Nothing illustrates the steady corrosive powers of water like a river canyon. Carving their way through solid rock, sometimes over the course of millions of years, rivers slowly create these incredible and vast natural sculptures.
Long and deep canyons are particular places of wonder, as the stunning examples on this list illustrate. Some, like Arizona’s Grand Canyon, are well known; others, such as Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, aren’t quite so famous. However, they’re all astonishing in their own unique ways. Let’s plunge into our first canyon…
Note: the selection and ordering of these canyons is not certain, because what constitutes ‘largest’ can be gauged by length, depth or total area. Also, some canyons in the Himalayas are not accessible and are thus not considered.
Image: Mercy from Wikimedia Commons
10. Tara River Canyon – Montenegro
We begin our descent with the twisting, turning curves of the Tara River Canyon in Montenegro, which reaches down far enough to make this the deepest river gorge in all of Europe. At its deepest point, the canyon drops to 4,265 feet (1,300 m), courtesy of the Tara River that carves through it.
Located in the Durmitor National Park, Tara River Canyon is protected and is also part of a possible UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even from the highest peaks, you’re likely to hear the thundering sound of more than 40 cascades plunging into this amazing canyon, which is 50 miles (82 km) long.
Image: Dr. Thomas Wagner
9. Blyde River Canyon – South Africa
Blyde River Canyon in South Africa may not be the largest on Earth, but it does have the distinction of being one of the greenest. As well as boasting an average depth of 2,500 feet (762 m), this 16-mile (26 km) long gorge is covered in abundant subtropical plant life, which definitely adds to its appeal. The deepest part of the canyon is said to be from the top of Mariepskop mountain down to the river’s exit, with a total drop of 4,500 feet (1,372 m).
Some of the most incredible vistas in South Africa can be seen from the rim of Blyde River Canyon – and from one spot it’s possible to see over the border to Mozambique. What’s more, if wildlife rocks your boat more than awesome views, you’ll be pleased to know that this canyon is overflowing with stunning fauna, including all five species of South African primates.
Image: Jens Uhlenbrock
8. Copper Canyon – Mexico
Strictly speaking, this canyon in Chihuahua, Mexico is not just one but six canyons, which are known collectively as Copper Canyon. Barranca del Cobre, as it is called in Spanish, is named after the coppery green hue of its walls. And the six rivers responsible for creating these amazing valleys flow into the Sea of Cortez as part of the larger Rio Fuerte.
The deepest canyon in the system, Barranca de Urique, is a whopping 6,164 feet (1,879 m) deep. Copper Canyon is rich in wildlife, but, sadly, many of the species are now endangered due to deforestation. Hopefully, something can be done to help these animals before this canyon loses one of its most important features.
7. Cotahuasi Canyon – Peru
There are a couple of entries on this list from Peru, and Cotahuasi Canyon, which plummets to 11,598 feet (3,535 m) at its deepest point, is the first. The canyon was carved out between two mountain ranges, the Coropuna and the Solimana, by the Cotahuasi River.
The landscape surrounding Cotahuasi Canyon is both dramatic and remote – and if you want to visit, you’ll need to spend up to 12 hours on a bus getting there. Still, while this may be inconvenient for tourists, it isn’t such a bad thing from a conservation perspective.
Image: Chris Streeter
6. Colca Canyon – Peru
The second Peruvian canyon on our list is Colca Canyon. Dropping to a depth of 13,650 feet (4,160 m), this geographical wonder in southern Peru is an impressive sight. It’s one of the world’s deepest canyons – if not quite the deepest of all, despite its being promoted as such. That said, Colca Canyon is twice the depth of the Arizona’s Grand Canyon, and it’s also one of Peru’s most visited tourist destinations. Personally, we’re not sure how close to the edge we’d like to get…
Colca Canyon isn’t just about beautiful views; the canyon is also home to the Andean Condor, the vicuña (a South American camelid), and several other notable bird and mammal species. What’s more, the valley boasts archaeological sites dating back around 6,000 years, hot springs in which to soak, and the Infiernillo Geyser. And added to all this are the lush green stepped terraces of the inhabitants, who have been farming this way since pre-Inca times. No wonder the area gets around 120,000 tourists a year.
