When our kids were 7 and 4, their grandparents took them on a vacation, allowing my husband and I to take a trip for ourselves. Unlike sane people who would normally opt for a leisure week at a resort on the beach, my husband and I decided to hike the Narrows in Zion National Park.
The Zion Narrows is a 16 mile hike in Zion Canyon within Zion National Park in Utah. The Narrows was formed from years of erosion by the river, carving its way through the stone. There is no trail on this hike because the river is your trail – you must walk in the Virgin River. In some areas, the walls of the canyon are 1,000 feet tall and only 20-30 feet wide. In order to hike from the beginning of the Narrows (at the North Fork of the Virgin River), you must obtain a permit. You can choose to hike it in one day or two as they have campsites within the canyon. The trail starts at Chamberlain’s Ranch outside of the park’s boundary and you exit the hike at the Temple of Sinawava.
For a few years I had wanted to hike the Zion Narrows. I wanted to be knee-deep in nature, isolated, and willing to test my wits. However, when we checked into the ranger station a day before our hike, Zion’s park rangers advised us not to go due to a moderate risk of flash flooding. There had been a few flash floods and heavy rains lately so it was likely that we’d experience bad weather while in the canyon. Obviously, this changed our moods drastically. Here we were, in Zion, finally on a trip without the kids, here to hike something on our ‘bucket list,’ and the park rangers suggest we skip it. We had no other options either – we had to either hike it or skip it; we couldn’t get a permit for another day while we were there. I was incredibly upset.
Convinced we were still going through with the hike, we headed to Zion Adventure Company where we rented our gear for the Narrows- a hiking stick, neoprene booties, and a dry bag. Again, we were reminded of the risks of hiking the canyon during this flash flood season and were advised not to go by their employees. I was pissed. I took my rented gear, walked out to the car, and got angry.
I wasn’t angry at the park rangers or the employees at the Zion Adventure Company. They were just doing their jobs – advising tourists of the risks. I was mad at the circumstances. We were finally out here and everyone was telling us no. I kept convincing myself that I knew the dangers of flash floods in the Narrows and what to do if one happened. After much thought, my husband and I finally agreed we’d go ahead with the hike. That decision would haunt me for the next 48 hours.
Here is our story(times are approximate).
DAY 1 (9:00am) – We caught our shuttle to Chamberlain’s Ranch, the trailhead to the Zion Narrows. Most of the 90 minute ride was on bumpy dirt roads, with a driver who was very comfortable taking fast turns. We had taken the later of the two offered shuttles. We asked the driver if he had dropped anyone else off earlier, since we were curious if other people failed to take the park rangers advice. He mentioned that he had dropped off a couple earlier, and a set of German hikers were with us in the van. I felt better knowing that we weren’t alone in our decision. But I still had my doubts when getting out of that van. Here we are at Chamberlain’s Ranch, the start of the hike. Note the smiles on our eager faces. Our feet were still dry.
It had rained the night before so I knew the hike would not be ideal. When we finally saw the river, I got a bit concerned. The water was murky, fast-moving, and much higher than expected. The mud near the river was like quicksand. After changing into our neoprene booties (for our many river crossings), we realized the German guys took off ahead of us, and soon we were ready to go.
11:00am – We were finally off, walking along side of the Virgin River, fulfilling a life dream. We absorbed everything around us and casually walked on the river bank, so happy in our decision-making.
12:00pm – Eventually we had to start walking in the river. There really is no clear, definitive trail through the Narrows. You just want the driest path, the fewest river crossings, and the path with the least amount of obstacles. Boulders, downed trees, and rocks were a constant sight. As my husband trail blazed for us he kept trying to find the path of least resistance. There were many times we thought we were following a trail only to realize that we weren’t. Turing around, walking backwards, and crossing the river more than we needed to, became a bit frustrating, but we trudged on.
The water grew deeper and continued to flow quickly. It was also murky, so we couldn’t see where we were walking. Every step was a challenge since we didn’t know what rock, boulder, stick or mud we would be stepping on; we were walking blind. This obviously made each river crossing slow, methodical, tedious, and slightly unnerving. It didn’t help that the river rocks were slippery. More than once, I lost my footing (despite the rubber bottoms on the neoprene booties), and fell into the rushing water. When you are carrying a 30 lb. pack on your back, all you care about when you fall, is keeping that pack above water (even though it had a waterproof cover). However, this, in turn, offsets your balance, and keeps a person from standing up. When I fell for a second time in the water, I banged up my calf pretty badly from hitting the jagged rocks on the bottom. Despite having the jolt from falling, I was physically fine, but my husband now realized that if anything happened to us, it would be incredibly difficult to get out of this canyon.
2:00pm – We continued to find the trail and climb over or under obstacles, while the number of river crossings increased. The 50 degree water was beginning to annoy me, leaving my feet cold and clammy, and affected my balance while walking on the river rocks.
4:00pm – We had finally reached camp #1. We had a permit to camp at site #8. We had a long way to go.
As the day rolled on, we continued to consult our Zion Narrows map to see where we were and how much longer we had to hike in order to get to campsite #8. However, most of the landmarks and camp markings were difficult to spot. Once we finally reached North Fork Falls, we realized how slow we were hiking. Instead of hiking the ‘normal’ rate of 1 mile of hiking taking 30 minutes, we were averaging one hour for that same mile. Crossing the fast-moving, murky water, being unable to see the bottom, and being extra cautious while in the water greatly slowed us down.
