Mexico is a mountainous country with diverse terrain. Its mountains are a part of the North American Cordillera system, stretching from Alaska to Panama. And in certain points, they are cut by deep canyons and canyon systems. One of them is Copper Canyon- not just one, but six deep gorges that form a complex system between high mountain branches. Let’s go and explore Copper Canyon and get the best impressions from it!
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Basic facts about Copper Canyon
Mexico lacks long and large rivers like Mississippi or Amazon, but it has a lot of shorter rivers flowing east or west of the central mountains. One of these rivers is Rio Fuerte which reaches the Bay of California of the Pacific Ocean. And it is not like most of the rivers on the Earth, with one source and one mouth, but it is formed by several smaller rivers (in other words- it has several sources) than merge into one.
These small rivers start from the high mountains and on their course downward they dig deep gorges. They are not the deepest in the world- not more than 1800 m (while the deepest reach more than 3000 m depth), but they form the largest canyon system on our planet- largest as a system and in area. That’s why Copper Canyon is considered one of the largest canyons in the world.
The gorges of Copper Canyon
This part of the Cordillera Mountains is called Sierra Tarahumara, today mostly included in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. And the gorges of Copper Canyon belong to the same drainage basin. They are six officially, although there are many more, smaller “sub-canyons”.
The canyons with their rivers on the bottom merge one by one until the last one merges at Huites Dam, at the exit of the mountains, proceeding further as Rio Fuerte. Let’s see them one by one.
Urique Canyon (6136 ft/1870 m)
This is the principal gorge- the longest one, formed by the Urique River. The river is more than 250 km long. Its source is at about 2500 m altitude, in a hilly area. Initially, it flows on a soft valley that gradually gets deeper and deeper until it merges with Rio San Ignacio and Tararecua Canyon at about 1050 m altitude, giving the start of the central Copper Canyon. Here the river flows westward.
Copper Canyon (5770 ft/1759 m)
This is not a separate “branch”, but only a section of the Urique River between its confluence with Rio San Ignacio and Rio Fuerte. So, the river that flows on its bottom is still the Urique River, from 1050 to 250 m altitudes. From its confluence with Tararecua Canyon, the river turns southward.
Tararecua Canyon (4674 ft/1425 m)
It is formed by Rio San Ignacio, and it is shorter than the other official canyons. Rio San Ignacio starts its course at about 2300 m on a relatively flat area near the town of Creel. From there, it turns southward and suddenly starts digging into the mountain, forming the spectacular Tararecua Canyon.
Sinforosa Canyon (5904 ft/1800 m)
This is the southernmost of the gorges, formed by Rio Verde which becomes Rio Guerachi. The river source is located far into the mountains, at about 2950 m altitude, and also gradually starts getting deeper and deeper. On its course, it merges with the Batopilas River (and its canyon) at 350 m altitude.
Batopilas Canyon (5904 ft/1800 m)
Batopilas River is a side river that merges with Rio Verde-Guerachi. Its source is at 2500 m altitude, and it cuts the mountain between Sinforosa and Urique canyons. The town of Batopilas is located at the bottom of its canyon.
Oteros Canyon (3225 ft/983 m)
This canyon is far from the other five canyons. It is formed by the Oteros River. The source of this river is located north of Creel, at about 2700 m altitude. Then, it flows west from the other canyons and finally reaches the Huites Dam of Rio Fuerte.
These are the official six canyons. But geographically, there are more canyons in this area, belonging to the same system. Many of them are just side canyons. However, one of them is quite long, flowing directly into Rio Fuerte, between Urique and Oteros canyons.
It is formed by Rio la Plata and merges with Rio Fuerte at Huites Dam. We don’t know why it is not included as “the seventh of the Copper canyons”. Moreover, the famous El Chepe railway runs on its bottom. But more about that later.
“Copper canyons” that don’t belong to the Rio Fuerte basin
Yes, when you look for more info about Copper Canyon, you most likely will read about Candameña Canyon. It is not one of the Copper Canyon gorges, but it is mentioned mainly because it is still very close to the canyon system, although its river flows into Rio Mayo. At the same time, here you can find some of the most beautiful spots in the area- the famous Basaseachic Waterfalls, as well as some amazing rock formations.
