Grand Canyon is an amazing place, don’t get us wrong. However, it is not the only canyon in Arizona. The state has 32 canyons and gorges, each of which holds their own unique qualities and amazingness (pretty sure that’s not a real word).
The canyons highlighted here are lesser-known, so fewer people visit, hike and camp them. And they are not a mile deep, so they’re perfect for the wilderness explorer looking to check out some canyons with less of a vertical challenge. These are our favorite Arizona canyons that are NOT the Grand Canyon:
1. Aravaipa Canyon in Southern Arizona
Aravaipa Canyon is an 11-mile-long canyon found on the northwest border of the Galiuro Mountain Range in Southern Arizona. It is an oasis for backpackers and day hikers alike. The hike is mostly through the Aravaipa Creek, and this riparian paradise is a seasonal home to hundreds of bird species. It has side canyons for hours of exploring and desert wildlife galore (bighorn sheep, coyote, coatimundi, Gila monsters, javelina, etc.). Seven thousand acres of the wilderness is protected by the Nature Conservancy and managed by the Bureau of Land Management Safford Field Office, only allowing 50 people in the entire area per day with a 3 day maximum stay – this includes day hikers and backpackers. So if you are looking for beauty and seclusion, this is the place! But you do need to make reservations 4 months in advance.
2. Madera Canyon in Southern Arizona
This canyon in the northwestern face of the Santa Rita Mountains, twenty-five miles southeast of Tucson, Arizona is a wildlife haven. Part of the Coronado National Forest, Madera Canyon has campsites, picnic areas, and miles of hiking trails for all levels of hikers.
Madera Canyon consists of 4 life zones, from the Lower Sonoran Zone from 0-4,500 ft (where you will find desert vegetation such as Saguaro Cacti) to the Canadian Zone at 9,500 ft. This means great hiking opportunities from easy to difficult all months of the year. The canyon is also known as a premier birdwatching area.
For more information about recreation opportunities and just about the area, visit Friends of Madera Canyon’s website.
3. Oak Creek Canyon in Northern Arizona
This 12-mile-long canyon found in Northern Arizona spams from Flagstaff to Sedona and is considered one of the most scenic in Arizona (but easy to say when you can drive through it). It also offers a lot of active outdoor adventures from canyoneering to hiking and backpacking to fishing. The canyon ranges in width from 0.8 to 2.5 miles with a depth from 800 to 2,000 feet. And being so closely associated with Sedona, second to Grand Canyon in most popular tourist destinations in Arizona, you can add more hiking to your resume by hitting the trails in the red rocks! The downside is Oak Creek gets a lot of use and in need of protecting. The Oak Creek Watershed Council is a great resource for activities but also how to help protect this amazing canyon.
4. Paria Canyon in Northern Arizona
A unique and popular hiking and backpacking destination, the Paria Canyon area is a 112,500-acre wilderness area located in northern Arizona and southern Utah. While the Wave is the most popular destination in Paria Canyon, it has much opportunity for the hiker and backpacker looking for an adventure unlike anywhere in the world.
The most popular backpacking routes are White House Ruins (starting in Utah) to Lee’s Ferry, AZ (also known for the start of Colorado River rafting trips through Grand Canyon) or Wire Pass through Buckskin Gulch (the longest slot canyon in the world). For either of these hikes, expect to be wet most of the time -anywhere from ankle deep to waist high and do your research before hiking the canyon. Flash flooding is very common in the area, especially during the monsoon season late June through mid September. Narrow canyons will fill up with water very quickly in the presence of rain, even miles away.
This wilderness area is administered by the BLM. Permits are required to camp overnight in the area, allowing only 30 people in per day, making for a very secluded backpacking trip.
5. Salt River Canyon in Central Arizona
This wilderness contains approximately 32,100 very rugged acres in the Tonto National Forest east of the Phoenix Metro Area with elevations that range from 2,200 feet at the canyon’s lower end to 4,200. There are no maintained trails in the area, so most exploration occurs via raft or kayak during the Spring river-running season.
The 60-mile upper Salt River can be run from March through May with rapids that range from Class II to IV when the river is running as a normal cfs. Permits are required when running the river between March 1st and May 15th each year, unless with a commercial guide service such as Mild to Wild.
The lower Salt River also has recreation in the form of tubing, which is great if you like drunk people who throw their trash in the river.
6. Sycamore Canyon in Northern Arizona
The second largest canyon in Arizona is just as scenic, if not more so than Oak Creek Canyon. But without any paved roads or developed campgrounds, this canyon does not get the notoriety – which is fine with us, as it doesn’t get the crowds either.
This 55,937 acres of wilderness is marked by colorful cliffs, soaring pinnacles and one of the world’s rarest habitats, a desert riparian area. Sycamore Canyon Wilderness is found on both the Coconino and Prescott National Forests and spans from its forested rim near Williams, Arizona to its desert canyon mouth in the Verde Valley near Clarkdale, AZ.
This area is home to black bear, mountain lion, ringtail cats, and hundreds of miles of hiking trail – a backpackers dream! Some notable routes – Taylor Cabin or the Parson’s Spring Trail.