Carved by ancient forces and much appreciated by modern cameras - canyons pull our gaze from the most prominent peaks and lead us to ponder the depths of the earth and of time. Like so many aspects of nature that demand adoration, beauty is often linked with magnitude. There is something about the dizzying expanse of a long-retreating river bed that makes us freeze and gasp. But there are other aesthetics that are equally enticing. The almost human-like shapes that form in the rocks, the random colorful swirls (uncanny in their "design"), the stark bends in the seemingly obstinate river, and so on, canyons take on all kinds of creative and compelling forms. These are some of the most beautiful examples that America has to offer.
Bryce Canyon, Utah
Utah has no shortage of fantastic geological formations, but Bryce Canyon, in the South-side national park by the same name, is one of the top highlights. The stand-out aesthetic is the world's largest collection of naturally formed red rock pillars, known as hoodoos. Though actually a series of massive amphitheaters slowly carved out of the Grand Staircase Plateau (rather than a true canyon), Bryce Canyon certainly qualifies for this list by both name and impact. The best way to take in the scale of the intricacy of this place is to walk the out-and-back Rim Trail that follows the Main Amphitheater. The many cliff-side benches will come in handy to mitigate the effects of the altitude (between 8,000 - 9,000 feet above sea level) and for appreciating the bizarre landscape.
The Grand Canyon, Arizona
Obviously, the mother of all canyons, the Grand Canyon, is impossible to overlook. Literally! The longest and one of the deepest canyons in the country is hypnotic to view from above and overwhelming from below. There is no wrong way to explore the Grand Canyon, but for an extra heaping of sensory input and a boost of adrenaline while you're at it, head to the transparent platform known as the Skywalk on the West Rim. For those looking for a more patient, intimate encounter with this fan-favorite heritage site, fit hikers can switchback all the way down to the Colorado River, returning the same way (after topping up water stores, of course) or by hiking out the other side, completing an exceptional bucket-list trek known as the Rim-to-Rim. Grand Canyon National Park is located in Northwestern Arizona, making it possible to check off both this and Bryce Canyon on the same day.
Nine Mile Canyon, Utah
The most beautiful canyons in the United States already look like naturally occurring art projects. But in the case of Nine Mile Canyon, humans have added their own creative touches. Known as "the longest art gallery in the world," Nine Mile Canyon carved its way through the Book Cliffs of Eastern Utah, giving the prehistoric Fremont Culture and other indigenous peoples a place to inscribe over 10,000 petroglyphs. The freshly-paved Nine Mile Canyon Road allows visitors to drive through the magnificent site without the concern of kicking up dust that had previously been impacting the delicate works. Make sure to take lots of pit stops to closely but respectfully examine the communicative works of art etched into the sheer shale and sandstone cliffs.
Glen Canyon, Arizona
Another nearby and exceptionally beautiful side trip to make after the Grand Canyon is to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. This 1.25-million-acre landscape has many highlights, but the marquee attraction is undoubtedly the stark, 270-degree phenomenon known as Horseshoe Bend. Carved by the Colorado River over 5 million years, the current result (for erosion is never truly finished) is a picture-perfect, 1,000-foot deep ring around the striated sandstone cliffs. There is a wheelchair-accessible path leading to the stunning overlook. Visitors can also get up close and personal by joining a rafting tour or even get an expansive bird's-eye-view by taking a charter flight over the impressive landscape.
Island In The Sky, Utah
Utah and Arizona have enough enthralling canyons to dominate this whole list. But alas, Island in the Sky shall leave us well-satiated before taking the tour to other corners of the country. This section of Utah's Canyonlands National Park truly looks like another planet. The way this mesa staggers is, well…staggering! There are essentially two canyons in one. The initial drop-off is dramatic, but then the flat top terrain stabilizes before plunging sharply once again, this time to the snaking Green River. While the area can be viewed from many vantage points (or by driving the rugged Shafer Trail), the Green River Overlook is tough to beat for expansive views, and the nearby Mesa Arch wonderfully frames the magical site.
