For More Details
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Mont./Wyo.; (406) 666-2412; www.nps. gov/bica
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colo.; (970) 249-1914, ext. 23;
Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Ariz.; (520) 674-5500;
Canyonlands National Park, Utah; (435) 719-2313;
Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas; (806) 488-2227;

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The less-wild West
These canyons are less crowded but no less “grand” in natural beauty

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado. ./ ©Jack Olson photos
By Ann Hattes
Published: May/Jun 2001

Escape the crowds at that other canyon–these five are also grand and offer peace and solitude.

Beyond the Grand Canyon are soaring shadowed walls of red and purple tones that don't experience summer's crush of visitors found at that popular Western park.

Off the beaten track are opportunities to view wildlife and spectacular natural landscapes in quiet solitude. On four-wheel drives and guided boat tours, ranger-led hikes and fishing expeditions, explore the awesome landscapes carved through eons of time.

Bighorn Canyon Recreation Area
Montana and Wyoming

Bighorn Canyon cuts through limestone walls on a fault line between Montana's Pryor Mountains and the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. This recreation area centers on a 71-mile-long lake, a ribbon of blue below the canyon's 1,000-foot cliffs.

Bighorn Canyon has a North District (Fort Smith, Mont.) and a South District (Lovell, Wyo.). There is no road connecting the two sections; boat travel is the only way to get from one area to the other. The land around the North District is surrounded by the Crow Indian Reservation; visitors need to respect the Crows’ land and stay on the road or water.

Exploring the canyon by boat is the best choice, with many outfitters offering fishing and floating packages. In the northern section, the Ok-A-Beh Landing is a great vantage point for viewing the canyon, Crow Reservation and surrounding mountains. Highway 37 in the South District offers access to dramatic views at Horseshoe Bend and Devil Canyon.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Black Canyon of the Gunnison, 250 miles southwest of Denver, became America's newest national park in 1999. For 2 million years,the Gunnison has cut this spectacular canyon 2,630 feet deep at its maximum and 38 feet across at the bottom's narrowest point. The river falls an average of 96 feet per mile, cutting downward faster than other kinds of erosion can widen the steep, sheer walls.

Slanting rays of sunlight illuminate the layers of schist and gneiss (types of metamorphic rock) that are shrouded in shadows most of the day, hence "Black Canyon." Until 1901, when two men rafted 33 miles through it on a rubber mattress, the canyon was thought to be inaccessible.

East of the park, the Gunnison River has been tamed by dams, but in Black Canyon, it remains one of the few unspoiled wild rivers in the country. Situated at an elevation of 8,000 feet, the canyon and its rims are home to a variety of wildlife, including black bears, golden eagles and peregrine falcons.

The heavily visited South Rim, open all year, offers a visitor center, campgrounds, nature and hiking trails, a gift shop and numerous canyon overlooks. A backcountry permit is required to hike into the canyon. The more remote North Rim is closed in winter.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “d'shay”) derives from the Navajo word tseyi, meaning “in the rock.” It's known for sheer, red cliff walls stained with streaks of desert varnish, deposited by oxide-laden water flowing over the face of the canyon. Formed by a combination of stream cutting and land uplifting, this canyon's depth ranges from 30 feet at the mouth to more than 1,000 feet 15 miles away.

The monument's 130 square miles, administered by the National Park Service, lie within the Navajo Nation. For the Navajo, the canyon is a sacred and historically significant place. In the 1700s and 1800s, the Navajo sought refuge from their enemies in the canyon. After being defeated by troops that included Kit Carson, the remaining Navajo were marched to New Mexico (The Long Walk), but were permitted to return after four years of imprisonment. Today, the Navajo grow corn on the fertile, moist canyon bottomland.

Before the Navajo arrived, the Anasazi built adobe and stone dwellings high up in the alcoves of the canyon's towering red-rock walls. Many of these are still visible, as are many pictographs left by the inhabitants over the centuries.

At Thunderbird Lodge, 1-800-679-2473, arrange for an authorized tour into the canyon led by experienced Navajo guides via six-wheel-drive touring vehicles. Other outfitters offer guided tours on horseback, foot or specially adapted four-wheel-drive vehicles. Or self-drive the North and South rims, each about 15 miles one way, to overlooks with panoramic views.

White House Trail, the only unescorted trip into the canyon, drops 600 feet from the rim to the canyon floor.


In Canyonlands, an immense wilderness of rock in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, water and gravity have cut layers of sedimentary rock into hundreds of colorful canyons, mesas, buttes, arches and spires.

To the north of the canyons carved by the Green and Colorado rivers is Island in the Sky; to the west, the Maze; and to the east, the Needles. Each vast, remote region is different and continues to remain as primitive as when the park was established in 1964. Roads are mostly unpaved and the rivers free-flowing.

"We glide along through a strange, weird, grand region. The landscape everywhere, away from the river is of rock," wrote explorer John Wesley Powell during his pioneering boat trip on the Green and Colorado in 1869.

Cataract Canyon, below the confluence of the two rivers, is one of the country's most treacherous stretches of white water.

Island in the Sky, the mesa wedged between the two rivers, is Canyonlands’ natural observation tower. From many overlooks, sightseers view the rivers, the distant mountaintops and the canyons stretching to the horizon 100 miles distant.

The Maze, west of the rivers, is Canyonlands at its wildest, one of the most remote and inaccessible regions of the United States. Only very self-reliant individuals descend 600 feet to the bottom of this 30-square-mile puzzle in sandstone, or make the trek to the life-size figures painted on Horseshoe Canyon, left by American Indians about 2,000 years ago.

The Needles, dominated by rock pinnacles banded in red and white, boasts some fascinating arches hidden in backcountry canyons and vertical-walled, grass-carpeted valleys called grabens.

Trips via four-wheel drive, mountain bike, hiking and rafting with commercial guides operate out of nearby towns year-round. In season, see Canyonlands at Night, a show of dancing shadows moving to music on the Colorado River near Moab. For a list of concessionaires, contact the park.

The 100-mile White Rim Road, one of the most popular four-wheel-drive roads winding through the park, can be driven in two or more days. A backcountry permit and fee are required for overnight trips.

Short trails (less than one mile) on the Island and in the Needles lead to overlooks, archaeological sites and geological formations, while longer trails penetrate wilder regions. These primitive trails, marked only with rock piles, are rugged and strenuous; do not hike them alone.

Palo Duro Canyon

Palo Duro Canyon has been described as a 120-mile-long, 1,000-foot-deep copper colored smile that dramatically illuminates the face of the Texas Panhandle. If Palo Duro could be put on top of the Grand Canyon, it would provide an almost complete geological history of earth.
Unlike many other canyons, it's possible to drive into Palo Duro on paved roads; mountain bikes and RVs frequent the same trails used by Comanche, Apache, buffalo hunters and early Spanish explorers.

The orange, red, yellow, gray and lavender layers of rocks attract nature lovers, hikers, horseback riders and photographers to this 16,402-acre state park. At night the outdoor musical drama, “TEXAS,” is performed beneath a towering 600-foot canyon wall in a natural amphitheater on the floor of the canyon. Singers, actors and dancers bring to life Texas in 1880.

Palo Duro (Spanish for “hard wood” after the canyon's many juniper trees) is 25 miles south of Amarillo. A favorite of visitors is Cowboy Morning or Evening when the Figure 3 Ranch takes guests on a wagon ride to a campsite on the rim of the canyon to savor a breakfast or dinner cooked over a mesquite fire.

Ann Hattes is a freelance writer from Hartland, Wis.

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