6:00pm – Navigating around the waterfall was fun; fortunately there was a shortcut right next to the falls that we could hike down. With all the photos we were taking, my husband stopped putting our brand new camera in the waterproof case because it became such a chore to put it away each time. So, around this time, we’re hiking along and then I saw it- the camera fell out of his pocket into the murky Virgin River! Naturally, we scrambled to get our hands in the water to look for it. I eventually started sobbing, knowing our camera was likely gone; we couldn’t see the bottom so I knew we wouldn’t find it. I was thinking that even if we do find it, it wasn’t going to work and all of our photos on it would be gone. I was devastated. Then, my husband miraculously found the camera. We had no clue if it would work again, but we were hopeful the photos on the memory card would be fine. Still we wouldn’t have a camera to document this awesome trip. I was not happy.
8:00pm – Eventually hunger and fatigue crept up to us. We continued to trudge along. We didn’t find all of the campsites. They were poorly marked, frustrating us. When we realized it would be too dark to reach camp #8 in time to set up our tent in the daylight (being in the Narrows, you have less sunlight and it gets dark sooner), we decided to just camp at site #6. We knew the German hikers would be staying at camp #7 and we knew there was no one else behind us. We set up our site, took our wet shoes and clothes off, devoured our dinner, and listened to the howling wind all night. I’ve never felt so isolated, alone, and vulnerable. Of course it didn’t help that we had seen the carcass of a young mountain lion earlier in the day. My mind wandered with all kinds of troubling thoughts before I finally fell asleep.
DAY 2 (6:30am) – The next day, we awoke with sore bodies. Our ankles hurt the most – no amount of training could prepare us for all of the walking on uneven ground and river crossings. In addition to our ankles, our feet and our legs ached. Now, we had to put back on our still wet neoprene booties, with our feet still somewhat clammy from the day before. I was tired and sore but I knew I had to suck it up and be strong to get out. We were fortunate that it had not rained the previous day. We knew we’d hike the dangerous section of the Zion Narrows today that has no high ground to escape a flash flood. We wanted to get moving early while the weather seemed okay.
After enduring the painfully embarrassing act of scooping up and packaging our waste in a disposable bag given to us by the park (to dispose of it outside of the Narrows), we had only to filter our day’s worth of water before heading back out down the canyon. My husband started filtering the water from the silty, muddy Virgin River when suddenly, I see a piece of plastic tubing shoot off into the distance, down the canyon and into the river. As if things couldn’t get worse, a crucial part of our water filter broke off! Naturally, I started to panic. When I finally calmed down, I realized we still had some water from the day before which would have been enough to sustain us in an emergency situation. However, it wasn’t enough for this strenuous hiking. So we sat back down, got out our Jetboil pot and boiled some muddy water, knowing that if we ran out of our good water, at least we had this sanitized water, despite the sediment.
8:00am – Finally we set off – cranky, upset, frustrated, and sore. We hiked up and down, across the river, over boulders, and trudged through even deeper water. Eventually we caught up to the German hikers and another couple from Des Moines. Ecstatic to now be hiking with other people, we commiserated together and shared our stories from the day before.
10:00am – When we reached Big Springs, the German guys surprised us by drinking the water coming straight from the rocks. They reminded us the water was coming right out of the earth so it was clean. Needless to say, if they were drinking it, we decided we’d be drinking it! We pulled out our water bottles, dumped the silty boiled water, and filled them up from the springs.
The weather cooperated with us as we hiked through the tall, narrow section of the canyon. This is the popular area of the Narrows, where there is no high ground to escape a flash flood. We had come across the deepest part of the river. We traveled in a group, jumping off boulders into water we had to swim in. We all tried to carry our packs over our heads; however, there was no way to keep them dry and over our heads while treading water. The packs were too heavy.
12:00pm – As we got closer to the end, we saw day hikers coming up the Narrows from the bottom. We asked each hiker how much time we had left until the end, but each one gave us a different answer. Any discouraging thought disappeared once we got into the sun. We could feel the warmth, and our hopes were rising.
3:00pm – We celebrated with a few cheers when we reached the end of the Zion Narrows. We were walking on solid dry ground! While on the shuttle bus to the visitor’s center, the six of us remained silent. We were wet, dirty, and sore. Never have I been so grateful to ride a bus.
Later that afternoon, rain came back to the Narrows. The photo above shows the USGS print out of the CFS (cubic feet per second – which is the standard measure of water flow in a river) for the North Fork of the Virgin River. The orange highlighted area is when we hiked the Narrows. As you can see, there was a flash flood before we hiked, and then right after we got out of the Zion Narrows. Talk about being lucky!
For the next week, my husband and I took nothing for granted. Despite our sore bodies, every interaction with civilization we had and all of our everyday comforts were appreciated.
Overall, I learned a lot from the experience. Including:
And did my husband ever get the camera to work? Yes, fortunately he did. He took it apart and spent a bunch of time with the blow dryer from the hotel room to get it back up and running. As you can see, the photos we had taken on the camera before it fell into the river were still salvageable. Thank goodness!
Have you hiked the Zion Narrows? I’d love to hear your stories!