The Granddaddy of Them All – The Narrows
[Zion National Park, UT]
We are tired. We are soooo tired. Tired and sore. We almost want to keep walking and moving continuously, because once we sit down, getting back up is… well, difficult. When we do have to get up, we both sound like we’re 80 years old, what with all the oohing and ahhing.
The Narrows took out whatever little energy we had left. What is the Narrows, you ask? The Narrows refers to a section of the canyon that the Virgin River carved out in this amazing section of the Colorado Plateau. Although The Narrows also refer to a hike, there is no trail – the river is the trail. There are two ways to hike the Narrows – from the top down, or from the bottom up. The top-down route is the more adventurous and it can be done in one long day (it is 16 miles long) or it can be broken up in two days, with an overnight camping stop in the canyon itself. This route, at times more of a swim than a hike down-river, requires permits and it’s clearly more than what Chris and I bargained for, so we opted for the more popular route – from the bottom up. Bottom-up hikers are only allowed about 5 miles in; most people make it about 2.5-3 miles into the narrowest section of the canyon.
Preparing for this hike was no small feat. One is encouraged to always check the weather, as the Narrows are prone to flash floods. It doesn’t even have to rain where you are – rain up-river can easily turn shallow down-stream sections into a life-threatening burgeoning river. When we checked with the ranger the day before, we almost got scared away from this hike as the flash flood forecast for today was probable – the second highest. Luckily, thunderstorms were not expected till after 2 pm, and we planned on being back on and long before that.
Then there’s the gear. Although people do hike the Narrows in sandals, water shoes or even regular tennis shoes, doing so is not recommended. The riverbed can be often rocky, and you can’t always see where you’re going, so shoes with great grip and closed toes are a must. You also need a hiking staff to support yourself and to test out the river level ahead of you, as the bottom can suddenly become deep. After reading tons of reviews that recommended renting the necessary items from one of the many adventure outfitters in town, we headed out to the Narrows at 6 am with special canyoneering shoes and neoprene socks, and hiking poles. The shoes have mad grip and keep your wet feet nice and warm in 50ish degree water. One thing they do not have is a nice smell. We actually had to keep them outside overnight (we rented them the night before) because the stench was so unbearable. But safety first, right?
We were the only people left on our shuttle by the time we got to the last stop on the route, where a 1-mile easy walk along the river (not yet in it) led to a small river access area where the Narrows begin. Although it rained here a lot the week before (the Narrows were actually closed for a few days), by now the river was mostly calf- to knee-deep, but that didn’t make navigating it any easier. We stayed close to the canyon walls when possible where we could often hike on the dried-out part of the riverbed, but we often had to traverse the river back and forth as the shallow sections kept alternating sides. The bottom was sometimes rocky, sometimes sandy, and you didn’t know which until you actually stepped on it. None of that stopped Chris from taking a gazillion photos in the Narrows, tripod and all. As a matter of fact, this is the hike he most looked forward to and save for flash floods, he wouldn’t have missed this amazing opportunity to take some amazing photos. To entertain myself, I took to taking pictures of him crouched down in all sorts of crazy positions in the middle of the river, camera barely above the water on the tripod.
Luckily, there are quite a few points of interests sprinkled along the canyon, so we had a sense of where we were. First came Mystery Canyon Falls – the 110ft high exit point for Mystery Canyon.
Around the next bend were a 200-ft seasonal waterfall that was down to trickle this time of year, and House Rock – a giant boulder in the middle of the river that forced it to 10-ft wide in this section.
Another half mile up the river we came up to the most famous sections of the Narrows, the ones you see in all the photographs – Orderville Canyon and Wall Street. Both of these sections are famous because the canyon walls close in on you, the water gets deep, the sliver of sky gets smaller and smaller… You get the point. Your eyes almost adjust to seeing this gigantic rocks tower on both sides of you, until a hiker appears in front of you and gives you a renewed perspective.
There are so many cracks and alcoves and curves and shapes and colors in the canyon around you, it’s hard to focus on navigating the river instead. It really is a surreal experience. As we encountered backpackers coming down from the top-down hike, we actually felt a little jealous that we didn’t do the top-down route. That has definitely been added to the bucket list.
As we came back down, the sun had managed to finally light up the top of the canyon walls, making us feel like we were hiking through a completely different place. I am not joking – we were both having a hard time recognizing the sections that we’d traversed just an hour or two before.
But in addition to sun, we also got some rain – the universal sign for “hurry up and get out of the river”. You would think the flash flood warning would scare people away, but not so – the lower Narrows had turned into Disneyland by the time we came back. The serene wilderness experience we had going up the Narrows had all but vanished. I am not sure exactly how far all of those late-comers got because just over 30 minutes after we got out of the river, the thunder and rain the National Weather Service had predicted came to be. Did I mention already we were tired? It was as if coming back DOWN the river was harder than going upriver! We were both spent – and now I have a new appreciation for what that word actually means.
I am so tired, that I am briefly going to mention that we rested, went back to the park to check out the Human History museum, returned our stinky shoes, ate dinner and grabbed a slice of the “world famous” Bumbleberry pie at the bakery next door, and called it a day. I almost didn’t even write this blog entry. *Yawn*. We head home tomorrow; I am so looking forward to not getting up at 5 or 5:30 for change….
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Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I’m going to Zion with my husband and we just have two full days in the park. We would like to overnight camp. Any recommendations? We have experience hiking. We did the Inca trail in Peru. I’d appreciate any suggestions.
Hi Marcela, thanks for the kind words! I would do Angels’ Landing on one day and Observation point the other. Get started early on both to avoid crowds. When are you going?
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