Let’s start with the name of the canyons. It is not called “Copper” due to “copper mining” or other “copper” activities, but due to its copper-green color. There is nothing unusual in its color, but it can tell us about the canyon’s nature. It is located in a subtropical area and it has a dry and rainy season. So, it is covered by vegetation, mainly bush, and some forests.
Like many canyons, the gorges of the Copper Canyon have steep walls and the mountains over them are relatively flat. There are no extremely high peaks like the two famous Peruvian canyons Cotahuasi and Colca, but the landscape is still rugged.
Today, the most visited part of Copper Canyon is included in Barrancas del Cobre National Park (Barrancas del Cobre is the local name of the canyon system). There is no entrance fee to the park, but just some restrictions (like “Don’t make a fire in the woods”, etc.), and this is the touristy part of the canyon system.
History and local culture
While you explore Copper Canyon, it is worth exploring the local culture too. This region is the homeland of the Tarahumara (Raramuri) people. In history, they have faced some suffering caused by the Spanish colonizers, and now they live mainly in the scattered villages in the gorges and the highlands between the gorges.
Tarahumara (Raramuri) are famous for their running ability. They are perfectly adapted to the steep terrain of the area and they learned to move quickly on the trails. You will be amazed to see them running upward on a narrow steep trail for a long time- something that most of us can’t do.
How to explore Copper Canyon
The land of Copper Canyon is large. There are several hundred kilometers (miles) between Oteros and Sinforosa canyons, and if you really want to explore every corner of this area, you would need at least a month.
But if you just want to get the essential impressions of Copper Canyon and taste its best, there is a classical way to do it: travel on El Chepe Railroad.
El Chepe Railroad
This is one of the most scenic train rides in the world. The railroad is 673 km long and connects Chihuahua with Los Mochis. A large section of its course is through the Copper Canyon. The railway was fully completed in 1961 with the purpose to serve for the local people. But it was noticed by the tourists and quickly became a popular tourist attraction.
On its course from Chihuahua, the route of the train passes through Creel, Divisadero, Bahuichivo, travels at the bottom of Rio la Plata Canyon (called also Serpentine Canyon, not officially recognized as one of the six Copper Canyon gorges) until reaches Rio Fuerte and proceeds further to the Pacific Ocean.
Creel and Divisadero are the most popular points, offering the best attractions of the Copper Canyon, and also be starting points for more activities.
It is a small town, located on the relatively flat highlands north of Tararecua Canyon, at 2350 m altitude. Being one of the starting points to explore Copper Canyon, Creel has developed tourism. It is a nice place with a cool climate, a significant presence of Tarahumara (Raramuri) culture, cafes, restaurants, hotels, hostels, and other tourist spots.
Creel is not located in a gorge, not even at the edge of a gorge, but it is a traditional starting point for various activities- El Chepe train rides, bicycle tours, hiking, and visiting some points of interest around it. It is worth spending at least 2 days in Creel and visiting these points. In general, they are located on a route that starts from the center of the town and enters into the depths of Tararecua Canyon in a southward direction.
- Creel Art Museum of Tarahumara (Museo de Arte Popular). This place is in the center of Creel, right beside the railroad, Creel Station, and the lovely sign “Creel”. Here you have a good opportunity to get into the local Tarahumara (Raramuri) culture. The museum presents a lot of local artifacts, even a mummified Raramuri. Entrance fee: 50 pesos.
- Cristo Rey Statue. This is one of the landmarks of Creel. It is located on the west side of the town, with a good view of it from the nearby hill.
- Caves of Dona Petra and Tarahumara. These are two grottoes located in the rock formations south of the town. They have been used by the local Raramuri people since ancient times and now are small attractions with some local art and culture.
- Valleys of Monks, Mushrooms, and Frogs. Further south, the rock formations became more diverse, in various shapes. In some places, they look like mushrooms, in other places- like frogs. But the most spectacular are the tall “monk-shaped” rocks, located about 3 km east of the mushrooms and frogs.
- Lake Arareco. A small tranquil lake, surrounded by pine forests and mountain grassland. This is a nice place for relaxing and buying some souvenirs.
