The landscape of southern Utah is famous for its beautiful rock formations and canyons in all different red, orange and yellow tones. In the southwest, Zion National Park offers one of the most incredible landscapes. After visiting a few National Parks in the Utah, I can say Zion was for sure the most adventurous of them.
We arrived at Zion National Park a day before our planned journey. It was cloudy and looked rainy. Not a good starting point for hiking the Narrows! There was no flash flood warning for the Narrows but it was pretty close to it.
“A Flash flood in a narrow canyon is a death trap!”
A week earlier there was a big flash flood in the canyon. So it was on us to decide whether to take the risk or not. A flash flood in such a narrow canyon is a death trap! There is no way to find high ground on many parts of the canyon. We still decided to get a backcountry permit and reserved a shuttle for 7 A.M. in the morning to bring us up to the trailhead.
While setting up the tent for the night it started raining and it didn’t stop for the next couple of hours. Everybody just thought: Crap, we’re not gonna be able to make the hike next morning. At 5 A.M. we packed our stuff and walked to the shuttle.
The driver told us that he didn't think we would be able to make it up there because the only way up was a windy dirt road and with all the rain, he was pretty sure that we would get stuck half way up.
“Only 80 hikers are allowed through the Zion Narrows per day.”
The trailhead for the Top to Bottom hike starts at Chamberlain’s Ranch, which is a 1 ½ hour drive up to the start of the canyon. After convincing the driver to try to bring us up there, we regretted it as soon as we found ourselves on a windy and steep dirt road where we saw some other cars already stuck in the mud.
Rugged cliffs on the side of the road and slippery mud made us scared even before we started hiking the Narrows. At the same time though, we were stunned by the deep red and yellow rock formations on the way.
Black rain clouds hung over us but sometimes the morning sun shined through onto the rocks which made them appear even redder. Thanks to “Charlie” our shuttle driver, who had been driving people up there for 30 years already, we arrived at the trailhead safely. As we found out later, there was a small flash flood in the canyon exactly during the time we were driving up to the trailhead! But it’s a good thing we didn’t know it then, because…
…as we started hiking, the sky slowly cleared up and we had perfect hiking weather. No one else was on the trail except us. The bad weather during the night probably scared them away.
“The water can be freezing cold. Hypothermia is a constant danger!”
The river had an orange color from the flash floods earlier, which produced a nice contrast against the lush green of the grass. With the morning sun, the colors were even more intense. The first hour or so, we just walked along the river and crossed it a few times where we could practice to get our feet wet. The water can be very cold, so if you plan on doing this hike, make sure to bring warm neoprene socks or river shoes with neoprene lining.
On the way we came by an abandoned log house which was pretty run down, but picturesque. After an hour of walking beside the Virgin River we finally reached the start of the canyon. A gate marked the end of the nice “bush walk” and then the adventure began! The path after the gate leads down to the river. From there we had to wade through the river on and off.
“Be prepared to swim some sections.”
At some spots where the river got narrower we saw lots of debris from the flash flood. Tree stumps on top of one another were blocking the way, so we had to crawl around them. Most of the time the water was knee-deep but at some spots the water got up to our chest. I guess the water level wasn’t that high, because our friend told us that they had to swim at the same spots a month earlier.
Hiking deeper and deeper into the canyon, the impressive canyon walls rose above us showing rusty red and colorful yellow sandstone patterns carved out by the river over thousands of years. The stream washes out some sections, making holes in the river bed. When wading through the river, be careful not to step into one. It’s a wet surprise!
We decided to break up our hike by taking an overnight stop at one of the twelve campsites. After seven hours wading through the river we finally arrived at our campsite number 12, which is close to “Big Springs”. Tired and happy at the same time we set up our tents and went to sleep, dreaming about our adventures in the canyon earlier that day.
In the morning we put on our smelly clothes and wet shoes from the day before and started our last 4 hours of hiking. The sun was shining and it was bloody hot, even in the narrow canyon. On the way, some other ambitious hikers came towards us from the other direction, hiking upstream. After passing “Big Springs” we arrived at the “Wall Street”.
The narrowest section of the Zion Canyon, called “Wall Street”, is probably one of the most stunning experiences during the hike. The narrowest parts of it are approximately just 10 feet (3 meters) wide but the walls rise about 1000 feet (300m) in the air. There was no safe high ground for the next 2 hours but since the weather seemed to be good we didn’t worry.
We were standing mouth wide-open in awe of the view wondering how nature can achieve such wonders. After taking some pictures of the “Wall Street”, we passed by some other narrow sections featuring beautiful hanging gardens. Hiking further revealed some stunning views of the mountains around the canyon with a huge, natural partial bridge high up on a mountain.
“Beware, even though it is bright sunshine it doesn’t mean its safe. It could rain somewhere else. The river collects all the water and a flash flood occurs. Always check the local weather report!”
After these adventurous narrow passages the canyon opens up, offering a better view of the scenery around. Since we were getting close to the riverside walk, a lot of day hikers came towards us hiking upstream to see the “Wall Street”. The magic of the secluded and wild Virgin River was over. It was time to go back to civilization.
Reaching the tourist-filled Riverside Walk, it seemed more like public pools rather than a remote river in between the mountains. On the paved walkway, we headed back to the Temple of Sinawava to catch a 45 minute long shuttle bus ride back to the visitor’s center, looking forward to a nice shower.
Avg. Hiking Time:
You are walking through a canyon with steep walls. That means there won’t be much light down in the canyon. Therefore, a tripod is the knight in shining armor! I can’t give you advice on the best locations because it’s really a matter of creativity, but the “Wall Street” section is very photogenic.
There are tons of good places to take photographs, but it’s tricky to set up the tripod in the middle of the river. Nothing worse than a wet camera! Also try to make long exposures which give you the effect of dynamic, flowing water.
The Zion Narrows hike, starting from Chamberlain’s ranch, is a long 16-mile (25 km) hike. You can either do it in one long day or you can make an overnight stop. In total it will take you around 13 hours to go from top to bottom. If you want to enjoy the hike and photograph on the way it is a good idea to camp overnight beside the river. There are 12 campsites which are located above the high water mark along the way.
The US National Weather Service explains it as “A flood caused by heavy or excessive rainfall in a short period of time, generally less than 6 hours. Flash floods are usually characterized by raging torrents after heavy rains that rip through river beds, urban streets, or mountain canyons sweeping everything before them.
They can occur within minutes or a few hours of excessive rainfall”. Because of their sudden nature, this can be very dangerous in a narrow canyon, especially if you are not able to find high ground fast enough!
Before you go, you have to get a backcountry permit from the visitors center and don’t forget to check out the weather report because in summer, flash floods after a thunderstorm can rush through the canyon and you don’t want to be in the canyon when that happens. The park will not issue permits unless the river has been flowing less than 120cfs (cubic feet per second) for the previous twenty-four hours.
Be careful with your pack. Make sure you seal it so it doesn't get wet when you have to swim in the current. Also bring enough water to drink and warm clothes to warm up after hiking so many hours in cold water. Hiking sticks are a must when wading through the river, stepping on slippery rocks.
Copyright 2008 - Müller Gernot