There are so many different forms of the Earth’s surface. From flat plains to sharp mountains, from deep gorges to weird rock formations, our planet has a lot of wonders to reveal. And every kind of terrain has its own beauty. One of the terrain formations is the canyons. They are like giant cracks into the Earth’s crust, and the landscape there can be breathtaking- from the bottom to the top of them. Let’s make a journey to the 10 largest canyons in the world!
What is a canyon
In general, a canyon (called also gorge) is a narrow trench on the Earth’s surface with steep side slopes. It is usually caused by a river that flows through it, in a combination of the tectonic movements of the Earth’s crust and the weathering factor. Thus, it is one of the important geographical features on our planet.
Some of the canyons are simple- just a crack on the planet’s surface. But others are more complex, with branches and sub-branches, like trees seen from above. Some of them have vertical slopes like walls, while others are more soft-sloping. And some are wide, with a flat bottom, while others are so narrow that even a human could hardly walk through it.
Usually, the easiest way to reach and explore it is to travel on its bottom, following the flowing river (if there is a river). Or, another way is to visit the upper edge of the canyon’s slopes and observe it from above.
Types of canyons
There are several types of canyons, depending on their shape, their location, and the way they have been formed. And all of them can be larger or smaller in depth, in length, or in area.
Plain eroding canyons
This is the classical type of canyon. It is formed when a stream “carve” the flat surface of a plain or a plateau, gradually penetrating deeper and deeper.
So, you walk on a flat plain, you look around yourself, and you see nothing but just a flat horizon. Suddenly, you reach an edge, and beyond it- a steep, or almost vertical slope to an abyss. And most probably, you can see a river flowing on the bottom of the abyss. This is a plain eroding canyon. The well-known Grand Canyon in Arizona and Colorado is a good example.
These are just valleys in the mountain that are narrower, with steeper slopes than the “normal” valleys. Their edges usually just follow the summits of the surrounding ridges. They are formed by rivers that start flowing from their sources, and the lower they go, the steeper are the slopes of their valleys, and the deeper is the forming canyon. In fact, these canyons are not as pure as the plain eroding ones, but they are the most common on our planet.
Many of these canyons are breaches that cut mountain ranges in the middle. The rivers flow on a plain reaches a mountain and cuts through it, then flow out from the other side of the mountain.
A special type of canyon is the glacial valleys. They are wider, with a flatter bottom, formed by a former or current glacier. But what makes them be canyons are their steep slopes on both sides. The slopes can be extremely steep, in some cases almost vertical.
Slot and box canyons
These are totally different canyons. They are smaller, shorter, and much more looking like cracks. Also, they can be extremely narrow, so narrow that even a human can’t pass through them.
Unlike the first two types of canyons, the slot and box canyons are often formed by other natural actions- by earthquakes, or by the weather. These are the box canyons. Or, they can be still formed by flowing water, but only on specific types of soft rocks- usually sandstone, or limestone- slot canyons.
A famous example of slot canyons is the Antelope Canyon in Arizona, USA. It is formed in a sandstone area and looks like a fairy crack through the rocks.
In addition, many canyons are mixed and during their course, they can be transformed from one type to another.
Definition of largest canyons in the world
So, if we want to identify the largest canyons in the world, we should look at their depth, their length, their complexity (is it just a single canyon, or a “tree” of canyons with many sub-branches), and their slope incline.
This is a complicated definition because a canyon can be very deep but short. Or very long but with not so steep slopes. Anyway, we can still find canyons in the world with the best combination of the “largest” factors.
The 10 largest canyons in the world
Here is my chart of the 10 largest canyons in the world. Again, because there are many criteria of the “largest” when talking about canyons, these 10 are just the largest in one or a combination of more criteria. For example, here you can read about the longest, the deepest, the steepest, the widest, or a combination of these.
Colca Canyon, Peru
Colca Canyon is another one of the deepest canyons in the world. Its length is not so different than the length of Kali Gandaki Gorge, but its depth reaches 3000-4000 m below the surrounding peaks. And if we count the nearby Mt Ampato (6288 m), in contrast to the 1100 m elevation of the nearest canyon bottom, the difference reaches more than 5200 m.
The canyon is formed by the Colca River. It gathers its waters from many small rivers and streams in the high plateaus of the Andes, in the southern part of Peru. Then, after the town of Callalli, it starts “digging” deeper and deeper through the mountains, forming this magnificent canyon.
The canyon reaches its deepest point in the area of Huambo, then, after the town of Andamayo, it widens, and its slopes are less steep until finally, Colca River reaches the Pacific Ocean at Camana.