- Cascada de Rukiraso. If you proceed further southward, following Rio San Ignacio, you will see it getting deeper and deeper. Its valley becomes steep and the first vertical cliffs begin. From a certain point, called Cascada de Rukiraso, you enter the Tararecua Canyon. There is an observation desk where you can enjoy the spectacular view of the canyon.
- Recohuata Hot Springs (Aguas Termales de Recowata). This is already deep in the Tararecua Canyon, about 18 km from Creel. Here you can enjoy 35°C water and you can actually spend the night before back to Creel or proceed further downward. Entrance fee: 20 pesos.
From Recohuata Hot Springs, you can proceed further downward on a hiking trail, following the bottom of Tararecua Canyon. It will lead you to Urique Canyon (that here becomes Copper Canyon). From this point, you can still go downward following the Urique River, or you can proceed on an amazing trail to the village of Pamachi (it is a 5-6 day trek).
So, if you want to proceed by El Chepe, you have to back to Creel and get the train. After about 2 hours, get off the train at Divisadero or Posada Barrancas station- the next “cluster” of Copper Canyon activities.
Divisadero is just a railway station, without a town or a village, but with one of the most spectacular panoramic views of Copper Canyon (the central gorge over Urique). And Posada Barrancas is the next railway station, only about 4 km further. There is already a village around this station.
So, what can you do here? In general- three things. The first is just to enjoy the breathtaking views of the canyon (directly from Divisadero railway station, or from the nearby observation desks after a short walk). The second thing is to enjoy some of the best nature amusement facilities in the world- Copper Canyon Adventure Park. And the last- Divisadero can be your starting point for adventurous hiking.
You get off the train, go out of the station, cross the road behind it, and immediately arrive at the first observation desk. From here you can see a side “sub-canyon” that descends straight into the main Copper Canyon. The view is fantastic. About 30 min to the northeast is another observation desk- Mogotabo. Or, if you walk to the other side, you can find more panoramic spots, giving you different points of view of the canyon.
Copper Canyon Adventure Park
This fantastic amusement park is established along the rim and the depths of the canyon. It consists of several fantastic activities (although some of them are not for everybody, especially for those with fainted hearts). Most of the activities have certain requirements about age, height, and weight. There is an entrance fee for the park: 25 pesos.
- Teleferico de las Barrancas del Cobre. This is a cable car with two large hanging unit cars for 60 passengers. It travels 2700 m to a station on another ridge, high above a small side canyon, for 10 min. The unit cars depart every 30 min. There is a guide inside who presents the wonders of the canyon below. When you arrive there, you have some time to take photos before you back. Ticket price: 250 pesos for adults, 130 pesos for children (3-12 years old).
- Ziprider. This is the second longest zipline in the world, with a length of 2530 m. Here you “fly” for 2-3 min, reaching a speed of almost 135 km/h. When you reach the end, you have to hike up to the second station of the cable car (about 30 min) and back. Price: 1000 pesos per person.
- Tirolesas Zipline system. This is a system of seven ziplines (shorter than the Ziprider) and two bridges. It takes you to “jump” from point to point on the canyon slopes for about 1 hour and 30 min to 2 hours. Its total length is about 5 km. Price: 600 pesos per person.
- Via Ferrata. This is the most technically difficult activity, allowed only for adults. It includes rappelling, “Tarzan jump”, caves, hanging bridges, and more. It can be completed in about 2 hours. Price: 450 pesos per person.
- More activities. They include Aerial Walkway (walking on a rope from one tree to another tree, for 250 pesos per person), children’s activities, hiking, and cycling.
That’s the best you can do here. There are hotels and guesthouses to spend the night before you proceed further on the El Chepe, or just get another direction by bike, bus, car, or just hiking.
This is the next station where you should get off the train. Bahuichivo is a small town around the railway station with nothing special to offer. But the main attraction here is the nearby town of Cerocahui- a Raramuri settlement in a valley that can be your “base camp” for reaching some astonishing points of interest:
- Cerocahui Waterfall. It is a beautiful waterfall, about 2 hours hike from the town. The water makes a double jump before dropping into a pool.
- Mirador de Cerro de Galego. This is one of the best observation points in the whole Copper Canyon system. It is located over the Urique River and the panoramic view is like from an airplane. The place is reachable by a narrow road from Cerocahui that proceeds further winding on the slopes of the canyon.
