Photograph by George H.H. Huey, Corbis
The great canyons of the national parks are for most, drive-to jaw-droppers that lie below scenic drives and rim trails that lead to stunning overlooks. For some, though, canyons beg to be explored. Canyon hikes can be quite an undertaking—almost always a steep, dry descent and a climb back—but the sensory experience is worth it.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
An out-and-back hike on the South Rim’s Hermit Trail delivers the visceral impact of Arizona’s Grand Canyon rim-to-rim epic without having to share it with hordes of fellow pilgrims. This lesser used trail provides awesome canyon views as it switchbacks down towering red-wall faces. Start at Hermits Rest off West Rim Drive and descend gradually through stands of piñon and juniper into a red-rock abyss as far as the heart desires. Backpackers can plunge 3,800 feet amid shale slopes and sandstone cliffs to lovely, cool Hermit Creek and a trail camp. Along the way stands evidence of this route’s origins— a long-abandoned train track that served a tourist camp built by the Santa Fe Railroad. Set up camp and take a day hike down to Hermit Rapids on the Colorado River or on nearby portions of the Tonto Trail, which has superb river and canyon views. To simply make a day of it, follow the Hermit Trail to the Boucher Trail to Dripping Springs, hiking beneath sheer 1,200-foot cliffs to a lovely spring nestled within an alcove of Coconino sandstone. The seven-mile round-trip drops “only” 1,700 feet and represents a grand cross section of canyon formations.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Queen’s Garden/Peekaboo Trails and the Fairyland Loop
Only a thin red line divides fantasy from geology in Utah’s Bryce Canyon. A hike amid the park’s rococo hoodoos—sandstone spires arrayed in amazing mazes, fantastically animated forms shimmering in colors that Revlon can only covet—lends itself to true flights of fancy. The hoodoos rule. The Queens Garden/Peekaboo figure-eight loop (6.5 miles) is Bryce’s signature hoodoo hike. Working clockwise from Sunrise Point, descend into Bryce Amphitheater on the Queens Garden Trail into hoodooland. Then pick up the Peekaboo Trail to crisscross a ridge rife with hoodoos, and climb out via Wall Street’s towering sandstone spires. That’s all warm-up for the eight-mile Fairyland Loop, which loses and gains 2,309 cumulative feet as it navigates first a hoodoo graveyard of stumpy towers, then a forest of tall hoodoos that rise to the canyon rim. The park’s popular full-moon hikes—no flashlights permitted—drop into this same hoodoo fairyland.
Death Valley National Park, California
California’s Death Valley is really a park of canyons—slots and chasms and fluted corridors piercing the mountains that frame the valley. The one not to be missed is Fall Canyon, which can be reached from the Titus Canyon (a jeep road) trailhead: Proceed three miles up a wash surrounded by twisted striations of metamorphosed marble and dolomite to a dry waterfall, then another three miles through a narrow slot. Mosaic Canyon, near Stovepipe Wells, leads past walls of polished marble and ends at a dry waterfall two miles up. Golden Canyon is probably the most popular—an interpretive trail leads through the mile-long canyon, whose walls show tilted and twisted layers of rock that show the valley’s faulting action, as well as mudstone deposits and ripple patterns that indicate an ancient lakeshore. At the head of the canyon is Red Cathedral’s steep, rust-colored fluted cliffs.
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona
True canyoneering is a technical craft that entails climbing, rappelling, and often swimming through slot canyons that can narrow down to a body squeeze, then drop off 40 or 50 feet into another slot. Cathedral Wash gives a sense of that adventure without the technical demands, though this three-mile round-trip hike does require a bit of scrambling. The trailhead is on the Lees Ferry access road in Arizona, which curves around a prominent formation called Cathedral Rock. The hike leads through narrow passageways lined by cliffs of limestone and sandstone, smoothed and eroded into all manner of formations—arches, alcoves, overhangs, muddy pools, and dry waterfalls that are anything but dry when a flash flood courses through. This is obviously not a hike to make during or after a rain in the vicinity. In the heart of the canyon, hikers must make their way along ledges and ease themselves down drop-offs. Finally the trail opens up and reaches the Colorado River, which signals an about-face for the return hike.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
North Vista Trail
Few canyons anywhere match Colorado’s Black for its combination of sheer walls, narrow opening, and depth. It’s 2,722 feet deep at its greatest depth, and in places its rim-to-rim opening is a mere 500 feet. Its name comes from the darkness of its gneiss and schist stone, but lack of direct sunlight contributes to the effect. No trails venture into the canyon, but determined scramblers can make their way down rock-filled gullies, as fly-fishers occasionally do to cast in the gold-medal trout waters of the Gunnison. The return trip is arduous. Get guidance from park rangers before attempting a hike to the bottom. Otherwise, this is mainly a look-at, rather than a hike-into canyon, and the best look-at hike is probably the North Vista Trail, a 7.2-mile round-trip. It leads from the North Rim Ranger Station to Exclamation Point, for one great look at the canyon, and then to the top of Green Mountain, 867 feet higher, for a high view that takes in the rim as well as the canyon.
