Each year, more than 4.4 million people visit Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, and for good reason. It is simply an unparalleled destination for grandeur and awe at Mother Nature's gifts to us. But 4.4 million people is a lot of company and there are plenty of canyons out there worthy of exploration that also provide some fairly awesome travel experiences. Let's check out a few.
Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle is officially the second largest canyon in North America - less than half the size of the Grand Canyon in just about all measurements, Palo Duro is certainly worth a visit for the easy access to the bottom. Yep, you can simply drive down in air-conditioned comfort, enjoy camping, picnicking, mountain biking and the summer musical "Texas" in a natural amphitheater.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is about 200 miles from the Grand Canyon, but receives just a tiny fraction of visitors per year. It is located entirely on Navajo lands, who call the canyon the "heart of the world." This quiet, peaceful landscape - really two 20-mile-long canyons - was for centuries their place for prayer and contemplation; a place for songs and ceremonies.
Cottonwoods and Russian olive trees grow wild, along with lavender-flowered tamarisk and bushy salt-cedar. In spring, the prickly pear cactus, yucca, and other wildflowers contribute to the palette. A stream sneaks its way through the bottom of the canyon, often entirely invisible to most visitors, but providing necessary moisture to the Navajo who live and farm in the canyon.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in southern Colorado between Montrose and Gunnison, is a narrow, deep gorge carved by the Gunnison River, with sheer cliffs rising to heights over 2,000 feet. No other canyon in North America combines such a narrow opening, sheer walls and startling depths, and that's why it is preserved as a National Park.
The similarity to the Grand Canyon is that funny vertigo feeling you get when you look into its depths. Unlike the Grand Canyon, you can't take a mule ride to the bottom, but you can take a boat ride into the canyon from nearby Morrow Point. Rock climbing along the sheer granite walls here is breathtaking to watch, so it's surely heart pounding for those who actually participate in the sport.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in Yellowstone National Park is roughly 20 miles long from the Upper Falls to the Tower Fall area, making it the third largest canyon in America. A number of scenic overlooks and easy trails provide access to the canyon, but if you want to hike down the 1,200 feet to the bottom of the Upper Falls, there will surely be some heavy breathing on the way back to the top. The canyon varies in width from 1,500 to 4,000 feet and the Yellowstone River that runs through the bottom is a magnet for wildlife in the early morning and evening hours. Point of Trivia: The Yellowstone River is the longest undammed river in the continental U.S.
The Grand Canyon of the East is officially known as Letchworth State Park in western New York, about 45 miles from Rochester. The river making the magic here is the Genesee and, with three magnificent waterfalls, this could also be called a mini-Niagara Falls. The park has 66 miles of hiking trails, but you can also go whitewater rafting, kayaking and swimming in beautiful calm pools. Those who have done it say the hot air ballooning over the canyon is well worth the time and money.
The New River Gorge in West Virginia is known as much for its bridge and the crazy people who jump off of it as it is for the depths of beauty as the New River carves the deepest and longest canyon in the Appalachian Mountains. More than 50 miles of the river are protected as a National River, thus making for pristine hiking, rafting and fishing. But admittedly, as many people are in awe of the man-made wonders as they are the natural wonders. The New River Gorge Bridge, completed in 1977, is one of the highest bridges in the world at more than 875 feet above the river. Each October, the bridge is closed to vehicular traffic for a festival that includes base jumping from the bridge.
With all of these beautiful canyons, the idea is to get out and explore, get up close and personal with the powerful rivers and the earths natural architecture. But do so with caution. Hiking, rafting, horseback riding, bridge jumping - these all come with some risk of bumps and bruises, occasionally a sprained or broken bone. But what great road warrior tales you'll have to tell, particularly when you can brag about your own acumen at preparing with good travel insurance.
Where are your favorite canyons in America?
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A Midwest farm girl at heart, Diana Lambdin Meyer caught the roaming bug early in life. Diana married well - to a photographer who also has the travel bug and whose work in still and video complements her words. Now based in the Kansas City area, Diana is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers who makes a full-time living on the road and at the keyboard. Read about Diana's adventures on her blog, Mojotraveler or follow her on Twitter or Google Plus.
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