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October 26, 2012

Zion Adventures: Hiking the Narrows

It’s hard to spend any time in Zion National Park and not start thinking about the Narrows.

You’ll see images and read descriptions of it from pretty much any informational resource you choose.  You’ll overhear people in the nearby lodges and restaurants talking about it.  And you’ll see passengers on the Zion Valley bus wearing waders and carrying walking sticks (more on those later) and automatically know how they’re spending the day.

Zion Narrows; click any photo to enlarge

The Narrows are as iconic to Zion as Half Dome is to Yosemite – but with practically zero elevation gain and the flexibility of doing as much or as little mileage you want, it’s far more accessible to the average Joe Hiker than climbing up some massive bald rock.  Unfortunately, it was also one of the areas I missed on my first pass through the park a couple of years ago – so this time around, with a family full of kindred souls looking for adventure, I knew which hike would be at the top of our list.

And just because the adventure is accessible, that doesn’t mean it’s easy; the challenges of hiking in the Narrows are still formidable, but in a more unique way than most hikers are typically accustomed to.  By the end of the day, your legs will be just as tired as if you spent a long day climbing and descending on regular trails – but the memories you keep with you afterwards will be far more distinctive.

But before we talk about the end, we should talk about the beginning – and at Zion, the starting point for a day hike of the Narrows is a paved trailhead at the last stop off the public bus line that runs through Zion Valley.

The paved portion is only one mile long, and is gently rolling, without anything that really deserves to be called a hill.  Basically, it’s an extended warmup walk to enjoy some nervous chatter, and to take the measure of the river you’ll be spending the rest of your day wading through.

Before getting to that part, there’s a transition zone of sorts where you can gear up for entering the river.  Prior to our arrival, it was this aspect of the trip that caused the most uncertainty (and occasional anxiety) for my wife and me, in that we had no way of knowing what exactly we might need.

Here’s the deal with the Narrows: the hiking route essentially goes straight through the Virgin River.  Not adjacent, not criss-crossing … but literally walking in the river.  Therefore, you’re guaranteed to spend the day wet – the only question is how much of your body is going to be submerged at any given time.  And when you talk to people or read reports about the Narrows, you’ll hear about the possibility of waist-deep currents or hidden sinkholes where you risk being completely submerged.

Accordingly, pretty much every guide to hiking the Narrows – especially those that are affiliated with one of the local rental shops - will tell you that you shouldn’t attempt the hike without canyoneering shoes, thick neoprene socks, drysuit wading pants, and a sturdy walking stick.  However, since I’m 1) a minimalist at heart, and 2) cheap, I wasn’t convinced that shelling out big bucks to outfit everybody was really necessary.

Truthfully, this assessment wasn’t a complete shot in the dark; with some advance research, I was able to make a reasonable guess as to what the water conditions might be like.  Zion uses a USGS water volume measurement of cubic feet per second (CFS) to gauge how much water the river is carrying on any given day.  If the flow is above 120 CFS, the park won’t issue through-hike permits, and any day under 75 CFS is considered reasonably safe for hiking.  On the mid-October day that we targeted for our outing, the river was a measly 35 CFS.

So we took our chances.  Instead of renting shoes and socks and pants, we wore … something else, which I’ll indicate shortly.  The only essential piece of gear you need is a walking stick …

… and you can most likely save yourself the rental cost and just grab one from the “take a stick, leave a stick” rack that’s just beyond the transition area.  Once you select the size and style you like …

… it’s time to make your way into the river.

When water levels are low, there are portions of the hike where you can avoid the river via rocky paths along the bank …

… but it won’t be long before your side trails disappear, and you’ve got nowhere to hide from the water.

Here’s what NOT to use for footwear: a pair of princessy high-heeled sandals, as the owner of this abandoned pair at river’s edge can attest to.  As for me …

… I went with VIVOBAREFOOT Ultras, which were designed as a hybrid aqua / land shoe – in other words, exactly the conditions you find in the Narrows.  Eschewing my traditional Vibram hiking shoes also allowed me to wear merino wool socks, which provide effective insulation even when wet.   Water temperature in the Virgin River was in the 55 to 60 degree range, so keeping your toes warm is definitely a priority for this hike.

(As a family, we were evenly split between Merrell Barefoot and VIVOBAREFOOT – and there’s one more note on footwear coming soon.)

On the subject of keeping warm: as you journey into the Narrows, you’re not only spending the majority of your time in frigid water, but the high canyon walls on either side effectively block the sun and keep the entire route cold …

… so anytime you find a narrow sliver of space where daylight actually reaches the ground, that’s occasion to stop and soak in some rays to bring your body temp up just a bit.

The further you go into the canyon, the more the walls seem to close in on either side of you, and the more surreal the entire scene becomes.  You also gain a heightened appreciation for the park service’s regulation of this route – because if there are heavy rains or flash flooding, you’ve got absolutely no place to hide.

Approximately 1.5 miles upriver is a junction for a side canyon called Orderville; this also marks the beginning of the most famous section of the Narrows, known as Wall Street.

Also, one final footwear note: if you click to enlarge the photo above, you’ll notice that the two people pictured are barefoot.  They weren’t the only ones we saw with naked feet, and I also found some people wearing Vibrams.  Obviously this was encouraging for me to witness, and it also completely dispels the notion that you need specialized shoes to navigate the Narrows. 

There are some precautions, however.  The slick river rocks cause your footing to constantly be unsteady, and you often slide unexpectedly from the surface of one rock to another.  Even with a walking stick, bashed toes are probably inevitable if you go the barefoot or Vibram route.  Also, a full day of this kind of unsteady walking on rocks is a pretty high-demand activity for your feet and especially your ankles, so if you’re a newbie minimalist, you’re going to have some soreness afterwards.

Inside Wall Street, the river is less than 25 feet wide in places, and the vertical sandstone walls on either side rise up to 1500 feet overhead.  If you’re a Star Wars freak like me, you’ll have flashbacks to the trash compactor scene in Episode IV – and if you’re a normal person, you’ll probably have an overwhelming feeling of smallness when staring up at the cliffs looming overhead.

When you’re day hiking* the Narrows, the turnaround point is wherever you make it; a popular turning point is the far end of Wall Street when the canyon opens up slightly again. 

(*As opposed to through-hiking, where you can start at the far upstream end and hike the entire 12 miles down to the transition area where my family’s hike started.  You need a permit for through-hiking, but not for day hiking as I’m describing here.)

You also want to budget some extra time on the way back …

… to make a side trip up Orderville Canyon, which is narrower and has less water flow than the main canyon …

… but has some distinctive features all its own, such as a couple of low scrambles over logs or rock piles.  You can go about a half-mile into Orderville before day hiking is prohibited (but through-hiking with a permit is OK) …

… and it’s time to turn around and head back through the main canyon towards the transition area.

By the time you finish the day, your vital stats won’t be very impressive; the trip described here is probably only 7 miles round trip, and took us the better part of 6 hours to complete with a few rest and meal breaks.  However, this hike isn’t about the numbers – it’s about venturing into surroundings that are unlike almost any other hike you’ll ever do, and taking in one of the best experiences that Zion National Park has to offer.

There’s a reason people talk about the Narrows so much – and if you ever get the opportunity, it’s definitely worth spending a day to see what all the talk is about.

*See other photo tours under tab at top of page. 

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Stacy,  10/26/12, 5:27 PM  

Cool that you were able to come back with your family. Very cool. I hope you had a good time. Sure seems like you did!

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