Our goal for the end of 2013 is to finish off our Epic Trip posts. Not sure we’ll succeed since there aren’t many days left in 2013, but at least we’re getting back into it after too long of a break! So here is a look back at the Zion Narrows, which we hiked in September.
Day 52-54: Zion National Park, UT (9/24-9/26)
Back in April 2011 we visited Zion and spent a whole week exploring the park. We backpacked the East Rim to the canyon floor, climbed to the top of Angel’s landing, and explored a couple side canyons, so we felt like we got a really good overview of the whole park. But the Narrows was closed due to flooding, leaving us eager to return during a drier season to hike the most famous part of Zion NP. The Narrows is a beautiful portion of a slot canyon where the Virgin River has cut through the sandstone before eventually opening up to Zion Canyon. So this year, we were excited to get permits reserved for a 2 day backpack of the entire length. And we were even more excited when we got to Zion and the weather forecast and water levels were looking good! (If you are interested in doing the Narrows, check out our tips at the bottom of this post.)
Our top-down backpack started near Chamberlain’s Ranch and our campsite was #7, almost 10 miles down river. We got a late start due to some hikers getting on the wrong shuttle, so we were a little nervous about getting to our campsite before dark, but we figured since there’s no uphill, we could keep a steady pace.
The first 3 miles were easy and mostly just required walking through cow pastures and on the banks of the river. There were a few places you had to cross, but we were able to keep a brisk pace as long as we weren’t shuffling through the river.
After 4 hours and 5 miles we entered the Upper Narrows where the canyon walls start to close in and it starts feeling like a slot canyon.
We stopped to take an arm shot, but soon felt dirt falling on us from the cliffs above. In fear of larger rocks falling, we ran as fast as we could in the 6 inch deep water with 30 pound backpacks. The camera continued taking photos capturing blurry images of us running for cover. It was just another reminder how dangerous slot canyons are as the walls are continued to be eroded. Luckily the small dirt and rocks didn’t turn into boulders or sheets of rock.
At this point the river spans the canyon, but was pretty shallow and slow moving.
Sometimes you had to get creative and climb around log jams or down rocky side canyons to avoid deep pools.
The bad news is GPS doesn’t work in the canyon, but the good thing is its hard to get lost since the walls are hundreds of feet high without any exit. We relied on the Zion Adventure Company map which has mileage, landmarks, and general campsite locations.
The “12 foot falls” is around 8.5 miles in and should take about 4.5 hours to reach according to the map. Since there isn’t any landmarks between the Upper Narrows (~5.75 miles) and the 12 foot falls (~8.5 miles) we were relieved when we finally came around the corner to see the falls. We were right on schedule according to the map, but that made us worried since that put us at our campsite around 6:30 pm. The canyon gets really dark as the sun starts setting, and even at 4:30 pm, we found the canyon was getting pretty dark and our cameras were almost useless.
So we put our cameras away and focused on our footing in the dimming light. If you think it’s hard to hike at twilight, try doing it in a flowing river with a rocky bottom. We finally made it to our campsite exhausted and sore from 10 miles of wet feet and cobblestone terrain.
Luckily we took full camelbacks and had plenty of water to cook dinner, drink, and make breakfast. You wouldn’t think water would be an issue considering you’re walking in it all day, but the NPS encourages hikers to go to the bathroom in the river along with the hundreds of cattle upstream. According to the NPS you should filter out of a side creek or spring that feeds the river because the Virgin River is so contaminated. Even though we think a good quality water filter would be able to handle the bacteria, we didn’t want to take any chances, so we were glad to have plenty of water on hand.
The next morning we started just after 8:00 and were more confident since we had the entire day and only 6 miles to hike. The first goal for the day was to find Big Springs to filter water. After what seemed to be the longest 1.25 miles we came across a welcome sight.
The last 5 miles are littered with landmarks on the map for the bottom-up day hikers (since a huge majority just hike up a ways and back in a day). The last 5 miles are also most impressive of the 16 total since the walls are most narrow there. When we weren’t staring up at the walls we kept ourselves entertained looking for Sipping Turtle and Hiccup Springs, just a couple of the things to look for (or listen for) along the hike.
The morning sun exposed the various canyon wall layers forcing you to stop and just stare in awe.
Along with the incredible walls rising above us the water also began getting deeper as more creeks and springs fed into the river and the canyon got narrower. There were some really deep pools probably 5+ feet, but we always tried to find a shallower route or climbed over some boulders to avoid getting too wet. The first day we rarely went in over our knees, but the second day we had to go almost waist deep.
After 2.5 miles we made it to Wall Street, the most impressive section with massive walls and rushing water spanning wall to wall.
Yes, we are crazy enough to pack a tripod and setup our cameras in the middle of a rushing river!
This place is so incredible, there are no words to describe it. After almost 2 months of exploring some of the most beautiful places in the western US we still found ourselves smiling ear to ear in disbelief of the view.
Right when you think you’ve seen it all there is something more incredible around the next turn.
