Here the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range rises up to 8000ft (2.4km) above sea-level, in an area known as the Sierra Tarahumara. Copper Canyon is carved out of the landscape by the meeting of not one, but six rivers. These rivers flow down the western side of the Sierra Tarahumara, creating six ravines, before joining together to form the mighty Río Fuerte (Fuerte River). As the waters flow, they stain the riverbanks a copper color, hence the name given to the canyon as a whole.
Along the way, these waters create such wondrous sights. Cascada de Piedra Volada (Flying Stone Waterfall) plummets 1,486 feet (453 meters) down the side of one of the ravines. It is 50ft (15 meters) wide and can be found in the Cañon Candamena (Candamena Canyon).
This is the largest waterfall in Mexico, as well as the 11th tallest in the world, but you have to time it right to see it in its full glory. The rainy season (May to September) is the best time of all, when the rivers are swollen to capacity.
Remarkably, the falls have only recently been discovered, in September, 1994, as they lay in reasonably inaccessible wilderness. (Though it may be assumed that the locals knew it was there.) The tourist trails have now opened them up, but, for many, Piedra Volada is still best seen from a distance. Up close, the nature of the rock formations mean that there isn't a clear sight of the waterfall for all of your hard work getting up there.
Nevertheless, many make pilgrimage, because the stunning views of the rest of the canyon more than compensate. Going to the top of Piedra Volada is only for the hardy. It can be reached only via a hiking trail, starting in San Lorenzo, which takes up to 8 hours for the round trip. This also includes a section where hands and feet will both be needed, in order to traverse a rock ramp.
Copper Canyon is also home to Mexico's second tallest waterfall. Cascada de Basaseachi (Basaseachic Falls) is found in the canyon of the same name. It was believed for centuries that this was the country's biggest waterfall, until Cascada de Piedra Volada knocked it off its perch. However, unlike its neighbour, Basaseachi falls permanently, all year round.
Cascada de Basaseachi cascades down 807ft (246 meters) from the top of the Sierra Tarahumara. It is also easily accessible from the mountain-top town of Creel. This old railroad and logging town now caters for the influx of tourists, with many local amenities to serve their needs. It affords an excellent view of Cascada de Basaseachi, while a short drive out, on Federal Highway 16, allows visitors to reach the top of the falls themselves.
There are many such towns and villages dotted throughout the Copper Canyon. Some have been specifically built as tourist towns, since the area became designated as Parque Nacional Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon National Park). There is controversy over a couple of them, as large hotels are seen as distracting from the otherwise breath-taking vista.
However, barely noticeable at all are those settlements belonging to the indigenious Rarámuri. Friendly and sociable, these people have lived in the canyon since long before the arrival of the Spanish. Their legends tell of a giant rampaging through the scenery, causing the deep ravines with his heavy footfalls. Some Rarámuri have built their homes from scratch, while many others live quite comfortably inside caves. (They are quite used to tourists stumbling upon them and asking, in amazed delight, for photographs of their homes.)
The Rarámuri's Spanish name, Tarahumara, means 'the running people'. It references the amazing stamina of these people, who have been known to run non-stop for days. One of their hunting techniques was to chase their prey, until it fell from exhaustion; while one of their ball games rules it a foul, if a player stops running. These games often go on all day and well into the night too. You can read more about the Tarahumara, as well as seeing some stunning photography, on the Friends of the Running People website.
As well as human being, Copper Canyon is home to some quite rare wildlife, including the Stygian owls. Amongst the other 300 species of birds found here are royal eagle, mountain cockatoo, wild turkey and thick-billed parrots. You might also spot a mountain lion or a Mexican wolf.
Many agree that the best way to view Copper Canyon is by taking the Chepe Train, from Los Mochis to Chihuahua. There are roads, but that involves wanting to park up every five minutes to see another awe-inspiring sight. There are also commercial buses, as well as plenty of tourist buses. The former might be the cheapest way to travel, other than walking, but they can get very crowded. Hiking, biking and horse-riding also remain perennial favourites. Lots of travel advice is given in this Lonely Planet forum thread.
Time to discover why so many Mexicans rate this area as their country's greatest wonder?