Out of the canyon
Back to Bahuichivo, and you can proceed further on El Chepe. The train enters Serpentine Canyon (with Rio la Plata) and gradually descends until it reaches the Huites Dam and Rio Fuerte. Here you can stop and enjoy the scenery where the rugged mountains gradually open and the canyon turns into a wide valley.
From here, the train proceeds through the lowlands around Rio Fuerte. The mountains remain behind and the terrain becomes flat. Finally, it reaches Los Mochis and the Pacific Ocean- a great “reward” after the spectacular adventures in the middle of the route.
This is what El Chepe can offer- to explore the best of Copper Canyon. But if you want to go deeper, you have to leave this epic railway and go further on side roads or hiking trails to more wonders and adventures.
How to travel with El Chepe
So, El Chepe is the best way to explore Copper Canyon. But how to travel by this train? Here are some useful tips:
- The two terminal stations of El Chepe are Los Mochis and Chihuahua. Both directions are ok, but in winter traveling from Los Mochis is better due to the schedule and the shorter day.
- There is only a one-way ticket. If you want to go and back, just have to buy two one-way tickets.
- There are two trains- First class and Second class. Almost no difference between them, just First class is one hour faster and skips some minor stations. However, First class ticket prices are double.
- First-class trains run every day, while Second class- only 3 days a week.
It is recommended to buy tickets in advance. You can do it by sending an email to this address: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone call.
- The safest way to pay for the tickets is in cash at the station of departure.
You can buy a multistop ticket and you should make it clear in the email.
- There is enough space for your luggage inside. No wifi and almost no mobile signal.
For more detailed information, check this guide about El Chepe and Copper Canyon.
Beyond El Chepe
The stations at El Chepe can be your starting points, or you can choose a different starting point. Now, you go to a much off-the-beaten and less touristy realm.
Basaseachi and Candameña Canyon
This wonderful destination is not a part of the Copper Canyon system, and not within the boundaries of Barrancas del Cobre National Park. But it is still worth including in your Copper Canyon itinerary because it is not far from Creel, the natural landscape is similar, and of course, the place is really fantastic.
The main attractions here are two waterfalls:
- Volada Stone Waterfall. This is the highest temporary waterfall in Mexico, with a 453 m height. It almost disappears in winter, but during the rainy season, it is truly fantastic.
- Basaseachic Waterfall. This is the second-highest waterfall in Mexico. It is “only” 246 m high, but it is constant, and the whole landscape around it is more magnificent.
The two waterfalls and the area around them are included in Basaseachi Waterfall National Park. It can be reached by car or local transport from Chihuahua or Creel (134 km from Creel), and it has an entrance fee: 72 pesos. Once you enter inside, you can follow several trails that guide you to the waterfalls and other minor but beautiful attractions.
The southeastern part of Copper Canyon
This area consists of Batopilas and Sinforosa canyons and their smaller “sub-canyons”, separated by rugged mountains. It is far from the tourist-developed El Chepe, therefore- wilder, more authentic, and more adventurous.
So, what you can see here? More canyons, steep ridges, some smaller waterfalls and rock formations, tropical forests in the low places, and a lot of local Tarahumara (Raramuri) culture. And basically, you would be alone, meeting only some locals and very seldom- one or two more adventurous travelers.
To reach this area, you have to choose two “base camps” or starting points: Batopilas and Guachochi.
Batopilas is a small town on the bottom of Batopilas Canyon with a predominantly Raramuri population. It is known for its mining history- there is a former silver mine nearby, and this is the main reason for establishing the town. So, the town itself has a small museum with artifacts related to its history, as well as some beautiful old houses (haciendas).
The town is a good starting point for exploring Batopilas Canyon and the surrounding mountains. There are no special attractions in this area, but just stunning landscapes everywhere. Good hiking areas are El Arrayan, Puente Guamuchil, and El Divisadero- La Mesa.
There is a narrow mountain road from Creel to Batopilas. The distance is 136 km, but due to the road conditions, you would travel at least 4 hours. This road crosses Urique Canyon, and all the time winds through spectacular landscapes.
Guachochi is another small town, established on a high plateau over Sinforosa Canyon, at 2400 m altitude. It is the best starting point for exploring Sinforosa. Like Batopilas, this town is another center of the local Tarahumara (Raramuri) culture.
