The Zion Narrows is the most famous hike of its kind in the country, probably the world. The reason it is the king of all slot canyons is its unrivaled combination of length, depth, and spectacular scenery. The gorge stretches on for almost sixteen miles. The canyon walls reach heights of 2,000 feet and at its narrowest point are just twenty feet apart. Most people that hike the narrows to completion do it over two days, camping in one of several backcountry sites along the way. For those that are especially adventurous and physically fit, the trek can be finished in one long twelve-hour day. Most also start the hike outside the park at a place called Chamberlain’s Ranch to hike with the current and end at the Riverside Walk in Zion Canyon. I had no plans of hiking the entire narrows as I only had a few hours, but I was elated to simply explore it for a short time and get a good taste of it.
I sat on the shuttle and impatiently waited for it to reach my stop. I felt as prepared as I could be on such short notice. There is no true trail or path, as the route is actually the Virgin River. As a result, the vast majority of my time would be spent in water. The current can be swift and the water is usually knee-deep, occasionally deeper. The rocks that make up the riverbed can be extremely slippery, making the choice of footwear very important. Old boots are recommended, while sandals and water shoes are not. Despite that, I elected to wear my Keen sport sandals. They are very tough and I tightened them so that they fit very snug for the water. I also brought my hiking poles for added balance on the slick stones. Worried by the possibility of slipping and falling into the water I decided to hike without my best camera. I brought along my older Kodak, leaving my nice Canon D-SLR in the car.
The shuttle finally arrived at the last stop, The Temple of Sinawava, at the terminus of the canyon road. Before I could get to the narrows I had to embark on the Riverside Walk for a third time. I first hiked the short and easy path four years earlier on my first visit to Zion. I also hiked the trail the day before to gauge the conditions for a future hike into the narrows. The Riverside Walk may be a short simple jaunt, but I had seen enough of it. So this time I hoped to fly through it as fast as possible to get to the start of the narrows.
Once off the shuttle, I burst onto the trail in a flash. It was very hot out and the trail was incredibly crowded. I was a man on a mission, dodging and ducking around people in my way. Since I had just completed the Riverside Walk the day before, I paid little attention to the scenery around me. The only thing on my mind was getting to the narrows. Not only because I was excited to start the hike and get away from the crowd, but also to find sanctuary in the shade and cool water of the Virgin River.
When I reached the end of the trail I saw dozens of people in the river. There were mostly families out there with young children playing and splashing around in the water. As many people as there was just past the end of the trail, I could see that very few were out in the distance. I hoped that would be the case for the rest of my journey.
Before I went any farther I sat down on a small rock wall overlooking the river. Then I detached my hiking poles from my backpack. I certainly didn’t need them to get to the river, but figured they would help me keep my balance as I waded my through the Zion Narrows.
I then descended the few steps into the river. The water was cool and refreshing. It instantly cooled my hot feet and legs. I cupped my hands in the dark water and poured it over my face. It felt especially good on my forehead, which was boiling under the sun’s rays.
I quickly walked through the water, past the people standing around, cooling off. I stuck close to the right wall, as the water was pretty shallow there. At first it wasn’t even up to my knees. I was able to go through the shallow water at a pretty good pace. Once I was away from the crowd at the end of the Riverside Walk I saw considerably fewer people in the river. There were some around the first few bends; a man and his son, a young couple, and a group of some teenagers. They were all going very slowly through the water, having a leisurely stroll through the start of the narrows. It was obvious they would only be going a little farther. I passed them and moved into a section of the river that I had all to myself.
I stopped and stood in the knee-deep water and admired my unusual surroundings. The canyon walls soared far above the river on both sides. They had to reach nearly 2,000 feet into the sky. The walls were a light brown and the water looked like creamy coffee. The continuous low rumble of the river drowned out all other sounds, providing a comforting white noise. Despite the precarious walking, the river felt strangely safe and welcoming. Maybe part of that was how it cooled me on such a hot day. With the high canyon walls continually constricting the river the hot sun was no longer an issue. Shade had a stranglehold on the narrows. Accordingly, the water never got too warm.
Early on, there were beaches along parts of the canyon walls. They mostly alternated from side to side every few hundred feet. Some were even large enough for small clusters of cottonwood trees.
Walking on the riverbed was not quite as bad as advertised. There were some very tough spots, though. It was often slippery and there were a lot of stretches of uneven terrain due to the different shapes and sizes of the many rocks that hid underwater. The biggest issue with the water was the simple fact that I had to move slowly and carefully. I had to be focused and pay close attention to my footing or else I could easily slip and fall or twist an ankle.
The farther upriver I waded, the more the Virgin River morphed and evolved. It snaked around turns and curved through the slim meandering gorge. With each turn the river shrunk between the walls. But that didn’t make it shallower. The depth was constantly changing. There were pockets of deep water, sometimes almost to my chest. Thankfully, I still encountered the occasional small rocky beach, but they were smaller and far less frequent than early on. Those were especially appreciated, just to rest out of the water for a few minutes, before carrying on.
