Updated: Nov 5, 2022
Today’s adventure comes to you from Southeastern Utah where I find myself swimming through a river, backpack weighing me down, sheer red cliffs rising thousands of feet around me, and two days walk from any signs of civilization. I found myself in the Narrows of Zion Canyon National Park, on one of the most incredible hiking experiences I had ever had the pleasure to go on. The narrows are one of the many slot canyons that can be found in this portion of the country. The Virgin Rivers runs through the entire canyon and the canyon walls are made up of 2000 tall sheer cliffs of red sandstone. At its narrowest, these cliffs are only separated by a few feet. To traverse the entire canyon, you would need to start outside the boundaries of the park and hike along the Virgin River into the canyon itself. The entire hike takes place inside the river with the water consistently on your shins but there are areas where the water reached my best were not in common. There was even a portion of the hike that required swimming in ten-foot water to get to the next riverbank.
This adventure was the first trip I took after graduating college and I did it with two of my closest high school friends. We met in Salt Lake City. gathered our rental car and drove south. This was a two-week trip that allowed us to see southern Utah before finishing the trip at the Grand Canyon. Southern Utah is one of the most beautiful sections in the country and is lined with a series of national parks often called “Utah’s Mighty Five”. These parks are Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce, and Zion Nation Parks. While we would see several of these, those will be stories for other days. Today I would like to focus on Zion, and more specifically, the Zion Narrows trail.
This is a 2-day hike that requires one night of hiking inside the canyon itself. When we first arrived in the park, we went to the ranger’s station to secure overnight permits. Since the entire hike is inside of a river, space to camp is limited and must be secured ahead of time. Towards the middle of this trail, there are a series of 14 camping sites within a 3 mile stretch of trail. Each site is on an elevated gravel bed and can only accommodate one group of hikers. Once we had our permit in hand, we went to the nearby town of Springdale, located right outside of the park’s boundaries. We rented supplies from a local vendor and arranged for them to take us outside of the park to where this trail begins. The supplies we picked up included a hiking stick and slip proof, water resistant shoes. These are a must on this trail. Even with them, we lost count of how many times we slipped on the smooth, wet rocks that make up the Virgin River’s bed. Supplies and permit in hand, we were ready for this adventure.
We met our ride the next morning and we were on the trail by 7 am. The driver dropped us off in what appeared to be empty, flat, and expansive farmland with the only set of instructions being “just follow the river”. We set off on the trail, walking from riverbank to riverbank. Although at first, we wanted the “river hiking experience” and tried to hike through the river the entire time, we quickly realized this was costing us time and we had a lot of ground to cover in one day. For those readers who face the same temptation, don’t worry; there will be plenty of opportunities to hike through the river over the next 48 hours. Within the first mile of the trail, the canyon walls were beginning to ride up on each side of us and within 2 miles we were thoroughly committed to the trail. The walls were not several hundred feet tall and completely unclimbable. With no transportation back to town, we also did not have the option to turn around and go back the way we came. One way or another, we had to complete this trail.
Within 3 miles, the walls had risen to over 1000 feet above our heads and there was only 20 feet in between these walls for sections of the trail. The experience of being in this canyon and seeing such an awe-inspiring sight is impossible to appreciate without seeing it for yourself. As cliché as the term is: “you simply have to be there”. By this point, the water from the river was frequently at our knees. Although I have done many hikes since then that were longer, the river hiking obstacle can easily double how long you need to plan to hike for. No matter how carefully we tried to wade through the water, one of us always found ourselves on our backs every ten minutes. A quite literal pain in the ass.
By lunch time, we were at a section of the trail we decided to call “the boulder and the waterfall”. This marks the final “no turning back point” for the hike. As the name implies, this section of the trail contained a huge boulder that was creating a dam in the river. One small opening to the right side of this boulder contained a narrow waterfall with a 5 foot drop off. For those unfamiliar with the hike, a 5-foot dive off the top of the waterfall and into the water below seems like the only way to continue this trail (not recommended). Instead, we climbed up to the left side of the boulder to find a very narrow and hidden path. We shimmied our way through this opening and 20 feet later, we were on the other side and ready to continue our adventure, although we couldn’t resist the urge to swim beneath the waterfall. By lunch time, the canyon walls were far above us, and the sky was a thin blue strip in the distance overhead.
Lunch was eaten on the go throughout the day. Whenever, we found a dry spot for a break; a handful of trail mix and part of some sandwich was used to keep us fueled. By early evening, we were still several miles from our camp site but were already beginning to lose sunlight. Because of how deep the canyon is, light begins fading very early. This makes it crucial to make good use of time while you are on this trail to make sure you arrive at your camp site before dark. Even in broad daylight, we lost cost of the bruises we picked up from all our falls, trying to wade through the river in pitch black can easily lead to sprained ankles or worse. Although we had limited light left for the final quarter of our hike, we were able to arrive at our camp site using head lamps. We set up camp on a small gravel bed that was barely above the waterline. There was enough room for our 3 tents but not much more. Exhausted, we quickly fell asleep knowing that the next day would be just as challenging.
We woke up bright and early and got back on the trail. By this point, we were in the heart of the canyon. The canyon walls were perpetually thousands of feet over us and the gap between them continued too frequently narrow. We made our own way from riverbank to riverbank again, wading through the water in between each bank. By this point, the water was never below our knees again. Around lunch time, we came across a huge boulder that was damming the river. There was no way around this obstacle at all. To continue the trail, there was only option. Climb up the boulder, slide down the top of it, and plummet a few feet into the river below. Prior to this, the water had not reached past our chest, and I was expecting more of the same once I slid off the boulder and back into the river. To my surprise, the water rose several feet above my head, my hat flew off, and I began a spirited swim to the nearest riverbank 30 feet away (my hat was safely rescued).
Our day fell into the same routine after that, walking from bank to bank while either wading or swimming across the river in-between. The views along the entire hike though were far from routine. This was easily one of the most stunning and memory inspiring visuals of any hike I had been on to that point or ever since. Towering canyon walls twisted and turned for miles ahead of us. As we began approaching the trailhead, we began to encounter more and more hikers coming up the canyon the opposite way and without fail, each was in awe of us for having completed the full trail and were interested in hearing of our experience. As evening was approaching, we had made it back to the trailhead and were ready to continue with our trip. This hike wound up being my favorite part of that two-week adventure but each park we visited had its own stories to tell. We were now off to the Grand Canyon to complete our adventure but that is a story for another time…