The town is cozy and clean. It has a beautiful park in the center, established on a lake, called Lago las Garzas. And only about 10 min walk from the center, at the upper entrance of a small gorge, you can see the beautiful waterfall Cascada el Salto.
The main attractions are located south of the town. About 8,5 km from Guachochi is Canyon del Jaguar- a “sub-canyon” of Sinforosa, with wild and rugged terrain- the edge of the Guachochi plateau.
And if you proceed further south, you will reach Mirador la Sinforosa- an observation desk with the most fantastic view of Sinforosa Canyon. From here, you can start another hiking trail (25 km, a whole day’s difficult hike) that descends to the bottom of the canyon and ascends again to the plateau.
Guachochi is about 120 km from Creel and you can reach it by car or by local bus. You still travel on a mountain road but it is in better condition than the road to Batopilas.
This is the westernmost of the Copper canyons- a long gorge that begins gradually not far from Creel and follows the same direction as El Chepe but goes apart from the route of the famous train. So, it is not so popular for tourists, and there are not many points of interest there.
But it doesn’t mean that it is less beautiful than the other canyons. It is still spectacular, with rugged terrain and breathtaking panoramic views. You can easily reach a point where you can take a look at the canyon. This point is called Mirador del Rio Oteros- 32 km from Creel (only about 30 min by car). Although here the canyon is still “a normal valley”, the view is worth enjoying.
Copper Canyon Tours and Treks
So, as you can see, the Copper Canyon system is large. If you are an independent traveler, your best starting points are Los Mochis or Chihuahua, then the best way is to travel by El Chepe. And if you are more adventurous, you can use El Chepe only partially, then combine it with a bus, car, bike, or even on foot to reach some more off-the-beaten-path points.
But if you are not so adventurous, or you just don’t have enough time, you can choose an organized tour. Here we present three tours that explore the best of Copper Canyon, including traveling by El Chepe but not only:
- Raramuri Tour. This is a 5-day tour that follows the route of El Chepe, and one of the days you travel by this famous train. The tour is focused mainly on the local culture, architecture, and traditions. It starts from El Fuerte (with a transfer from Los Mochis) and ends in Chihuahua. Although your main focus is the Raramuri culture, you still have the opportunity to enjoy the natural wonders of Copper Canyon.
- Sierra Tarahumara. This is the reversed version of the Raramuri Tour- it is 5 days but starts from Chihuahua and ends in El Fuerte (with a transfer to Los Mochis). Again, it is focused mainly on the local culture but still allows you to enjoy the canyon.
- Three Cultures. This is an 8-day tour. It follows the same route as Raramuri Tour, and again it is focused on culture and traditions. It starts in Los Mochis and ends in Chihuahua. But since it is longer, it allows you to visit more points like Los Mochis and Cerocahui.
The best time to travel in Copper Canyon is winter- from November to April. During that period, the weather is cool, and it can be cold above 2000 m altitude, with occasional snowfalls. But at least this is the dry season, the air is drier, and there are no mosquitos. However, have in mind that the day is shorter, so plan your daily schedule accordingly.
The rest of the year, from April to November is the rainy season. It is summer, with regular rainfalls, the weather is hot in the low altitudes and nicely cool in the high altitudes, but it is humid. Due to the rainfalls, hiking or traveling on narrow roads can be difficult, even dangerous.
This is Copper Canyon- a great kingdom of mountains and gorges that look endless, with stunning landscapes and unique local culture. And it is considered one of the largest canyons in the world for a reason. As you can see, there are many reasons to visit and explore this amazing place, and the impression you will get will remain in you for a lifetime.
Take a look at this video for more impressions from Copper Canyon
Check some travel books about Mexico:
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Hi, we are Krasen and Ying Ying. Krasen is from Bulgaria, and Ying Ying is from China. We are passionate about geography and history, and we believe that the best way to experience it is by exploring the Earth in reality, not in a school, and not virtually.
So, we created this blog Journey Beyond the Horizon, where we share geographical knowledge, travel guides and tips how to experience it when you explore our planet, and a lot of inspiration.
And we wish you a happy journey, not just virtually, but most of all- in reality.