The Narrows, Obtaining a Permit
Today I’m planning on hiking ‘The Narrows’ one of the considered best hikes in the world and one of two reasons I put Zion National Park among the top of my American ‘bucket-list.’ The other lure of Zion National Park is Angels Landing, which I plan to tackle tomorrow. Of course there are other temptations in the Zion vicinity including ‘The Subway’, ‘West and Eastern Forks’ and the ‘Kolob Canyons’; However I do not have the technical ability or equipment to cayoneer these gems- Best saved to next time!
I’ve formed part of a 4 man queue, waiting for the 9am opening time at the Information Centre to gain my required permit to wade through the narrows of the Virgin River.
At opening time there is a bit of deliberation amongst the Park Rangers as they confirm the exact water flow-rate of the river. It’s April so there is no problem in the volume of permits available, however the hike is closed off if water flow exceeds 150 cfs (cubic feet per second). Generally the river is still affected by the Winter and Spring run-offs up until early May. But, continuing the general theme of my road trip so far, I get lucky with the water flow coming in at 147 cfs. Awesome!
I’m not only pumped that I will actually be allowed to do it, but that I will be hiking the trail in its hardest, most challenging state. With the exception of 3cfs its impossible to legally hike this prestigious trail at a more demanding period.
With my free permit in hand I head over to the Zion Adventure Company (5 minutes from the Info. Centre) to get kitted out.
I think it cost me in the region of $60 to hire a wetsuit, waterproof bag, wading shoes and a stick for the day. I was also treated to a short film highlighting the dangers of the hike and how to react to a flash flood.
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The ‘Narrows Trailhead’
Preparation over, I caught the Zion bus to ride through the full extent of the Canyon for the first time. I had only made it half way the evening before to hike the Emerald Trails, before nightfall caught up with me.
It was the first time I caught a glimpse of the trail to Angels Landing and the Great White throne, before becoming surrounded by wall upon wall of saturated sandstone rock. The pre-recorded, Disney-themed voice over complementing the bus ride added a further enchantment to the area, as if there wasn’t enough already, and aroused our attention to the climbers that would be scaling the ‘Big Wall’- a perfectly vertical slab of maroon rock, some 2000ft in length. Yet, there were no climbers to be seen at this time.
25 minutes and a stiff neck later we had reached the final stop of the Bus ride loop, where I, along with three other kitted out hikers, headed towards the ‘Narrows’ trailhead.
Along the short trail we are greeted by a lone deer who, startled at our presence, stumbles into the river; It was only now when I realised through the deer’s struggle to negotiate the current, that this was going to be a challenge!
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The Narrows- First Steps
With the aid of a fellow hiker, I was able to fully zip my overly snug wet suit up and take my first steps into the Virgin River.
Already, the trail had gathered a crowd of about 20 who were interested in witnessing the famous beginnings. Of this crowd only 4 would partake in the challenge.
I took my first steps. The river was fairly wide at this point and ran wall to wall with a halfpipe of stone lining- there would be no solid ground for the first half-mile or so of the hike. The current was not too demanding (at this point), but still put up a considerable force. The viewport of the trailhead opening barely exceeds more than 200ft, as the river snakes through the rock. So for those who were to stay on dry land, and indeed myself, there was no way of knowing what lay around the corner. There was definitely a sense of pride and honour as I slowly made my way into the abyss, with my every move watched by the growing crowd. I was privileged to be a part of such a mysterious and ethereal adventure.
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For the first half mile the river generally reaches knee height, with the occasional chest-height pothole or pool. Its tiring and slow work to continually resist the river, which is forever growing in power. Nonetheless, I am completely enthralled by the fun and overall thrill of the moment.
I reach my first landmark- a U-turn in the river, which was caused a semi-circle arch to be carved throughout the extent of the meander. There are huge chock stone boulders that litter the river- serving as a reminder that ‘Geological time is now’ – a quote I read in the Aron Ralston book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place- Basically anything can happen, the geology is constantly morphing and the rocks have to fall at some point.
The bend in the river also supplies the first real area of reprieve- a stoney covering that runs along the river for about 500ft. It provides me with a moment to catch up to the group of 4 who entered the river before me. It turns out they are here to photograph the trail and share some pointers in doing so.
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2 miles up stream lies ‘Wall Street’- the most famed sector of the hike, where the two Goliath canyon walls squeeze within 30ft of each other. It makes for incredible viewing, as the two canyon faces come head to head in a stand off, with just the narrow swell of the river to separate them. The river, now at its most compressed, picks up a staggering pace and deepens to about 4-5ft. It is a real struggle to hold my own ground, let alone try to make any further progress.