How to reach and explore Colca Canyon
The largest city near the canyon is Arequipa. And the most popular way to travel to Colca Canyon is by bus from Arequipa to Cabanaconde, or by rental car to the same destination. On its way, the bus stops in Chivay, located at the upper end of the canyon. Then, the road proceeds to Cabanaconde, curving high above the canyon’s bottom.
From Cabanaconde, the road proceeds along the southern edges of the canyon to the area of Huambo, and gradually moves away from it. But in general, Cabanaconde is the best starting point for exploring Colca Canyon, because it is the closest place to the most fantastic views and landscapes in the area. One of the most spectacular of them is Cruz del Condor, where you can observe these magnificent birds flying over the canyon’s abyss.
If you want to explore Colca Canyon, you would need at least 2-3 days. And your journey should include observing the canyon from above and descending deep to its bottom. You can find a lot of places for eating, sleeping, or just enjoying the stunning nature and the unique local culture. But have in mind that you would need a travel permit of 28 USD that can be obtained in Arequipa.
Blyde River Canyon, South Africa
Although this canyon is not the longest, nor the deepest, it still deserves to be a part of the 10 largest canyons in the world. It is formed by the Blyde River that originates in the heights of the Drakensberg Mountains, in the northeastern part of South Africa.
The river starts from around 2000 m altitude, and gradually descends in the northern direction. It flows on a hilly area until it reaches the town of Moremela. Not far from the town are the spectacular Bourke’s Luck Potholes- amazing rock formations with great views of the area around.
Then, the river flows on the bottom of the canyon and goes out of it at the border between the provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo. The whole canyon is covered by lush subtropical jungle and presents unique terrain formations. Eventually, after the canyon, the river flows again on a softer, hilly terrain until it joins the Elephant River and finally- the Indian Ocean.
How to reach and explore Blyde River Canyon
The best way to reach Blyde River Canyon is by car, and the nearest big city to the canyon is Johannesburg. From there, you should drive for about 6-7 hours on a beautiful scenic road that passes some interesting cities like Dullstroom and Lydenburg. Finally, you can arrive at a point, called Picnic Point that can be your “base camp” for exploring the canyon.
Or, you can reach the canyon from the nearby Kruger National Park- the most popular park in South Africa. From there, you have to drive westward for 3 hours and a half to Blyde River Canyon, again to Picnic Point. This point is a great place for hiking through the jungles of the canyon. But there is another option- driving on the Panorama Route.
The Panorama Route is a circle that includes Blyde River Canyon, and the best starting point to enter the circle is the city of Sabie. From there, you can easily visit most of the canyon’s points of interest: the waterfalls (there are at least 6 waterfalls near the canyon), Bourke’s Luck Potholes, the Three Rondavels, and many other natural wonders.
Cotahuasi Canyon, Peru
This is one of the deepest canyons on Earth. It is formed by the Cotahuasi River that flows from Lake Wansuqucha, located at 4800 m altitude. The river digs through the Andes deeper and deeper, creating an elevation difference of 3500-4000 m altitude between the bottom and the edges of the canyon.
Actually, this is not a single canyon but a long “mother-canyon” with a shorter but even deeper branch, formed between the two volcanoes Solimana and Coropuna- both rising over 6000 m altitude. And the bottom of the small canyon between them reaches about 1000 m altitude. Thus, here the altitude difference reaches 5000 m.
The two canyons join at the village of Chaucalla, where a third tributary of Cotahuasi River from the north, also join them. All they form the Ocoña River that flows into the Pacific Ocean. Along its route, the Cotahuasi Canyon and its branches cross at least 12 geographical zones, as well as areas with unique Inca and pre-Inca cultures.
How to reach and explore Cotahuasi Canyon
The most traditional way to reach Cotahuasi Canyon is from Arequipa, and the main town in the canyon is Cotahuasi. You can travel from Arequipa to Cotahuasi by car or by bus. There are overnight buses that arrive in the morning. On their route, they pass the smaller canyon between Solimana and Coropuna volcanoes, however, it would be during the night.
So, to see the area between the two volcanoes, you have to stop there- in the village of Arma and use a whole day exploring it, until the next bus to Cotahuasi. But a better option is to do this trip by car, so you can stop at any point you want.
Once you reach the town of Cotahuasi, you can travel on the bottom of the canyon or around it by local buses- to Pampamarca, Arca, Tomepampa, or Quechualla. You can go hiking in the area, but have in mind that most of the trails are steep, with high difficulty, great for adventurers.
