Colorado grandest canyons from the Royal Gorge to Glenwood to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Explore Colorado's deepest and most interesting canyons and stand in awe of nature's architecture.
July 19, 2022
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the largest canyons in the U.S.. Its dark walls are unique. Photo by Lisa Lynch, courtesy of the National Park Service.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the largest canyons in the U.S.. Its dark walls are unique. Photo by Lisa Lynch, courtesy of the National Park Service.

Of course you’ve heard of the Grand Canyon, Arizona’s spellbinding national park and the largest canyon in the United States. But have you heard of the grand canyons of Colorado?

Colorado is home to two of the other top 10 largest canyons in the U.S.: Black Canyon of the Gunnison and the Royal Gorge. The Centennial State also boasts countless stunning and historic canyons that range from tiny to majestic and serene to crowded. Colorado even has two, yes two, Phantom Canyons. More information to come about these ghostly gems.

How to find and explore canyons in Colorado

Are you interested in Colorado canyons with funny or odd names? You can find those too. Head out hiking, for instance, and you can visit places like Skunk Canyon near Boulder, Chaos Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park and Devils Canyon in the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area outside of Grand Junction.

As for the biggest and most famous canyons in Colorado, here are some fabulous canyons to learn about and explore:

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

A rainbow appears over the south rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in western Colorado. Photo by Zach Schierl, courtesy of the National Park Service.
A rainbow appears over the south rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in western Colorado. Photo by Zach Schierl, courtesy of the National Park Service.

This gem in western Colorado stretches 48 miles long, and is incredibly deep, with cliffs that plunge 2,722 feet from the rim of the canyon to the roiling river at its base. Black Canyon is known for its unusual, dark walls that give the canyon its name. Just so you can compare the Black Canyon with Arizona’s Grand Canyon, the Grand plunges down about 6,000 feet (or more than a mile) at its deepest point. And the Grand Canyon stretches for 278 miles. So, it’s definitely bigger, but Black Canyon is a beauty and well worth a visit.

Like the Grand Canyon, the Black Canyon is part of the National Park System. Black Canyon became an official national park in 1999. It’s a serene, natural place, known for very challenging hiking, rock climbing, kayaking and stargazing. Adventurous anglers can fish for trout in the Gunnison River. The park boasts scenic drives, and in the winter, people can enjoy cross country skiing and snowshoeing in the area. Learn more about visiting The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

The Royal Gorge

This six-mile-long canyon is home to all sorts of attractions. The Royal Gorge plunges 1,053 feet from its rim to the deepest point, where the Arkansas River runs through the base of the canyon.

There are many ways to explore the Royal Gorge: from a raft or a train in the canyon itself or via the famous bridge dating back to 1929 that stretches from rim to rim across the canyon walls.  People who aren’t afraid of heights can walk across the bridge and peer down 1,000 feet to the river.

The Royal Gorge also boasts a Via Ferrata, a guided mountain-climbing course. And there are gondolas and a zip line. Unlike the Black Canyon, the Royal Gorge is full of activity and amusements rather than being focused on preservation and enjoying nature.

The famous bridge over the Royal Gorge. Photo by Matt Inden/Miles, courtesy of the Colorado Tourism Office.
The famous bridge over the Royal Gorge. Photo by Matt Inden/Miles, courtesy of the Colorado Tourism Office.

Glenwood Canyon

Glenwood Canyon is another one of Colorado’s most majestic canyons with cliffs that soar 2,000 vertical feet from the Colorado River up to the tallest points in the canyon. Glenwood is highly accessible and likely Colorado’s most well-traveled canyon since a major interstate highway, I-70, runs through the canyon and is open year-round (except when there are mudslides and wildfires).

Rafting is popular in Glenwood Canyon, one of Colorado's most famous and beautiful canyons. Photo by Matt Inden/Miles, courtesy of the Colorado Tourism Office.
Rafting is popular in Glenwood Canyon, one of Colorado’s most famous and beautiful canyons. Photo by Matt Inden/Miles, courtesy of the Colorado Tourism Office.

Glenwood’s interstate highway is one of the most famous engineering marvels in the U.S.  It winds 12 miles from Eagle County near Vail to Glenwood Springs. Since Colorado’s pioneer days in the 1880s, a road has run through Glenwood Canyon. But the old highway hugged the river and was prone to flooding. Engineers constructed a new highway at a cost of nearly $500 million between 1980 and 1992. As many as 500 workers a day teamed up to build the new road. It boasts 40 viaducts and bridges, three tunnels and 15 miles of retaining walls.

Wildfires in recent years have forced the road to shut down while mudslides and erosion from the fires have also caused some closures. But when the canyon is open, it’s a place that inspires awe. Along with driving through the canyon, visitors can enjoy rafting, cycling and hiking. Glenwood Canyon is home to one of Colorado’s most popular hikes, the trip up to Hanging Lake.