Colorado National Monument, Colorado
Monument Canyon Trail
As stunning as this Colorado monument’s Rim Rock Drive is, it pales in comparison to a firsthand experience of the depths of Monument Canyon, where steep-walled gorges and naturally sculpted rock formations are a textbook of 1.7 billion years of geological history. Solitude and the singing of birds add to its pleasures. The signature hike is Monument Canyon Trail, which descends 600 feet in the first mile, then flattens out and continues another five, passing some of the park’s most striking landforms along the way. Note the layers of rock, from variegated sandstone and mudstone to dark reds of Kayenta and Wingate sandstones. About halfway down are three major formations—Pipe Organ, Praying Hands, and Independence Monument, the latter a remnant of a wall that once divided Monument Canyon from Wedding Canyon. But the hike isn’t entirely made of stone—it also leads through piñon pine and juniper trees, and bighorn sheep might be spotted along the way.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona
Bare Trail to Tunnel Trail
Canyon de Chelly National Monument lies within the Navajo Nation, some of whose people live and farm in the canyon. Hiking here, apart from one trail, has to be in the company of a professional Navajo guide. That’s good, because local knowledge is necessary to navigate its hundred or so different trails, most of which are ancient, and many of which are extremely steep, “hand-and-toe” trails. Some are dangerous. Some require a notched log (ladder) to reach a goal. The guides know the safe routes, and, of course, know the cultural history of the canyon, which has been settled for more than 2,000 years. Hikes are always customized to suit the interest and fitness of the hikers. A typical hike would be along Bare Trail to Tunnel Trail, starting in Canyon del Muerto, ending in Canyon de Chelly, taking in at least a half dozen ancient Pueblo ruins and caves along the way. The one trail that can be hiked without a guide is White House Trail, a short hike to one of the monument’s finest ruins. Any hike here is a walk through time. The park’s website has a link to a list of certified local guides.
Zion National Park, Utah
The greatest hikes aren’t only beautiful; they’re an adventure. In southern Utah, Zion’s Angels Landing hike is definitely both. It ascends a dramatic red sandstone formation that rises 1,488 feet from the middle of Zion Canyon, and hikers have no clue how they’ll get to the top until they do it. It begins innocently enough, skirting the Virgin River from a trailhead near the Grotto picnic area and slowly climbing through slopes dotted with piñon and juniper trees. Portions of it are paved. But soon enough, the real action begins in the form of Walter’s Wiggles—21 crazy-steep, supertight, zigzagging switchbacks, like a spiral staircase carved right into the huge block of sandstone. The final leg is as steep as a trail can be, and the drop-offs are sheer, so hikers just might want to grab the handhold chains bolted into the cliff. That’s the way to the top, to Scout Lookout. The view of the river and the Zion Canyon floor below looks like an aerial photograph, only there’s no airplane.
Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah
Rattlesnake Creek Trail and Two Short Rim Trails
Utah’s early Native Americans called Cedar Breaks the “circle of painted cliffs.” The circle is really a giant amphitheater whose floor is a maze of multicolored pinnacles, spires, fins, columns, and arches. It’s a big commitment to walk to the depths of Cedar Breaks, but you can do it via Rattlesnake Creek Trail, a strenuous, nine-mile route that flirts with the northern boundary of the park and passes through Ashdown Gorge Wilderness Area. The trail drops 2,500 feet in four miles before it connects with Ashdown Creek, which can be followed into Cedar Breaks. Or, with a car shuttle, a hiker can continue five miles to Utah 14. Along the way stands Flanigan Arch, which rises 100 feet and spans 50 feet. This is a hike only for the fit and adventurous, although summer heat is far less a concern than in Grand Canyon because Cedar Break’s rim is above 10,000 feet. Less intrepid visitors can enjoy two short rim hikes—Alpine Pond Trail leads to a great view at Chessman Overlook and to a spring-fed pond; Spectra Point/Ramparts Overlook Trail follows the south rim to a viewpoint before it passes through a stand of ancient bristlecone pines.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Uncle Tom’s Trail
Located in northwestern Wyoming, Yellowstone seems to contain every type of natural wonder on Earth, so it’s no surprise that a magnificent canyon is among them. The 20-mile-long, 1,000-foot-deep, V-shaped Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is both a thermal area and a river canyon. It was at one time covered by rhyolite lava flows, and some geysers and hot springs are still evident here. An unusual trail leads to the bottom of the canyon at Lower Falls. Uncle Tom’s Trail was built in 1898 as a tourist attraction—“Uncle” Tom Richardson built stairs and used rope ladders to get tourists down to the base of the waterfall. The trail is much improved, but still strenuous—it switchbacks steeply and uses more than 300 metal stairs in the course of a 500-foot drop that delivers hikers to the base of the roaring 308-foot waterfall. Distinct colors in the canyon walls indicate thermal spots where the rock has essentially rusted. The park’s nominal yellow stone indicates the presence of iron.
From the National Geographic book The 10 Best of Everything—National Parks