Finally, there are tours from Lima that you can join, and some of them combine the journey with the nearby Colca Canyon.
Copper Canyon, Mexico
This canyon is not formed by one river but from six. In fact, this is not a single canyon, but a whole system, or a canyon with six branches. As a result, there is a large area of deep trenches, and if we focus on an area, this can be considered the largest canyon in the world.
All these six rivers finally merge into one- Rio El Fuerte that flows into the Gulf of California. But before the points of merging, they dig deep into the terrain, forming spectacular gorges. They are not the deepest in the world, but still, reach more than 2000 m altitude difference in some places.
The region of Copper Canyon is located in the Sierra Tarahumara Mountains, a part of Sierra Madre Occidental. It presents a rich ecosystem with many geographic zones- from the tropical type of forests to alpine forests and grasslands. In addition, here you can observe the unique local Tarahumara (Raramuri) culture.
How to reach and explore Copper Canyon
Although Copper Canyon is one of the least touristic places in Mexico due to its complex terrain, it has a well-developed infrastructure and is easily reachable by bus, by car, and even by train.
The main starting point and the nearest big city is Chihuahua, well-connected by air and land to the rest of the world. From Chihuahua, you can travel on the spectacular train route to the Pacific Ocean, called El Chepe, as the most scenic part of it is located between the towns of El Fuerte and Bahucivo.
There are also buses traveling from Chihuahua to El Divisavero, crossing the Copper Canyon area. But if you travel by car, you could enjoy more options by visiting some places near the main route. The whole distance between Chihuahua and El Divisavero can be traveled for about 7 hours, and if you use the opportunity to stop at different points on the route and aside, I would recommend at least 3 days of exploring.
The most developed and strategic point for exploring the canyons is Creel. From there, you can go hiking around the area, and if you are more adventurous, you can penetrate further deep into the canyon system. However, have in mind that the least developed places can be dangerous, and hiring a guide is strongly recommended.
Kali Gandaki Gorge, Nepal
This is the deepest canyon in the world. Actually, the canyon is not so long, and not the deepest throughout its whole length, but there is a point on it where its slopes are higher than 5500 m. This is the section of the canyon that passes directly between the two 8000-ers- the peaks of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna.
Kali Gandaki Gorge is a mountain type of canyon. It is formed by the Kali Gandaki River that flows from the border between Nepal and China, from the Himalayan Ganges-Brahmaputra Watershed. From here, the river flows southward through the ancient kingdom of Mustang. And its valley turns into a spectacular canyon after the capital of Mustang- Lo Manthang.
Then, the gorge proceeds southward with steep slopes, but not as deep as in the Annapurna-Dhaulagiri area. Finally, it descends to the Indus-Ganges Plain, while becoming wider or narrower on its way.
How to reach and explore Kali Gandaki Gorge
Kali Gandaki Gorge is a part of one of the most spectacular trekking routes in Nepal and the Himalayas- the Annapurna Circuit. This route starts from Pokhara and circles around Mount Annapurna. Usually, it proceeds 10 to 15 days, or even more. It passes through the gorge west of Annapurna.
Another trekking route also passes through the Kali Gandaki Gorge- the Dhaulagiri Circuit. However, this one is longer and with a much higher level of difficulty. Anyway, it is really worth trying by those who are more adventurous and more trained physically.
Or, if you don’t plan to go on trekking around these two giant peaks, you can just travel to Mustang. However, have in mind that it is an expensive journey. Entering Mustang requires a permit for entrance that costs 50 USD per person per day. In addition, there is another permit for the Annapurna Conservation Area that costs 2260 NR per person.
Fish River Canyon, Namibia
This is the largest canyon in Africa, and one of the largest canyons in the world. Its size doesn’t come from depth (in fact, it is just about 400-500 m deep), but from its length and width-about 160 km long and in some places 27 km wide.
The canyon is formed by the Fish River that comes from the Eastern Naukluft Mountains, flows from north to south, and finally drains into the Atlantic Ocean. On its way, it gradually erodes the plateaus of Namibia and cuts the canyon through a mountainous area. The river is seasonal- it flows only during the rainy season, the rest of the time is dry, and only some pools remain. Along the course of the river, it makes numerous meanders.
Fish River Canyon is divided into Upper and Lower canyons. They look a bit different as the rocks cut by the river are geologically different. Today, both of them are declared as a national monument.
The whole canyon is located in a dry and deserted geographical zone. And the result is a Martian-like type of landscape with its own charm and challenges. It makes Fish River Canyon one of the most visited sites in Namibia.
