Snaking through the red-rock desert on the Utah/Arizona border, Paria Canyon is the big daddy of canyon hikes. Start at White House trailhead near Page, Arizona, and wander for 38 labyrinthine miles beneath sheer sandstone cliffs that squeeze down to just 15 feet apart in spots, ending up at the Lee's Ferry trailhead. It's tricky terrain, and wading through water, contorting through tight spots, and scrambling over rockfalls definitely slows your pace. But what's the hurry? Take your time drinking in the scenery and exploring the numerous unnamed side canyons.
By the end of the four- to five-day journey, you'll feel at one with the desert, like a modern Edward Abbey (but with better personal hygiene). "I consider myself a connoisseur of canyon hikes, and the Paria still impresses me," says Utah-based adventure photographer and former river guide Lin Alder, who has spent the past two decades squeezing through canyons across the Colorado Plateau. "It's one of the best hikes on the planet." Want it even tighter? Start your hike in adjoining Buckskin Gulch and shimmy through a narrower slot choked with debris and flooded with cold, dark pools that require wading and a leap of faith. Or begin at Wire Pass and take a side trip to admire the Wave, a hypnotic rock formation sculpted out of sandstone.
Despite its world-class reputation, the Paria is never crowded, since the Bureau of Land Management limits the number of overnight hikers to just 20. There's only one catch: You'll need to be in decent hiking shape despite the fact that – scrambling and scrunching aside – there's not much up and down. Plan long day hikes on the weekends, working up to 10- to 15-milers, wearing a heavy backpack to strengthen your legs and – more important – break in your hiking shoes.
More information: The BLM website posts all the information you need on its Paria Canyon/Vermilion Cliffs page, where you can also obtain permits, which cost $6 per day, and find guides, campsites, and information about shuttles — necessary if using only one car.