There’s no shortage of incredible fissures in our planet’s surface, but picking the biggest and best gets complicated. Do we measure length, depth, width? Overall volume? Does scenery trump size? And considering some, like a handful of monsters in the Himalayas, aren’t readily accessible to humans, can we even get accurate measurements?
We do know this much:The Grand Canyon is one mile deep, 277 river miles long, and is an average of 10 miles wide from rim to rim. Here are five more canyons that can take your breath away just as well.
The World’s Greatest Canyons: Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, Tibet
The Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon often comes up in debates about which canyon is truly the world’s largest, longest, or deepest; with a top-to-bottom reach in some sections of up to 17,000 feet, it’s three times deeper than Arizona’s offering, and it goes on for 300 miles. It’s located in the northern Himalaya, in Tibet, and the Tsangpo River that runs through it is a landmark in itself.
Nicknamed the Everest of rivers, the Tsangpo isn’t for casual day rafters, and it sees few visitors: permit fees are high, travel to Tibet is often restricted, and the river’s whitewater is among the gnarliest in the world. In 2002, after years of failed attempts and fatalities, a seven-man team led by Scott Lindgren spent 45 days making the first ever successful descent of the upper portion of the gorge.
The World’s Greatest Canyons: Verdon Gorge, France
The Verdon Gorge isn’t the world’s longest or deepest canyon—it plunges down just over 2,000 feet, and runs for a bit more than 12 mile—but it might well be the world’s prettiest. The Verdon River, at the gorge’s bottom, is a clear, surreal blue, and together with the canyon’s limestone cliffs it draws paddlers, climbers and other adventurers.
For hikers, the GR4 trail of the French “Grandes Randonnées” system follows the canyon’s north rim, drops down to the valley floor and then climbs up and out again. There are also ten short day-hiking trails in the gorge. The nearest villages are Aiguines and Moustiers-Sainte-Marie—both are equipped with hotels and detailed canyon information. Those without a car can catch buses to the Verdon Gorge area from the major hub of Marseilles.
The World’s Greatest Canyons: Cotahuasi Canyon and Colca Canyon, Peru
In the Peruvian Andes, these two canyons are a two-for-one deal. Both are located near the city of Arequipa, and within striking distance of Machu Picchu-bound travelers; both are more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon.
The Colca is more famous and much more frequently visited—it’s known for its Incan and pre-Incan history and for the presence of the otherwise rare Andean Condor—but both are accessible to travelers. The town of Chivay is the local jumping-off point for Colca Canyon, but tours and local buses also depart from Arequipa, where rental cars are available too. The small rim-side village of Cabanaconde is a good spot for a short, tough hike down into the canyon itself.
The World’s Greatest Canyons: Copper Canyon, Mexico
Copper Canyon should properly be plural—it’s a series of six canyons in the western Sierra Madre mountains whose rivers eventually carve their way to the Sea of Cortes. Among travelers, it’s often been best known for the dramatic “El Chepe” railway that links Chihuahua to the coast, but these days it’s also famous for its runners: this was where ultrarunner Micah True made his name.
In the wake of True’s death in New Mexico, the Copper Canyon ultramarathon that he founded was renamed the Ultramarathon Caballo Blanco. The 50-mile run along dusty singletrack and remote mountain roads includes nearly 10,000 feet of ascent and descent. For hardened ultra-athletes, the next ultra goes on March 2, 2014; for the rest of us, there’s a lengthy guided hike offered a few days before race day.
The World’s Greatest Canyons: Fish River Canyon, Namibia
The 100-mile-long canyon (Africa’s largest) sits on Namibia’s border with South Africa, and is protected as part of Ai-Ais—Richterfeld Transfrontier Park. One of its highlights is an epic multiday hike along the canyon floor along the Fish River Canyon Trail, which runs for just over 50 miles and is generally hiked in four or five days, passing two hot springs and oodles of wildlife, including baboon troops and zebra herds, along the way.
Due to the extreme temperatures present in the canyon, hikers are only permitted to descend into it from April to September, and must have a doctor’s certificate confirming that they’re healthy enough to tackle the hike. If you’re planning to try it, plan to be self-sufficient: once at the bottom of the canyon, there are only two emergency exit points..