How to reach and explore Fish River Canyon
Both parts of Fish River Canyon are turned into two national park systems. In the south (the Lower Canyon) is the Richtersveld Transfrontier National Park, and the north (the Upper Canyon) is within the boundaries of several private Nature Reserves.
In the south is the deepest part of the canyon, and the main starting point for exploring it is Ai-Ais, a nice resort with hot springs. Besides this place, there are several other places that can be your starting points like the Fish River Canyon Viewpoint near Hobas, Vogelstrausskluft Lodge, and Seeheim (for the Upper Canyon).
All these points are easily reachable from Windhoek by 7 hours driving or by charter flights (yes, they have airstrips). But have in mind that due to the harsh conditions in the canyon (it can get extremely hot), it is opened only from May 1st to September 15th. Also, you need to obtain a permit for 35 USD from Namibia Wildlife Resorts. Then, you can enjoy many activities, including the popular 85 km hike from Hobas to Ai-Ais.
Three Parallel Rivers, China
This is the largest canyon system in the world. In fact, this is a mountain area where three of the largest rivers in Asia and on the Earth flow close to each other. These rivers are Jinsha, Langcang, and Nujiang. Maybe you have never heard about these rivers? Let me tell you their best-known names- they are Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween.
More precisely, Jinsha is the name of the Yangtze River section, Langcang- the name of a Mekong River section, and Nujiang- the name of a Salween River section. All these are the sections in the Three Parallel Rivers area. Here these rivers flow next to each other for more than 300 km in three deep canyons. The high ridges between them (called Hengduan) prevent them from joining, so when they leave the area, they change their course in different directions.
Although these are three separated canyons, the whole terrain unites them into one geological feature. The bottoms of the canyons in the area are between 1600 and 2500 m altitude, and the ridges between them reach more than 6000 m, as the highest peak is Kawagebo (Meili Xueshan), with 6740 m altitude, rising over the 2100 m bottom of Langcang River.
How to reach and explore the Three Parallel Rivers
A significant part of the Three Parallel Rivers area is well-developed for tourism. Today, it is turned into a protected area that includes the main part of the three canyons. And there is a spectacular road that travels through this area. It starts from the city of Lijiang in Yunnan Province of China and reaches the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
On its route, the road passes by the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge on Jinsha (Yangtze) River, which is a spectacular part of the Three Parallel Rivers. Then, it ascends to Shangri La City and its grasslands. From here, the road descends to Jinsha River again at 2050 m, and ascends to Baima Pass (4230 m), and finally reaches the Tibetan town of Deqin.
From Deqin, you can enjoy the magnificent views of Mt Kawagebo, you can descend to Langcang (Mekong) River and hike the Kawagebo’s slopes. For foreigners, this is the last point that you can reach (the nearby Chamdo Prefecture of the Tibetan Autonomous Region is closed for foreigners). There are daily buses from Kunming and Lijiang to Deqin.
Nujiang (Salween) River is more difficult to reach because it is in the border area near Myanmar. But even if you explore only the canyons of Jinsha and Langcang, you would enjoy fantastic views of this region of the Earth, where Tibet meets Southeast Asia.
Buckskin Gulch, USA
Now, let’s take a look at the slot canyons too. They are much smaller than the large mountain and plateau eroding canyons, but they also have their Number One (or at least several “Number Ones”). So, here it is- Buckskin Gulch, one of the largest slot canyons in the world, and the largest one in the USA.
Buckskin Gulch is carved as a deep and narrow ravine by the seasonal Buckskin River. It flows through a sandstone area and joins the Paria River. In fact, Buckskin and Paria are two canyons of the same system. Paria Canyon is longer, but it is more like a “normal” canyon, and only parts of it are of slot type. Finally, the Paria River joins the Colorado River and the famous Colorado Grand Canyon.
The length of Buckskin Gulch is 21 km (13 miles) and its depth reaches 150 m. A small tributary of the canyon, coming from Wire Pass joins it in its upper section, as a part of the same system. Both slots are dry most of the year, but sometimes, during rains in the area, they can be flooded by waters reaching 30 m of height.
How to reach and explore Buckskin Gulch
Buckskin Gulch is located on the border between the states of Utah and Arizona. The nearest big cities to the canyons are Salt Lake City in Utah, Las Vegas in Nevada, and Phoenix, Arizona, of which Las Vegas is the nearest. From these cities, you can reach the canyon by 4-5 hours of driving.