Image: Marco Woschitz
5. Fish River Canyon – Namibia
Fish River Canyon in Namibia is the largest canyon in Africa. This gigantic river channel meanders 100 miles (160 km) through a plateau. The canyon is rocky, but it’s a popular place to visit – especially with hikers – thanks to its stunning views. The ravine itself measures 1,804 feet (550 m) deep, and in some places it stretches 17 miles (27 km) wide.
Although the river at the base of Fish River Canyon spends most of the year divided into shallow pools, in the late summer hikers need to watch out for flash floods. Every year, a marathon is held in the canyon, testing runners with rough trails and extreme conditions. As one competitor remarks, “This canyon is not for the fainthearted.”
4. The Grand Canyon – USA
It may not be the world’s biggest canyon – although many people think it is – but the Grand Canyon in Arizona is without doubt the most famous. Measuring 6,000 feet (1,828 m) deep and 277 miles (445 km) long, this majestic place is one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.
Geologists are still debating how the Grand Canyon first formed. The most current theory is that 17 million years ago, the Colorado River first started to cut its way through the many layers of rock and then continued to widen and deepen the channel, creating its present-day configuration. This canyon sculpting was also given a boost during the ice ages, when there was more water in the river, which helped to erode the canyon at an even faster rate. These days, around five million people a year visit the Grand Canyon from all over the world.
Image: Michał Sałaban
3. The Kali Gandaki Gorge – Nepal
The Kali Gandaki River, which winds its way through the Kali Gandaki Gorge in Nepal, is even more ancient than the towering Himalayan mountain range that surrounds it. The river is named after the Hindu goddess Kali; and its churning waters are black in color due to the presence of glacial silt.
The exact depth of the giant Kali Gandaki Gorge is debated, because not everyone agrees on the height of its rim. However, if the depth were measured from the highest peaks on either side to the river down below, it would be the deepest canyon in the world, with a depth of around 22,309 feet (6,800 m).
Image: Mandy Wilson
2. Capertee Valley – Australia
We turn now to the Capertee Valley in New South Wales, Australia. This majestic canyon is the largest in Australia and is known for its rugged landscape and towering sandstone escarpments. Due to its age, Capertee Valley is not as deep as some of the other canyons on this list, but what it lacks in depth it makes up for with sheer size. Capertee Valley is wider and about 0.6 miles (1 km) longer than the Grand Canyon.
At the base of the valley, the Capertee River carves its way through Permian and Triassic rock, which dates back millions of years. The Aboriginal Wiradjuri people have a very extensive history on this land, as shown by the 2,000-year-old rock art in the area. Other ancient treasures have been dug up here as well – such as diamonds from the abandoned mines dug into the mountainside. One prospector found 77 of the gemstones in six days!
Image: Einar Fredriksen
1. Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon – Tibet
High in the Himalayas, beginning near the sacred Mount Kailash, a mighty canyon winds its way down to the Brahmaputra River in Northern India. With an average depth of 16,000 feet (4,876 m) around the mountains of Namcha Barwa, and plunging down to 19,714 feet (6,009 m) at one point, the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon is often considered the deepest canyon on Earth.
And it’s not only the depth of the Yarlung Tsangpo that’s impressive; this vast canyon also runs for 150 miles (240 km), and through some spectacular Tibetan terrain. The river that courses through this canyon is known by kayakers for its challenging conditions, which have earned it the nickname “The Everest of Rivers”.
Image: Patrick Giraud
Another look at Fish River Canyon
We think you’ll agree that each of the canyons we’ve visited here are beautiful and fascinating places, whether they’re green and lush like Blyde Canyon or arid and rocky like Fish River. So, if you’re an adventurous soul but you’re afraid of heights, perhaps canyon exploration is the answer (you’ll just have to skip the famous Grand Canyon helicopter tour).