Waimea Canyon, Hawaii
Hawaii's Waimea Canyon is unique in that it is not the result of the persistent forces of wind and water but rather the violence of a collapsing volcano (though the Waimea River did also play its part). "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific" is the centerpiece of Waimea Canyon State Park on the more rugged, Northern island of Kauaʻi. This entry trades in the Martian-esque aesthetic for decidedly more tropical flavors – with patches of red soil, from which the canyon takes its name, and waterfalls punctuating the vibrant vegetation. The place to flock to is the Waimea Canyon Lookout, providing the most comprehensive and satisfying views of the 14-mile-long, 1-mile-wide, 3,600-foot-deep turbulent-turned-tranquil feature. And as an added bonus, the park offers free admission.
Keystone Canyon, Alaska
Not to be outdone by the lower 48, or the other disparate state of Hawaii, Alaska's Keystone Canyon deserves a good ogle. Only about 12 miles Southeast of the infamous (but beautiful!) city of Valdez, this 600-foot-tall, narrow canyon is a treat for all Richardson Highway motorists to enjoy. With just enough room for the road and the parallel Lowe River, Keystone Canyon condenses what is normally a vast and unruly wilderness into a cozy and soothing package. Pull over at Bridal Veil Falls and Horsetail Falls to feel the mists of the gushing waters, and if you're there in the springtime, watch for the wandering mountain goats.
Santa Elena Canyon, Texas
Skipping down from the far North to the deep South, Texas has a gem of a canyon in Big Bend National Park. Santa Elena Canyon is the product of the Rio Grande River, which helped chisel out the 1,500-foot walls, and now also draws part of the border between the United States and Mexico. This underrated park is perfect for escaping the crowds and for stargazing, but Santa Elena Canyon also entices paddlers to brave the occasional rapids in an effort to bond with the captivating cliffs. Local outfitters offer multi-day tours, opening the door to adventurers of all skill levels. Along the way, the canyon offers delightful hiking opportunities and rewarding sandbar campsites.
Letchworth State Park Canyon, New York
There are a few "Grand Canyon of the…" entries on this list. And while this moniker may lack a certain humility (and accurate scaling), the relative impact on the area's residents and visitors is warranted. In this case, Letchworth State Park Canyon adopts the Grand Canyon crown for the East. Located in the Western portion of New York State, this verdant gorge funnels the roaring Genesee River over three major waterfalls – the highest of which is 600 feet. This 14,427-acre area has been voted the best state park in the country and the best attraction in the state. Letchworth can be explored on foot, via horseback, in a hot air balloon, or aboard a whitewater raft.
Black Canyon Of The Gunnison, Colorado
Two million years of erosion and weathering have forged the harsh vertical cliffs of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in the Colorado national park of the same name. Of the four national parks in this Rocky Mountain state, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the least visited, with only around 300,000 visitors in 2022. This means that even in the "peak" summer season, visitors will have lots of room to breathe and take in the bold views. The other tourist-friendly aspect of this canyon is that many formal overlooks can be connected by a scenic drive all along both rims. One particular highlight to look forward to is the 2,250-foot-tall scarred granite face known as the Painted Wall.
Grand Canyon Of The Yellowstone, Wyoming
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is more than a generous nickname. This is the official title of the eclectic highlight in the Northwestern Wyoming section of America's oldest national park. It can be difficult to decide where to begin when visiting this vast, historic, and beautiful location. But this canyon merges many popular features of the beloved site. The Upper and Lower Falls of the powerful Yellowstone River cascades down the canyon's cliffs. Meeting the resulting mists are clouds of steam coming off the walls – markers of the park's famous geothermal nature. Folks can fan out across a variety of viewpoints or select one of the trails or paved walkways that wind down partially into the impressive bowl.
The red-spectrum pastel or healthy-green colors and steady layering of many of the most beautiful canyons can easily fix one into a hypnotic trance. Pair these patient phenomena with a late-summer sunset, and there is enough fodder for an artist's lifetime. These eleven canyons of the old American landscape will teach visitors about more than just the eons of time (or occasionally, dramatic and violent shifts in a short period), but also about the inherent, inspiring beauty within nature.