Floating Rock- 3 miles in if you hike up from the bottom.
We made it through Wall Street around 1:30 pm, which meant it took us over 5 hours to go less than 4 miles (because we were taking so many photos and hiking in a river is slow). But we knew we had plenty of time to complete the last 2.5 miles so we decided to take a detour down Orderville Canyon. The thing with this detour is it required us to climb a 7 foot wall, which normally wouldn’t be too hard with some team work, but this wall had a 4 foot pool of water at its base!
The water was quite chilly (60F), and even though the air temperature was close to 70F, the breeze racing through the canyon in the shade made it a chilly obstacle. We took turns carrying the packs through the water and passing them to each other over the wall.
Of course the deepest part was right at the base of the rock where the waterfall had eroded the sandy bottom.
We definitely felt tough while people watched us wade into the cold water. The side canyon was very secluded since only a couple of people were crazy enough to get really wet. After 15 minutes of shivering we also questioned our detour. Luckily we had lots of dry shirts and jackets in our packs and spent the rest of the day in our fleeces.
After making it back over/through the obstacle to get back to the main canyon, we quickly hiked the 1.5 miles to the start of the paved Riverside Walk trail, and then finished the last mile quickly thinking about the hot dinner and warm bed waiting for us.
Hiking the Narrows was an amazing experience, and we consider it one of the top 3 things we did on our trip. We think there is something just so incredible about slot canyons in general, (like when we did Buckskin Gulch, an even longer and narrower one) but there is something about the Zion Narrows that makes it special. Maybe it is the right balance of narrowness, but still allowing sunlight in to illuminate the walls. Or maybe it’s the Virgin River flowing wall to wall with deep turquoise pools. Whatever it is, it is absolutely worth the hike. If you ever find yourself in Zion when the river flow rate is low, you should definitely try hiking up river even just a few miles. You don’t need a permit to do that, and you still get to see some of the best parts!
We couldn’t include all the photos in the post so please click on the photos in the gallery and check them out in full screen.
Details for Trip Planning
Most river or slot canyon backpacking trips require permits because the environment can’t handle being overrun by hundreds of people a day. The Narrows permits become available a few months ahead of your planned trip dates, but are reserved quickly! Make sure to be on the website at the correct time and day since all the campsites will be reserved within 30 minutes of availability. But about half the permits are reserved for walk-ups the day before, so don’t despair if you can’t reserve one. The top-down backpacking is a thru-hike and requires a shuttle or two cars. Once you have locked in the permit, make sure to reserve a shuttle.
Selecting a campsite might just come down to what’s available, but if you have a choice of sites, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is drinking water. The National Park Service encourages all hikers to urinate in the river and there is a lot of cattle upstream of the Narrows. (Yes you heard right, this is one of those rare occurrences that they want you to go in the river! And to answer your next question, WAG bags are provided for everything else 🙂 So since lots of livestock and people use the river as a bathroom, the NPS does not recommend using the Virgin river water for drinking (even with filtration and/or treatment). Instead, they recommend you use the side creeks and springs, so if you can pick a campsite near one of those water sources, you will be better off.
The next thing to consider is how to split up the 16 mile backpack over two days. From a photography stand point our last 6 miles from campsite #7 were better than the first 10 miles. We took 190 photos the first day (10 miles) and 433 photos the second day (6 miles). So if you get an early shuttle, you might want to try to get close to #9 or #10 to leave a lot of time to enjoy the 2nd day. On the other hand, walking through the river was much slower than we expected, and we (and other groups that started with us) found the hiking times on the map to underestimate it. Keep in mind it will most likely take you ~8 hours to hike 10.5 miles to sites #9/10 and your feet will most likely hate you at the end of the 1st day, but that would allow you to really take your time on the second day.
Most people actually day hike the Narrows, starting at the bottom, hiking upstream and returning the way they came. If you do it this way, you can go as far as Big Springs before you have to turn back (which at 10 miles roundtrip is all you’d probably want to do in a day). We really enjoyed backpacking it and spending a night in the canyon, which allowed us to have more solitude in the morning, but day hiking is a really great option and you still get to see the best parts. So if you aren’t up to backpacking or can’t get a permit, the day hike is a great back up.
Whether you backpack or day hike, we highly recommend renting water socks, shoes, and waterproof camera cases (we got ours from ZAC). The water didn’t get too deep so our dry bags didn’t get used, but they did provide peace of mind, and the water depth can get much deeper depending on the rain that year. We did use our trekking poles the entire time and were so glad to have them for stability since it’s often hard to see the rocky bottom of the river clearly. If you don’t have trekking poles or don’t want to use them in sandy water, take the rental company’s wooden staff.
Ok all that being said this was an amazing trip and we recommend it as a place to visit whether you backpack top-down or day hike bottom-up.
Epic Trip Stats:
- Days: 54
- Nights in a tent: 28
- Miles driven: 6,672
- Photos taken: 10,430
- National Parks: 13
- Miles Hiked: 182