Climbing & Canyoneering: Top Destinations


It's called kloofing in South Africa, ghyll scrambling in Wales, river tracing in the Far East; others might just call it insane. In the era of extreme sports, canyoneering is a do-it-all entry that includes hiking, stream splashing, waterfall rappelling, swimming, and boulder scrambling. No doubt about it, every last muscle in your body should feel the burn by the end of a full-day of this quixotic sport. While you should be in good shape, canyoneering offers more leeway to novices than climbing a fourteener, kayaking a Class V, or other high-adrenaline activities. The principle of the sport is to follow a mountain river from its origins and down into waterfalls, rapids, creeks, whirlpools—and everywhere else it might go.

The sport took hold in the States only recently (although the Anasazi partook in it before we defined it as a sport and gave it a name). Most recently, we nabbed "canyoning" as an extreme sport from the other side of the Atlantic and made it our own, renaming it "canyoneering." The sport mushroomed as soon as it hit the sandstone spread of Canyon Country. Here, then, are the best of North America's canyon-zone hot spots. A word of warning before you delve into the slots: this is one sport that should never be attempted alone (ever heard of Aron Ralston?) or without the necessary emergency equipment. First timers should always hook up with an outfitter and respect the wilderness ethos. Check with the American Canyoneering Association for courses and advice, plus our overview of the essential canyoneering gear.

Zion National Park, the country's most popular national park for canyoneering, has reason to boast: it has the views, the waterways, and the primo rock quality. Zion and its vicinity offer immense diversity for canyoneers and climbers alike. From semi-technical slot canyons such as Orderville Canyon and Red Cave, to full-out technical slots like Fat Man's Misery and Eye of the Needle, the park satiates veteran canyoneers. But the sport's popularity in Canyon Country has inspired outfitters to create trips suited for novices anywhere from age five to 92. Permits are required for overnighters and many of the climbs, so check with park officials ahead of time. The key times for canyoneering in Zion run June through July and September through October; definitely avoid April's and May's cold showers and dangerous runoff. Check out Tom's Utah Canyoneering Guide for specific canyon details.

One of Utah's greatest U.S. canyoneering rivals is its neighbor, Arizona, a burgeoning canyoneering hub with that same soft sandstone and intense striated rock layers. Two of the state's hot-spot slot canyons include Antelope Canyon and the Paria River. Antelope Canyon (outside of Page) consists mainly of two sections: the lower half, an 80-foot-deep gash off the highway, and Upper Antelope Canyon, a 130-foot-high sandstone ridge. The Paria River ribs Utah's border. In addition to slot canyoneering, the Paria River region displays petroglyphs, pictographs, and Anasazi ruins. The canyoneering route follows the Paria until it spills into the Colorado. Avoid July through September, the region's high-flood season. (Read Michael Finkel's article, "Awash in Cayonlands" for more on exploring the Paria River region.)

Mexico's Copper Canyon, the largest canyon system in North America, undoubtedly offers some of the most remote canyoneering in the world. Once the rain has slowed and the water has ebbed in late winter and early spring, canyoneering is at its best in Mexico. The canyon's lifelines—the Río Tararecua, Río Verde, Río Guerachi, Río Urique, and Río Oteros—and their side canyons provide the best canyoneering challenges. And for the ultra-ambitious, several outfitters provide cross-canyon trips that run about ten days, starting in Chihuhua. For itinerary inspiration, check out the Copper Canyon Guide.

The Spanish Pyrenees started drawing canyoneers to the Aragon region long before we had put a name to the sport. From May through September, the alluring limestone slots, accessible from the outdoor base camp of Toral, provide thrills to novices and experts alike. Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park claims bragging rights to nearby Barranco de Lapazosa—a favorite canyon for both neophytes and practiced canyoneers. Additionally, for day-trippin' novices, quick excursions into the Catalan Pyrenees can be organized from Barcelona.

The soft sandstone of the Blue Mountains in eastern Australia provides some of the most accessible and extensive canyoneering in the world. With over 400 canyons within an hour's reach of Sydney, a canyoneering trip can be done in a day or over several days. Designated a World Heritage Area, the Blue Mountains have an addictive intensity even outside of their deep chasms. The Grand Canyon Track is a favorite for first timers to this region, or if you're eager to skip the cold, wet stuff, check out Tigersnake Canyon for a good stay-dry alternative. For even more thrills, tack on another activity like abseiling 100 feet over Empress Falls. Claustral Canyon is more challenging and a good bet for intermediate canyoneers. Outfitter High 'N' Wild offers guided tours as well as extensive local canyon information and the difficulty levels for each of its trips. Australia's canyoning season runs from September through May.

It's tempting to go canyoneering in South Africa just to say you went "kloofing." Kloof is an Afrikaans word for cliff or gorge, and as we did with "canyoneering," South Africans took the sport, renamed it, and ran with it. The country's kloofing hot spot is convenient—right outside of Cape Town—and caters to beginners and experts alike. Adventure Village, a longtime kloofing outfitter, details the intensity of its different canyon trips. Many of the high jumps are optional (Suicide Gorge's 60-foot leap above Riviersonderend might not be for all), so beginners can find other means to scramble down. The Steenbras River route has an original direction: it goes up instead of down. There are a number of vertical drops, the longest of which is a 197-foot rappel through a waterfall.

Published: 16 May 2005 | Last Updated: 24 Oct 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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