Do you know about Fish River Canyon? Do you know it’s the second largest canyon in the world?
I bet you know the world’s biggest canyon, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA. Fish River Canyon is just as impressive, except the experience is totally different.
Over 6 million people visit the Grand Canyon every year. The popular viewing platforms are a theme park of noise and tour groups getting in the way of one another.
Less than 1% of that number make it to Fish River Canyon in Namibia. Here you can have a true natural experience, on a landscape with a baffling scale.
Fish River Canyon Panoramic View (Video Footage)
What is the Fish River Canyon?
The Fish River Canyon is the world’s second largest canyon.
A canyon is a deep gorge between cliffs, often carved by a river. The Fish River Canyon, as its name implies, comes from the “Fish River”.
The Fish River is the longest interior river in Namibia (650 km in length).
Where is Fish River Canyon located?
The Fish River Canyon is located in the south of Namibia, close to the border of South Africa. It’s roughly equidistant between Windhoek and Cape Town. Travel overland between these two cities and this is a convenient place to stop.
How old is the Fish River Canyon?
This place has been around since before the dinosaurs. The canyon is over 500 million years old, with part of the strata formed as far back as 650 million years ago.
How did it form?
The Fish River Canyon not only formed through water and wind erosion, but also due to the collapse of the valley floor due to tectonic plate movements.
How big is the second biggest canyon in the world?
Let’s compare the famous canyons. Fish River Canyon is over 160 kilometres in length. It’s 27 kilometres across at its widest point. This enormous ravine is also over 550 metres deep – the descent onto the canyon floor isn’t for the feint of heart!
Okay, in comparison the Grand Canyon is far longer (446 km) and deeper (1800 m), although it has a similar width. However, the Namibian canyon is not to be outdone. The Fish River Canyon area stretches across a whopping 5900 square kilometres, far more than its American rival.
And there’s only so much of a canyon you can realistically see. Visit Fish River Canyon and you’ll encounter a spectacle that continues beyond the horizon in each direction.
Things to do in Fish River Canyon
Visit the Grand Canyon and you either do the helicopter tour, or you walk to a few viewpoints in the stifling heat. Okay, there are some more serious hikes but the general impression is of noise, especially in the places that tour operators use.
Intense heat is going to follow you around Fish River Canyon but there’s a lot to do.
Viewpoints and scenery
Nature is the highlight and breathtaking views come from everywhere on the canyon rim. It’s possible to walk along the rim in some places, but always get advice from your lodge first.
This can be a brutal landscape and you have to take every hike seriously, even if it is only for 20 minutes. Always carry water and wear strong shoes.
Day hikes into the canyon
The area has become a very popular hiking destination over the years, which includes the well-known Fish River Hiking Trail. This trail literally runs along the canyon floor, surrounding you in silence and wilderness for four days!
Fortunately, you don’t need four days just to see the canyon. It’s possible to visit on a day hike. And in this case, day hike really means a full day of hiking.
It takes five hours to get down onto the canyon floor. You leave at sunrise and after reaching the canyon floor there is some time to find shade and check out the immense space and silence. Then it’s at least five hours back up to the canyon rim before sundown.
Expect to be absolutely exhausted. But what an adventure! On the hike you can truly appreciate the canyon’s colours and details, notably how each line across the canyon wall is a slightly different hue.
Fish River Canyon hiking trail
If one day isn’t enough then this trail is a beast.
Covering 86 km in total, the four-day hiking trail means you can hike almost the entire length of the world’s second largest canyon.
Hiking trips are only available from May to September, the dry winter months. It’s dangerous during other months due to the heat and risk of flash floods.
You must carry all your provisions and be prepared for four long and hot days on the canyon floor. It’s not recommended for novice hikers and it’s worth getting good advice from one of the lodges about the exact foods to take. This is a real adventure into the wild.
Only a small number of permits are given out for each day. These must be booked in advance. They are inexpensive (around USD 25) but the prerequisite is that you must bring a note from your doctor, stating you are healthy enough for the hike.
Löwenfish hiking trail
Hardly anybody knows about this trail. It’s a very challenging trek across part of the Fish River Canyon and the Löwen Canyon nearby. You go up and down, up and down, up and down, and hopefully don’t get too many blisters or knee pains.
There is hardly any water on the trail and large sections are exposed. But if you want to walk in the wilderness, on landscapes untouched by people, then Löwenfish will satisfy your yearning for the wild.
Scenic flights over the canyon
The best way to appreciate Fish River Canyon is on a scenic flight. An aerial perspective showcases the size of this wonder, how it twists majestically through the desert. Shimmering red beneath the wingtips it is one of Africa’s most inspiring sights.
A scenic flight can be combined with a longer aerial safari above Sossusvlei as well.
Horse riding trails
You can cover more ground when riding a horse, although horses aren’t capable of making the dangerous descent into the canyon. This is a nice option for a half day ride close to the rim, taking you to places that are inaccessible by road.
Game viewing in Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park
This lovely little park makes a good addition to any experience in the area. Visit on a day or overnight safari, roaming alongside zebra, elephant and a pretty eclectic mix of other animals.
Fish River Canyon Accommodation
Fish River Lodge
The only facility on the rim of the canyon. It’s definitely a winner if you want to have a lazy day and still enjoy the crater.
Breathtaking views, carefully designed lodge and offering a wide variety of activities.
Ai Ais Hotsprings Resort
This is where I stayed during my overland trip back in 2011. 🙂
“Decent” hotel and spa with a swimming pool that gets its water directly from the hot springs. The place used to be known as the “southern jewel” of Namibia, though things have become less pretty lately due to poor management and neglected facilities.
Ai Ais Hotsprings Resort also offers self-catering units and a camping ground, which are probably your best options right now.
Canyon Adventures Guest Farm
Situated at the confluence of the Löwen and Fish River Canyons, the ranch offers the possibility to swim in river pools and to admire bizarre petroglyphs. It’s relaxed and laid-back, a good choice if you plan to do plenty of full-day activities as there’s not much around here during the day.
Privately owned and extending across the Sandfontein Nature and Game Reserve (over 76 000 hectares of land). Highly exclusive accommodation venue (only 4 bungalows and 1 suite) with great wildlife viewing opportunities and exceptional outdoor pursuits.
Further Adventure in Namibia
Fish River Canyon is just one of the vast and mostly unknown natural wonders in Namibia. Check out this post on the Namib Desert to learn about a few more.