Seventeen miles, and three potential swims. If those two descriptors aren’t deterrents, great scenery awaits those who hike the Zion Narrows from the top down into the main canyon.
If you run marathons, bike the LOTOJA race, or simply marvel at nature’s masterpieces, there is nothing intimidating about this adventure. However, if you are a professional armchair quarterback, you had better get some miles under your feet before attempting this adventure, especially if you want to complete it in one day.
I’ve been to Zion many times, but after seeing the inspirational film, “The Bucket List”,
I decided it was time to do this classic hike. Along with good luck, and good sense, the key to success lies in the preparation.
There is no marked trail because at least 60 percent of the hike is in the Virgin River and, although the air temperature was in the 90’s, the water was chilly when we had to do the three short swims. Groups are limited to 12, and permits are required, but Rangers won’t issue them is the flow rate goes above 120 cubic feet per second. We were fortunate and hit a day when it was flowing at 100 CFS.
Unless you reserve one of the dozen Narrow’s campsites for an overnight stay, plan on about 12 hours walking. Unfortunately, if you are too slow and miss the last shuttle bus at the Temple of Sinawava, you will add another 8 mile hike to return to your car at the Visitor Center.
River hiking can be like walking on greasy bowling balls. You can ruin your own shoes, or the Zion Adventure Company will rent sticky-soled boots, tight neoprene socks, and a walking stick. Unless you have two cars, they will also provide the 90-minute shuttle to the Chamberlain Ranch. They are helpful and show a training film about hiking the Narrows. Here you will learn to watch for the signs of deadly flash-floods. If it happens, immediately go to higher ground, available throughout the canyon…except in the “Wall Street” area. Check weather conditions with the Zion Backcountry Desk before you take your first step.
Wear layered clothing, use a river-bag for food and dry clothes, bring at least two liters of water or a good filter, and waterproof bags for your camera. Forget phones, they will not function there. Finally, borrowing a line from “The Bucket List”, (never pass up a bathroom) each hiker is provided with a human waste disposal bag.
To avoid packing extra food and sleeping bags, we were determined to do this as a day-hike. We had picked up our permit the night before, and saw the weather forecast at ten percent chance of light rain. Wanting to hit the trail early, we camped out on the east side of the park. After six hours of slumber-sweet, we let adrenaline pilot us toward the canyon. The first five miles were covered effortlessly, but the trail and shallow river finally transitioned into the copper-colored serpentine canyon we sought.
The Narrows is by far an acme of hikes in Zion. The sandstone walls ascend 2,000 feet, yet at times are only 20 feet apart at their base. For 12 miles we enjoyed incomparable scenery, waterfalls, small tributaries, sandbars where canyon maples provided alluring rest-stops, and the pleasantry was recorded with calendar-quality photos. But then we entered the “Danger Zone”.
True to its namesake, the Wall Street section was full of surprises. The sky darkened as though someone had pulled a black quilt over the canyon. Birds stopped singing. The wind picked up. Our ten percent chance of rain suddenly became one hundred percent! We were already wet, so we laughed…until the lightning flashed. Then thunder rumbled behind us so loudly we turned as if expecting freight trains to pummel us. Since there was no high ground, we picked up our pace and stuck close to the canyon walls. Seven people sloshing, wading, swimming, and helping each other to get to high boulders as soon as possible.
We reached safety the same time the storm stopped. The forecast was accurate. No flash-flood during our adventurous 12-hour journey and, yes, we caught the bus with time to spare. Would we do this hike again? Absolutely!