There is little room for debate about which of Arizona’s canyons takes top billing. After all, the state is known as The Grand Canyon State.
A bona fide natural wonder of the world, the Grand Canyon is among the longest and deepest canyons on Earth. A chance to gaze into its vast depths draws about six million people to the Grand Canyon National Park each year, making it one of Arizona’s main tourist attractions.
Still, the Grand Canyon is far from the only stunning canyon in the state. With its varied terrain that runs from the desert lowlands in the south to towering mountains in the north, Arizona boasts countless canyons, large and small.
Like the Grand Canyon, several of the state’s other canyons owe their topography to the eons of erosion from the Colorado River or its tributaries. While the rivers that run through the canyons are often seasonal in arid Arizona, the canyon walls are available for adventures year around.
Here are seven amazing canyons to explore in Arizona after you’ve experienced the Grand Canyon. (Note that several of the Navajo Nation canyons are subject to temporary closures because of COVID-19 restrictions.)
1. Sycamore Canyon
Known as Arizona’s second-largest canyon, Sycamore Canyon is largely a hidden gem. Although it is located near Sedona’s famous Red Rock Country, Sycamore Canyon is less accessible, and therefore attracts significantly fewer visitors than Sedona’s famous Oak Creek Canyon.
While it takes more effort to get to Sycamore Canyon, the payoff is solitude and arguably comparable views. When I visited in November, a few patches of early snow set off the classic northern-Arizona landscape of ponderosa pines, prickly cacti, and rocky outcrops. An added bonus: I had the trail mostly to myself.
A portion of the canyon lies in the Coconino National Forest, and the forest’s website describes the canyon as being distinguished by colorful cliffs, soaring pinnacles, and desert riparian areas. In wet years, Sycamore Creek runs through the canyon and seasonally flows over the 70-foot-high Sycamore Falls.
Access to Sycamore Canyon is mostly over dirt roads (somewhat rough but passable in a passenger car) south of the Interstate 40 town of Williams.
The Sycamore Canyon Wilderness area offers 15 trails to explore -- ranging from the remote Taylor Cabin Trail, which offers a bit of cowboy history, to the Sycamore Rim Trail, a 12-mile route that follows the rim of the canyon and passes by the seasonal Sycamore Falls, to the Parsons Trail, a scenic creek-side route near the Verde Valley town of Clarkdale.
Pro Tip: Located just a few hours south of the Grand Canyon, Sycamore Canyon is a convenient side trip from the national park, and Williams makes a great base to explore both canyons. Because of the canyon’s high elevation of about 6,600, it is best to avoid the dirt roads in the winter months.
2. Sabino Canyon
For a taste of gorgeous Sonoran Desert terrain located just minutes from a bustling metropolitan area, the Tucson-area Sabino Canyon is hard to beat.
Owing to its beauty and proximity to Arizona’s second-largest city, the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area attracts more than one million people per year. During warm days in the spring and fall, expect to share the canyon’s soaring mountains and deep gorges with crowds of hikers, swimmers, and sightseers.
For those out for a leisurely look at the scenery, an open-air tram is available to carry you up the short canyon road. My group chose to ride the tram on the upward route and walk back down the paved road, stopping along the way at the swimming holes and waterfalls. It was the perfect combination of physical exertion and outdoor fun. (Remember that water levels tend to fluctuate, depending on the season and drought conditions.)
Sabino Canyon also features a series of hiking trails, including the popular Seven Falls Trail located in the Santa Catalina Mountains surrounding Sabino Canyon. The moderate 8.5-mile round trip trail is accessed through the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area via the Bear Canyon Trail. The route will take you to a series of beautiful desert waterfalls, which are said to run for most of the year.
Sabino Canyon is located about a half-hour from downtown Tucson, which offers a host of dining and accommodation choices.
3. Walnut Canyon
Located about 12 miles southeast of Flagstaff in northern Arizona, Walnut Canyon combines a beautiful canyon setting with a chance to follow in the footsteps of the Native Americans who once called the canyon home.
The canyon is a national monument and a popular spot for field trips for the region’s schoolchildren. It’s easy to see why as you walk along the mile-long Island Trail and take in the 25 prehistoric cliff dwellings left behind by the Sinagua People who flourished in the area from about A.D. 600 to 1400.