Castlewood Canyon State Park

This canyon springs unexpectedly from the prairie south of Franktown between Denver and Colorado Springs. The canyon has been eroding for millions of years, but you can still see the rocks that made up its walls. Cherry Creek runs through Castlewood Canyon, then flows to Confluence Park in downtown Denver.

Castlewood Canyon is beautiful in all seasons. It’s known for its wildflowers, fall foliage, birding and beautiful hiking trails. Bikes are not allowed. Dogs on leash may hike with people. Learn more about fun ways to explore Castlewood Canyon.

Eldorado Canyon State Park

Eldorado Canyon is a popular rock climbing mecca located just outside of Boulder. It features towering sandstone cliffs. Along with world-class climbers, hikers and mountain bikers also love the area. Eldorado is so popular that reservations now are required if you wish to drive into the canyon from July through September. Get more information about Eldorado Canyon State Park.

Poudre Canyon

The Poudre Canyon (pronounced pooh-der) is located northwest of Fort Collins and Colorado Highway 14 parallels the Poudre River, Colorado’s only nationally designated Wild & Scenic river. The highway also is designated as a Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway.

Full of beautiful groves of aspen and pine trees, the canyon is a great place for summer hikes, fall drives and winter cross-country ski trips.

For an easy hike, check out the Gateway Natural Area.

A short, mile-long hike with the kids, the stroller, or even your kayak or fishing pole takes you to this beautiful area. It follows a creek and leads to Seaman Reservoir. Gateway has a picnic area and natural playground, making it a great spot to spend the day. There is a City of Fort Collins use fee. For more information on protecting Poudre Canyon, support the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers  and learn about trails in the canyon.

Waterton Canyon

Waterton Canyon is a stunning natural area that Denver Water manages. That’s because the area is home to the Strontia Springs Dam. A dirt road through the canyon is open only to pedestrians and cyclists. Aside from occasional Denver Water maintenance trucks, no motor vehicles are allowed. Many anglers love to fish in the South Platte River that carved Waterton Canyon. The area is also home to Colorado’s famous bighorn sheep.

And, one of the canyon’s biggest claims to fame is that Waterton marks the starting point (or ending) for The Colorado Trail. The trail winds 486 miles from the Denver area southwest to Durango.

Forest Canyon

Forest Canyon Overlook in Rocky Mountain National Park is a great place for stargazing. In this photo, the Milky Way glows brightly against an opalescent, turquoise sky. Photo by Jeremy M. White, courtesy of the National Park Service.
Forest Canyon Overlook in Rocky Mountain National Park is a great place for stargazing. In this photo, the Milky Way glows brightly against an opalescent, turquoise sky. Photo by Jeremy M. White, courtesy of the National Park Service.

Forest Canyon is deep in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park and you can see this remote beauty from a famous overlook on Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous road in the U.S. and one of Colorado’s Scenic & Historic Byways.

Phantom Canyon in southern Colorado

This Phantom Canyon is located near southern Colorado’s most famous mining towns, Cripple Creek and Victor, which were once the most productive gold mining areas in Colorado. Phantom Canyon Road part of the Gold Belt Tour, one of Colorado Scenic & Historic Byways.

The dirt road through the canyon clings to the rock walls and is open to both four-wheel-drive vehicles and mountain bikers. The route climbs from 5,800 feet near Florence and travels about 30 miles up to 9,500 feet just outside of the mining town of Victor.

Phantom Canyon near southern Colorado's famous mining towns has a dirt road that is popular with cyclists and 4-wheelers. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Tourism Office.
Phantom Canyon near southern Colorado’s famous mining towns has a dirt road that is popular with cyclists and 4-wheelers. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Tourism Office.

The road through Phantom Canyon follows the path of the historic Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad which closed in 1912 after terrible flooding. Today visitors can find the ghost towns of Wilbur, Adelaide and Glenbrook.

Along with ghost towns, you might spot some actual ghosts in this area. According to folklore, Phantom Canyon is named after a prisoner who was executed at the nearby Colorado State Penitentiary back in the 1890s. Days later, people in the canyon said they spotted a ghostly figure in a prison uniform along the canyon’s tracks. Who knows what you’ll see if you venture into this canyon.

Phantom Canyon in northern Colorado

The Phantom Canyon in northern Colorado isn’t famous for ghosts. Rather, it gets its name for being so hard to spot. Very few people know this canyon north of Colorado even exists and fewer still are allowed to visit since it’s a special, protected place.

The Nature Conservancy has designated Phantom Canyon as a preserve. It’s one of the last roadless canyons along the Front Range and home to four miles of the Cache la Poudre River.

The canyon boasts unique species of birds including bald eagles. It also provides important habitat for black bears, mountain lions, bobcats and rare plants.

The Nature Conservancy turned Phantom Canyon into a preserve in 1987 “primarily because this extensive ecosystem supports the Larimer aletes (Aletes humilis), a rare member of the parsley family.”

Other native plants include:

  • Bells twinpod
  • Needle-and-thread grass
  • One-sided penstemon

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.

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