The canyon walls themselves seemed to have an ever-changing personality. They were usually brown in color, but would vary to shades of orange, tan, and gray. There were cracks and wrinkles in the walls. Sometimes water would quietly ooze down their sides from natural springs high above. Leafy trees, yellow and green, would randomly sprout from lower portions of the walls, as well as on the small partitions of land that occasionally rose from the water. Hanging gardens miraculously protruded from the vertical cliffs.
After an hour or so I was in the heart of “Wall Street,” the narrowest section of the canyon. There was a long stretch of water with no breaks of land. The cliffs were beyond vertical there, they were actually inverted. The walls were about twenty feet apart at the water; and farther up they were even closer. They reached nearly 2,000 feet into the air. It was a unique and otherworldly scene.
It was then that I started thinking about turning back. I absolutely loved the hike through the narrows, but I had to consider returning soon. It wasn’t that late, close to 5:00 p.m., but I had to account for the return-trip to the shuttle stop. Not only that, but it was getting dark very early, because of the sun’s inability to penetrate the river through the thin space above it. The lack of sunlight also attributed to falling temperatures of the air and the water. So I decided I should turn back just after five to make sure I’d be out of the narrows before it got too cold and dark.
I was just about to turn back when I saw a skinny side canyon intersecting with the main narrows canyon. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had reached Orderville Canyon, a popular destination among day-hikers. The mouth of Orderville Canyon is 1.5 miles from the end of the Riverside Walk, and 2.5 miles from the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop. I got a glimpse of the extremely narrow side canyon, and couldn’t resist exploring. I decided heading back to the trailhead could wait. That was probably my best decision of the day.
My hike in the narrows got even better with my entrance into Orderville Canyon. This dark gorge was thinner, taller, and even more captivating than the main narrows canyon. Much less water flowed through the canyon en route to the Virgin River, too, meaning it was easier to navigate and move through. The slender canyon was not without difficulty. There were different types of obstacles to overcome that I didn’t have to deal with in the narrows proper. While the water was mostly shallow there were some very deep pools, almost up to my neck. I also had to climb over boulders and scale a small, but fast-moving waterfall.
The Orderville Canyon walls were dark and gray, although that may have been a result of the shadows that permanently filled the gorge. The sinewy walls twisted and turned as they followed the flowing water into the Virgin River. They were generally smooth to the touch. They were imperfect though, with holes, cracks, and nooks covering them. They were scars from thousands of years of battery at the hands of storms and flash floods. The corridor reached far above me, upwards of 2,000 feet. So much so, that I could only see a thin sliver of blue sky high between the sheer walls.
I had just about fallen in love with this mystical slot canyon, when I realized I had better turn back. I was getting cold and hungry. I had stayed at least a half-hour longer than planned, and it was getting pretty dark in the bottom of the chasm.
It didn’t take me long to reluctantly escape the enchanting Orderville Canyon. The mostly shallow water helped a lot in that regard. Back in the main narrows, I couldn’t go fast even if I wanted to. When wading through deep water over slippery stones you have no choice but to take it slow. Even being very careful wasn’t quite enough for me. I was less than an hour away from land when I took a spill. I don’t know exactly what happened. I must’ve gotten complacent for a minute, and that was all it took. My feet shot out from under me and I tried to regain my balance, but it was futile. I went completely underwater.
I instantly shot out of the water and onto a small rocky embankment. I threw off my soaked backpack and nervously removed my small camera bag. I took out my camera and wiped it off. Thankfully, it was barely damp. After drying it off I turned it on and it was fine. I was relieved. Despite my camera surviving, I reassured myself that I made the right choice in leaving my better camera in the car.
Now considerably cold, due to my unplanned swim, I moved as quickly as I could through the river while still being as cautious as possible. The return hike was easier, besides for my tumble, because I was walking with the current.
Before long, I returned to the safety of land. The large area of water at the end of the Riverside Walk that was overflowing with tourists when I started my hike was now deserted. I climbed the handful of steps out of the water and took a seat on the rock wall. I finally got to empty the many small pebbles out of my water sandals. Next I condensed my hiking poles and attached them to my backpack for the homestretch.
Now that I was on dry, solid footing I was able to race down the level mile-long path back to the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop. My clothes were still dripping wet when I boarded the shuttle heading out of Zion Canyon.
I was starving and excited to get some dinner. Besides for that, my mind was still in the narrows. I kept thinking about how amazing it would have been if I started the narrows bright and early. I would have been able to walk for a few more miles and see even more of the amazing canyon. Even so, I was very happy with all that I was able to see. It was unlike any hike I had ever done. Hiking with the constant music of the river made for an extra peaceful and personal experience. This is one hike that will surely live on with me forever, and maybe one day I will return to hike the entire narrows.
This story and many others are in My Book