Despite its short length, the Island Trail is rated as strenuous because of the steep canyon terrain and 7,000-foot elevation of the area.
For more information about things to explore at the Walnut Canyon National Monument, check out this article.
4. Canyon De Chelly
Located in a remote section of the Navajo Nation in the northeast corner of Arizona, Canyon de Chelly is known worldwide for its most distinctive feature -- Spider Rock, a 750-foot-high sandstone spire that rises from the canyon floor. The rest of the park, with its red mesas, deep ravines, and native ruins, is equally stunning.
Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de-SHAY) has served as a home for Native people for more than 5,000 years. Today, it is a national monument that is managed by the park and the Navajo Nation. Navajo families continue to live in the canyon, raising livestock and farming the land.
The park features a welcome center, two rim drives with 10 overlooks, and one public trail, the White House Ruin Trail. While visitors can hike the White House Trail on their own, other areas are accessible only with an authorized Navajo guide. Private tour companies offer canyon tours.
The White House Ruin Trail is an easy-to-moderate 1.2-mile trail that descends about 600 feet in elevation change before crossing the seasonal Chinle Wash. It ends at the White House Ruins, a spectacular cliff dwelling ruin that is thought to date back to about the 1000s to the 1300s.
Note that because Canyon de Chelly is located on the Navajo Nation, it is temporarily closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Information on the status of the closure can be found on the national monument website.
5. Marble Canyon
Located in northern Arizona -- a short detour off Highway 89 along the route from Flagstaff to Page -- is Marble Canyon, a beautiful gorge that runs from the Glen Canyon Dam to the confluence of the Little Colorado River.
Steep sandstone walls bracket the blue-green waters of the Colorado River as the canyon approaches the Grand Canyon at Lee’s Ferry. Marble Canyon runs along the boundary of the Navajo Nation as well as the Vermillion Cliffs-Fredonia Scenic Byway.
For an unbeatable view of the Colorado River, be sure to stop at the 1920s-era Navajo Bridge.
6. Antelope Canyon
With its beautifully fluted sandstone walls and luminous light, Antelope Canyon is among the world’s most famous slot canyons.
Located east of the northern Arizona town of Page, the Antelope Canyon consists of an upper and lower canyon. Both are beautiful, but the Upper Canyon is considered easier and more accessible than the Lower Canyon, which requires a challenging climb on ladders and stairs.
Either way, you are in for a treat in Antelope Canyon. One million years in the making, the canyons are the products of water erosion, which sculpted the twisting rock walls. Almost as famous as the rock walls are the glowing beams of light that shine through the canyon’s openings.
Antelope Canyon is located on the Navajo Nation, and guided tours are required. More information about touring the canyon is available in this article.
Note: Be sure to check on tour availability ahead of time because of COVID-19 restrictions on the Navajo Nation.
7. Oak Creek Canyon
Known as a “smaller cousin of the Grand Canyon,” Oak Creek Canyon, located north of Sedona, is perhaps Arizona’s second-most-famous gorge.
Not only does the canyon feature the red rocks that Sedona is famous for, but it also follows the meandering route of the lovely Oak Creek.
Unlike the Grand Canyon, which must be viewed from above or via a strenuous hike in and out, Oak Creek Canyon is accessible through the popular Oak Creek Scenic Drive along Highway 89A. The 27-mile route from Sedona to Flagstaff includes a number of scenic stops along the way.
Heading north from Sedona, worthy stops include Slide Rock State Park, a cool spot that features a natural waterslide down slippery slickrock; the West Fork Trail, an easy 7.5-mile out-and-back that follows and crosses the pretty west fork of Oak Creek; and the Oak Creek Vista, just south of Flagstaff that offers a preview of the red rock scenery down the road.
Pro Tip: Oak Creek Canyon can get snarled with traffic on the weekends throughout much of the spring, summer, and fall. So, try to time your drive for less-busy times, such as early mornings or weekdays. Although winter is Sedona’s least busy season, it’s advisable to watch the weather forecasts and avoid snowy weather on the winding and steep Oak Creek Canyon.