There are several entry points for exploring the canyon, and all of them are connected by trails: Wire Pass Trailhead, Middle Trail Escape Route, Buckskin/Paria Confluence, White House Trail, and Lee Ferry. These trails follow the bottom of the slot canyon, its branch from Wire Pass, and include the canyon of Paria River.
To explore Buckskin Gulch Canyon, you need to pay for a permit (this is a protected area)- 6 USD per person per day. If you want to stay overnight and camp in the canyon, have in mind that there is a limit of 20 permits per day, and if you go in a group, it is also limited to 10 persons. And since the canyon is very popular, you better buy a permit online at least 2-3 months in advance from the Bureau of Land Management.
Colorado Grand Canyon, USA
This is the most famous canyon on our planet. Yes, it is not Number One in size but is still one of the largest canyons in the world. And also, it is one of the oldest formations, dating (according to scientific research) from about 2 billion years ago. The canyon is formed by the Colorado River, one of the longest rivers in North America.
Colorado Grand Canyon is a typical plain eroding canyon. The river was gradually penetrating deeper and deeper into the slowly rising plain which is now a plateau. And today you can see a lot of layers on the canyon’s slopes, dating from different geological periods. For such a long time, it has become quite deep, reaching a maximum depth of more than 1800 m.
The canyon is steep-sided, and with its length of 446 km (277 miles), it is the second-longest in the world. Its width varies and reaches its maximum of 27 km. At the same time, while the Colorado River flows from east to west, the two rims of the canyon are at different altitudes. The North Rim is higher (about 2400 m) and the South Rim is lower (about 2100 m).
How to reach and explore Colorado Grand Canyon
Since it is the most famous canyon in the world, needless to say, it is very well developed for tourists. The canyon and the whole area around it are turned into a National Park.
The nearest big cities to the Grand Canyon are Las Vegas in Nevada and Phoenix in Arizona. And the best way to visit the canyon is by car. But you have to choose between visiting the North or the South Rim. Although there is only a 10-15 km distance across the canyon (maximum- 27 km) between them, you can’t cross it by car, but drive around it. The two nearest bridges are at Henderson in the west and at Page in the east.
If you choose the North Rim, the best area is the Kaibab National Forest. And in the South, it is Grand Canyon Village. There are many other points on both sides of the canyon, and from there, you can enjoy various activities, including hiking.
Entering the National Park requires a 15 USD entrance fee for a person walking on foot or biking and 35 USD for a vehicle. All these permits can be used for seven days.
Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, China
This canyon can hold the prize for Number One for its length and depth. Yarlung Tsangpo Canyon is the longest canyon in the world- 505 km, and also the deepest one- at its deepest point, the difference between the river bottom and the mountain top reaches 6009 m of altitude!
Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon is formed by the Yarlung Tsangpo River, which is the Tibetan section of Brahmaputra- one of the largest rivers in Asia. The river’s source is at the famous Mount Kailash in Tibet. It flows eastward until at a certain point starts digging deep into the Himalayas. Then, it surrounds the Himalayan easternmost high peak- Namcha Barwa (7782 m) and turns south-southwestward to the plains of Arunachal Pradesh.
And here, at the foot of Namcha Barwa, the canyon reaches its maximum depth. In fact, here the river marks the eastern boundary of the Himalayas Proper. But there is another extremely high peak at the other side of the canyon- Gyala Peri (7294 m), and the river between them flows at just about 1600 m altitude, descending from 2900 m. Needless to say, the result is a breathtaking trench on the surface of the Earth!
How to explore Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon
Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon is located in the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. So, to visit it, you need an organized by a local company tour that will arrange a travel permit. It doesn’t necessarily mean a group tour (although it would be the cheapest option), but in any case, you can’t travel there independently, unless you are a Chinese citizen.
The nearest city to the canyon is Nyingchi. And since foreigners usually go to Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, you have to travel from Lhasa to Nyingchi by bus, by plane (but again with a tour guy together), or by a group tour.
From Nyingchi, there are buses to the towns and villages on the way to the canyon- Bayi and Pailong. From there, you can go trekking to Zhaqu, then on more trails that walk beside the river, at the bottom of the canyon. Some of the trails ascend to scenic viewpoints from where you can enjoy the fantastic views of the magnificent Namcha Barwa and the deep bottom below.
These are the 10 largest canyons in the world. Of course, there are many more canyons. Although they are smaller in one or another way, some of them are even more beautiful than the first 10. Of course, it depends on the personal taste and point of view, but the 10 canyons described above are the best geographical examples of what is a “canyon”. And making journeys to them is always worth it!
Check some travel books about canyons:
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