Without the aid of what initially appeared to be a fairly measly walking stick, I would be easily swept downstream. The stick allows me to dig into crevices in the ground to give me some balance and anchorage against the swell. It also acts as a gauge, allowing me to identify the water depth in front of me and to navigate my way through the oblique murky water. Yet, even with this tool, there is only so much prodding that can be covered and I still manage to fall into some of the small pot holes that scar the river bed and fully submerge me, taking me downstream and further away from my goal.
It takes me over an hour to yo-yo the 1 mile stretch of ‘Wall Street’. The repetitive theme was that I would be able to take 2 steps forward before the water pushed me back one, resulting in a substantially increased length of time in scaling the stretch.
I take a well deserved lunch break as the river widens, offering up a lonely rocky island retreat. Most of my food is pretty wet, with the waterproof bag not totally fulfilling its promise.
The group of photographers turned back about half way up into Wall Street as the current began to surge into small rapids.
For a bried moment I was alone in the canyon, before two American guys, about my age, came pounding around the corner before accompanying my collapsed body on the rocky ridge.
As we become acquainted, a further group of two, this time making their way down stream, chuckled at the sight of the three of us wilting on the ridge- ‘you’re about to hit the real stuff fellas.’ Great!
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After snacking I realise that I am at the junction for Orderville Canyon, a small river estuary that continues its own, more isolated and secretive slot trail through its own canyon walls.
The other two Americans continue on the main trail as I take the, what should be a relatively short, sidetrail. I am met by a lone wanderer making his way back, he confirms that its pretty cool ahead but virtually impassable. He’s not wrong.
Although the current is nowhere near as strong the river forms pools about 7-8 ft deep that require me to swim about 20ft to reach the next footing. Then I have to upend myself out of the water in order to climb over large boulders, one at over 8ft in height, which promptly puts an end to my short 30 minute detour into Orderville.
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Rapids up to Big Springs
I’m back on the main trail and continue my mission upstream, where again the canyon grows taller and the river thins. With so little light reaching the floor and a greater concentration of the winter run-off the water begins to turn to freezing.
I’ve been wading for about 4 hours against the current and now the river is a consistent 5ft with several pools well beyond my height. I am mostly kept buoyant by the air in my wet-suit. I have overcome small sections of rapid surges so far, each time being smashed about into rocks on the floor bed. I have also had to climb out of the water and over several boulders and squeeze under rock heads to sidestep the river. I eventually reach a large, violent section of rapids and have to swim against the strongest current faced for about 30ft. There is a queue of about 5 people trying to overcome this small section of the river.
Each time someone makes notable progress they are swept further away from their initial starting point by the river. Its a cruel game and many give up- an option that I too contemplate. But I persist and it eventually takes me about a half hour to make it to the other side.
When I overcome the rapids I am completely beat, but I have made it to the Big Springs which, although may appear to be a waterfall of streams in the summer, is no different to the last mile I have just had to conquer. This is the end point of the hike and there are about 8 other bodies all humped over or stretched out on the rock shore, trying to regain what energy is left before making their way back downstream towards Zion National Park.
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Downstream back to Zion
It took me about 5 hours of battling to reach the end of the hike. Yet it takes me under 2 hours to get back to my starting point. Generally you can just put your feet up and let the current drag you down stream. This doesn’t come without drawbacks though- it’s not possible to do this in sections of rapids, where it is as difficult to keep your footing on the rocky floorbed with the river power coming from behind. Several times, the power of the river got the better of me and dragged me uncontrollably into boulders and the rock faces to the sides. Once you commit yourself to the river its very hard to stop and have any control with the momentum gathered- again the result is being smashed into rocks.
However once the trickier, high water level, sections were cleared, the water warmed once again and it slowed, making drifting along the river one of the most enjoyable and memorable experiences of my trip. The wet-suit and backpack acts like a raft and I drift like a log, forever gazing upwards at the canyon ridges.
I make it back to the starting point just as the sun is beginning to touch the tips of the canyons. The crowd has doubled in size as they come to see and picture the opening to the hike. I feel like a celebrity and almost gladiatorial as many look at me in envy as I come to the end of my adventure. I get offered food and drink in exchange for the details of my expedition. Without doubt this has been the most memorable experience I’ve had so far.
I get the bus back to camp, and eventually head over to the Zion Adventure Company to drop off my gear. The notice on the board reads ‘Narrows 156 CFS‘ and will be closed tomorrow due to high water levels. I feel an even greater sense of accomplishment and relief that I didn’t shun the hike until tomorrow. Once again- What a day!