Walking the Narrows in Zion National Park
Road Journals Blog—Stepping out of our tent into the predawn of southern Utah, I could still see millions of stars. But I didn’t have long to linger over the heavens, I had a shuttle to catch that would carry me and my friend up and out of Zion National Park, along cliffs and through rock tunnels to the trailhead of our daylong (we hoped) hike: a 16-mile trek back down into Zion through the Narrows—a sandstone, river-bottom slot canyon carved over millennia by the Virgin River.
Full of anticipation, we bolted down some oatmeal and hit the road. At the shuttle headquarters we rented walking sticks but declined special waterproof river boots. I had on Vibram Five Fingers, shoes that mimic bare feet. They seemed perfect for amphibious river walking. However, I eyed my friend’s tattered old tennis shoes dubiously as we boarded the bus.
During an hour’s ride to the trailhead we sized up our fellow passengers. Two twenty-something European backpackers seemed like they might keep pace on the trail. The bus full of young girls behind us seemed like they might make a lot of noise. When we piled out at our destination on land owned by Chamberlain Ranch, several breakfasting cattle met us with mild amusement. The large black bulls we’d soon pass within yards of were slightly less amused.
With simple directions to follow the river we started walking. Our breath came out as vapor. At an elevation 1,300 feet higher than our campsite, we felt cold for the first time on our summer trip through the Southwest. We crossed the frigid headwaters of the Virgin River, and hit the trail with the sun ascending behind us. Its warmth was welcome but the passage of time it represented wasn’t; the hike through the Narrows takes 13 hours on average.
We appraised ourselves as above average, however, and flattered ourselves by getting well out ahead of the other hikers. Speeding alternately through and alongside the river, we still found time to look around. Peach and rust colored cliffs rose up around us. Pine gave way to fern and cottonwood as the river slowly snaked its way deeper into the canyon. Sandstone grottos and hanging gardens renewed our awe around every bend. Only our footsteps, rushing water, and the occasional bird call broke the silence.
But it was the sound of high water advancing from behind that I kept my ears open for. Flash floods occur regularly on the Colorado Plateau flushing huge amounts of water through the Narrows. Hikers often die during flood conditions in slot canyons, either carried away, pinned under, or simply crushed by high water. Technically, we were hiking in desert monsoon season, which lasts from July through October, but the National Weather Service held a clear forecast. Still, they’re called flash floods for a reason.
Soon our hunger outweighed our fear of floods. By the time we stopped for lunch we reckoned our position at a little more than halfway based on our crude map. But the hardest part was still to come.
When we had originally planned our time, I hadn’t accounted for the rocks—the slippery, treacherous little boulders that crowd the riverbed, waiting to toss and turn like insomniacs at the slightest provocation from adventuring feet. I had imagined a smooth, sandy-bottomed cakewalk. But by the afternoon my feet and ankles were trashed. My minimalist footwear proved too minimal. I felt like Will Ferrell in the movie Anchorman, lamenting on a scorching hot day that “Milk was a bad choice!” as it dribbles down his chin. My friend trotted blissfully along in his tennis shoes.
Eventually we passed the spacious campsite we had reserved in case we needed it—the campsite where we would have stayed the night if we were sane. It lay on high ground next to a gurgling stream. But we appraised ourselves as slightly superior to sanity and trudged on.
After eating the last of our once ample food supplies on a patch of ground between lengthening shadows, we forced ourselves up and onward. Soon we were swimming portions of the deepening river. Reemerging, we scampered over boulders, ducked under trees, slid down crumbling slopes, and swam some more. It was like a giant, gorgeous obstacle course.
The Narrows increasingly resembled its name, slimming to only 20 feet wide in places while rising to 2,000 feet overhead. By now I was too tired to consider the lack of safe high ground. Rounding a bend we suddenly saw people walking noisily upstream. After our solitude it was surreal but welcome. They were coming from the Temple of Sinawava, the endpoint of our journey and they gave wildly varying accounts of how long it was until the Temple. They were all wrong. It was much longer.
But eventually we wandered into the awesome natural amphitheater and saw a concrete path leading to shuttles. I was too tired to celebrate. Instead I took off my poorly chosen shoes and let my feet dry for the first time in 12 hours. On the 30-minute ride back to our campsite, I sat dumbly amidst the chattering, energetic tourists.
This blog post was first published in August 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.