Cold water drops ooze down my spine as I disappear beneath the raging waterfall. I let go of the rope and swim my way to the next gushing waterslide. Then, sitting on a rocky ledge, I've no choice but to jump feet first into the foamy whirlpool below. My heart says “Yes!” but mind says “No freaking way!”
Natural water parks, deep in the heart of the mountains, canyons are a unique environment, different from what we encounter at the surface. Cut by rivers and streams, these narrow and twisting river beds with high walls, caverns, natural arches and impressive waterfalls are a hidden watery paradise few set foot into.
Canyoning, as the name implies, means exploring canyons by descending them. Sounds pretty simple, right? Wrong! Fighting the water torrent and climbing all the obstacles along the way can get pretty exhausting. What makes it even more exhilarating is the variety of techniques used: rock climbing, abseiling, cliff jumping, swimming, hiking, ziplining and body rafting (floating on the stream). Sure, some canyons are more difficult than others, but we like to measure them in beauty and fun. Also known as canyoneering in the US, canyoning is not exactly an extreme sport. But I can guarantee your emotions will be taken to the extreme.
These are technical descents, so specific gear is mandatory. If you wish to explore mountain streams, a neoprene suit will ensure thermal insulation and comfort. Canyoning often requires swimming through natural pools, so a floating vest is recommended, which will also help you body raft and slide safely. In addition to these, there's a whole bunch of technical stuff: harness, helmet, ropes, belay devices, carabiners and dry bags are just the essentials. Lastly, you'll be doing a lot of boulder hopping and down-climbing and should have a good pair of hiking boots to give you proper support.
Canyoning is not a solitary sport, but a team activity. The more the merrier. And it's wet, so you might want do it in summer. There will be days when the canyon will be out of reach due to high water levels or unfavorable forecast. You'll just have to accept that.
Popular canyoning routes around the world are marked and equipped with anchors for mounting abseil ropes and safety lines. All you need to do is build a team, do some thorough research, bring your own gear and you're good to go. That is if you're an experienced canyoner. If you're not, you might want to consider booking a tour with a local operator. Professional instructors will provide all necessary equipment and will make sure everything goes down smoothly. Plenty of fun included!
Where To Go?
The short answer is simple: anywhere you see a nice canyon with waterfalls, slides, deep-water pools and obstacles sounds good enough. The long answer is: things are never as easy as they seem. It all depends on your training, whether you have your own gear or are new to the game.
There are those who search for the remotest untouched canyons for the thrill of being the first to set foot in them. And there are those who are just doing it for the fun and beauty of it. For the latter, here's my pick of acclaimed canyoning venues guaranteed to give you the chills and make you scream your lungs out with both excitement and fear.
Canyoning in Zion, Utah. Courtesy of backpacker
Let's start off with Zion National Park in Utah, home to some of the best canyoning in the US. Two words for you: underground splendor. The lights and shadows creeping through the cracks put on a mesmerizing show inside these river-carved, colorful corridors. The most popular canyons are equipped with anchors, but permits are required for technical canyoning trips.
Canyoning in Costa Rica. Photo by Carolin
Costa Rica is a place on any canyoning addict's mind. The rain forest jungle near the Arenal Volcano crammed with wild canyons, the Lost Canyon seducing the most adrenaline junkies. There are six waterfalls that only get bigger along the way, topping it all off with a spectacular abseil down a 200-foot torrent.
Madeira, with its volcanic mountains, pristine forests and mild climate, is a natural paradise. With so many waterfalls to abseil through and lagoons to swim in, when it comes to canyoning there's something for every level.
In southern France, where the mountains meet the Mediterranean, we find a dense canyoning region bathed in turquoise waters. The Maritime Alps' canyoning hotspot is Roya Valley near Nice, with some of the most technical canyons in the Alps. Verdon Gorge, to the southeast of the country, is considered one of the most stunning canyons in the world, with pools filled with crystal-clear water and high ziplines taking you from one side to the other.
The Swiss Alps, with their playful torrents, offer world-class canyoning. Near Switzerland's Interlaken, the Ticino area is swarming with white-walled canyons with adrenaline-pumping abseils, jumps, shafts and long water slides plunging into natural jacuzzis.
In northern Italy, the canyons near Lake Garda are a great place to learn the basics. There are 12 main tours to choose from. Torrente Brentino is the most accessible, great for beginners and children from eight years old. Torrente Tuffone, with its 25-foot slides and 50-foot jumps is not for the faint of heart. And if that's still not enough, Rio Nero has 130-foot abseils and 50-foot rock slides.
If it's beginner-level canyoning you seek, check out Eastern Europe. Sušec Canyon in Slovenia is excellent for rookies, with plenty of smaller waterfalls, torrents, channels and pools. For a bigger adrenaline rush, Bovec area has some demanding pretty canyons as well.
To the south of Croatia, the Cetina River, with its 160-foot waterfall, high cliffs, 30-foot jumps, subterranean tunnels and lakes, offers a unique combination of hiking, sliding, swimming and good old fun in its natural pools.
A lesser-known canyoning destination is Romania, nevertheless living up to the highest expectations. The biggest concentration of canyons can be found to the southwest of the country, on the Cerna Valley, where the Vanturatoarea Waterfall awaits daredevils with a 160-foot abseil through a splashing overhanging torrent.
Canyoning Samothraki. Photo by Ioana Axinte
A less touristy Greek island, Samothraki is a well-kept secret and let's hope it stays that way. It drew a lot of attention when the Winged Victory of Samothraki was found here, but now the island of canyons remains adventure-seekers' little Shangri-La. Picture this: waterfalls dropping straight into the sea, long canyons ending on the beach, dozens of 150-foot tall cascades, 50-foot slides and 100-foot abseils into the Aegean Sea, followed by a nice swim or some relaxing body rafting back to shore.
Known as kloofing in these parts, canyoning in South Africa is as wild as it gets. Near Cape Town, Sluice Gates is a physically demanding canyon with a dozen waterfalls, high jumps and abseils up to 260-foot high. Close by, Smalblaar Canyon has six waterfalls from 50 to 160 feet tall, as well as optional jumps up to 50 feet high. With a suggestive name, Suicide Gorge does involve compulsory jumps up to 50 feet high.
One hour's drive from Sydney, Australia, the Blue Mountains are home to over 400 canyons. It is by far the most dense canyoning region in the world. And it has it all: a little bit of bushwalking combined with some nice hiking, high abseils, swimming and jumping in the clear pools of these narrow gorges.
Canyoning in New Zealand. Photo by Jules
New Zealand is dotted with pristine forests and volcanic mountains, a canyoning paradise. Expect superlative features: huge waterfalls, tall abseils, high jumps and wiggling ziplines. Blue Canyon has no less than 18 waterfalls up to 100 feet tall. The narrow Piha Canyon has caves, hidden pools, high jumps and a thrilling 160-foot abseil. If you really wish to explore canyoning at its best in New Zealand, you can't go wrong with Abel Tasman, with its five heart-pumping canyons filled with jumps, long rock slides, high abseils and ziplines.
Canyoning is an action-packed descent to a hidden world, dark, damp and mossy, the kind of lost paradise fantasy books and movies often talk about yet we never imagined could exist. With plenty of surprises along the way, the unique contrasting environments, terrifying and fun at the same time, will put your wits and team spirit to the test. Have you tried it yet? Tell us all about it!