Zion Narrows

2010/10/27-28 Sixteen Wet Miles over Two Days

After the valley of Fire, we spent the night in St.George, Utah, and arrived at Zion National Park the next day. Exploring the narrow slot canyons of the North Fork Virgin River is the classic hike to do in Zion. It can be done as an out and back day trip from the bottom, or as an overnighter from the top. The top down option can be done in single very long day, when days are longer than they currently are, or for the more hard-core types.

We decided on the overnight option. We got back-country permits, and this  included being assigned a camp site and issued special “poo bags.”  The bags were a first for us. They look like a large foil pouch, but various layers of expanding  bags and special kitty litter are inside, and they even provide TP!  We could see the need for these; this well-travelled narrow canyon would be unpleasant without them.

Rented Canyoneering Footwear 

Winter comes suddenly here, and it has come. The water temperature is about 10 degrees Celsius, and we were to spend 60% of our time walking in it, so we rented dry pants, canyoneering footwear (vibram-soled boots with neoprene socks) and stout wooden staffs from an outfitter. Trekking poles are not likely to survive this hike, we were told.  We took a shuttle to the starting point at Camberlain’s Ranch, along with four testosterone-fuelled MBA students on some sort of spring break who delayed the shuttle’s departure by half an hour by their lack of organization.

We walked the first mile or so across open country, a dry landscape of yellow aspen, coppery oak, with touches of red maple.  We donned our special footwear as we began the wet part of the journey. How to describe a hike like this? It is like nothing we’ve ever done. The canyon walls are as much as 2,000 feet high, and the width is often only 20 feet, sometimes narrower. We crossed and recrossed the river, the wooden staffs being essential for stability because of footing akin to a jumble of greased bowling balls. We soon stopped looking for dry ways along the banks, and simply walked in the river …knee deep, or thigh deep. In the slot sections, there was no bank. For the most part, sandstone walls rose starkly, but where seeps or  springs oozed or gurgled, the walls were covered in mosses, liverworts, and maidenhair fern.

At our campsite, we  set up a tarp shelter, having decided to leave the tent behind to save weight. It was a long cold night, with a few interruptions by pinyon mice running over us. In the morning, we could see the mice had investigated our unwashed dishes, too.

The photos simply don’t do this hike justice. The canyons are dark, we didn’t spend much time over photos, and the camera battery died at the end of the first day. The second day was more spectacular than the first, and at times we were waist deep as we manoeuvered carefully downstream. I put my hand down once to save myself, and Chris had a slightly worse slip up. Concentration is required to stay upright. 

Chris and Margo at the exit to the canyon

As we got near the end, we began to meet bottom-uppers. We explored a side canyon, and chatted with a German couple (bottom-uppers) and a duo from Virginia and New York who were fellow top-downers. Emerging onto a manicured trail, we walked a mile or so to the shuttle bus. Private cars are not allowed on the canyon road, and the shuttles that prevent traffic jams are logistically useful to hikers.  Our driver would announce the half-mile paved loops that began from each shuttle stop in a voice that sounded like she was Mae West inviting you to her boudoir.  I guess many park visitors need extra encouragement to use their legs.

Back in Springdale, even though we were pretty tired, we booked another shuttle for a high country hike the next day, and chowed down on Tex-Mex burgers.


2 responses to “Zion Narrows

  1. Wow! What a hike! I am very impressed. I will have to refer your photos to your geologist brother-in-law! I got dizzy just looking down the switch-back trail section in the photos!

  2. Incredible photos! Makes me want to go again and explore the many areas still to see.

    Weren't you worried about flash floods in the slot canyons? (Or have I just read too many Tony Hillerman novels?)


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