves away from the ancient supercontinent of Gondwanaland, leaving the southern tip of Africa on its own, surrounded on three sides by ocean. Also known as Blyde River Canyon, the 31-mile Motlatse Canyon stretches along the lip of the great escarpment that was formed when the ragged edge of the continent sloped down to the sea. The glorious nature reserve now protecting the geologic wonder and surrounding areas is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, with rafting, bird-watching, hot air ballooning, and hikes to stunning waterfalls.
Verdon Gorge – France
Rafters, rock climbers, and — more recently — highliners flock to the turquoise waters and sheer white limestone cliffs of this stunning canyon. Winding 15 miles through the Alpine foothills in southern France, the Verdon Gorge is one of Europe’s largest canyons. About half a mile above the river, at the top of the gorge, visitors will find quaint villages and excellent restaurants dotting the twisting roads that line both sides of the crevasse. Only a two-hour drive from the fabled French Riviera, the gorge (and the manmade Lac de Sainte-Croix, where the Verdon River ends) are scenic throughout the year, but especially delightful during the summer months.