Hiking, The Narrows, US National Parks, Utah, Zion National Park

Adventures in Zion: Hiking The Narrows

While planning our winter trip to the National Parks of Utah and Arizona, my friend Bill sends me a link to a blog post about hiking The Narrows in Zion National Park. My first thought is, “Well, that looks awesome.” My second thought is that it probably isn’t going to be feasible due to winter conditions. Then I read the post all the way through and learn that winter (while cold) is actually one of the best times to do this hike, due to fewer visitors and unique conditions, and hiking The Narrows becomes the number one thing I wanted to do while visiting the park…

Zion Outfitter

Less than a couple of weeks later, we’re arriving at Zion Outfitters to check hiking conditions. It’s just before closing time on Thursday evening, and as we enter the shop, we can see a small, wooden sign hanging on the wall behind the cash register that reads, “The Narrows: CLOSED.” Bill’s face drops, but we chat with the staff and they tell us to check back in the morning, as the trail will open up as long as the water levels go down overnight.

Getting ready to set foot in the Virgin River

We head next door to Zion Brewpub for a quick bite and a beer and settle in at our campsite for the night. We’re up just before sunrise on Friday morning and wait until 8am for the outfitters to open. As we walk in, I immediately see the look on Bill’s face and know that the trail is again, closed. However, when we ask, we’re told the trail is actually open – the sign simply hasn’t been updated yet. Bill is like a kid at Christmas, and I just mentally prepare myself for what I know will be an awesome, yet cold and physically challenging day.

It doesn’t take long to get kitted up with a waterproof pant set/bib, neoprene socks, boots and a well-used walking stick. With a dry bag, the rental comes to $55 each. Gear in hand, we drive out to the trail head, pack up our camera gear and a few snacks and set out.

Before arriving at the Virgin River, we walk about one mile along a paved footpath. The river is to our left, and we’re surrounded by canyons and waterfalls that are pooling into ponds of ice and water below. The outside temperature is 46, and the water is a balmy 40. However, we’re blessed with blue skies and bright sunshine, which is providing quite a bit of warmth. For February 24th, conditions couldn’t be better.

Photo Credit: Bill Hoenk

Working our way up river

After our paved warm up, it’s time to enter the river. I take my first step in and feel water pooling in the bottom of my shoes, which makes me worry that I haven’t put the socks and leggings on the right way. Bill and I look at each other and both admit our feet are wet. However, our feet never get cold. The neoprene socks actually work like a wetsuit. That initial bit of water that gets in is sort of like peeing in a wetsuit in very cold water, and our body heat seems to heat that little bit of water. So while it may feel like wearing soaking wet running shoes where water seeps out with every step, our feet never get any more wet or cold throughout the course of the day.

Once I get over this weird feeling, I start to take in my surroundings. I’ve quickly gone from taking quick steps in ankle deep water to long, exaggerated strides in a river that is coming up to my mid-thigh. And while the current may not look fast from a distance, when I’m in it, I realize the force that only a shallow amount of water can create. I realize soon on that secure footing will save the day but don’t want to spend the whole day looking down at where we’re stepping. We decide to take things slow, so we can savor our surroundings while attempting to stay upright.

Light illuminates the river and canyon walls

Now that we’ve established a comfort level in the water, we begin to traverse the river with more ease. I quickly see why the trail is called The Narrows, as with each bend we approach, the canyon walls close in on us a bit more. At times, sunlight filters in, creating an emerald green river and illuminating the burnt orange canyon walls on either side of us. At other times, we’re lucky for just a sliver of light.

After about an hour in, we’re in complete shade for the next thirty minutes, and I’ll admit, it starts to feel a bit cold, but up ahead in the distance we can see a nice little patch of grassy riverside bathed in sunlight. We decide it’s a good place to stop for a snack and a little rest.

Taking a little break

While we sit, only a handful of other hikers pass by. I imagine what this hike would be like in summer, and despite my feet feeling a little cold and my muscles a little stiff from stopping, we’re thankful to have these views almost entirely to ourselves.

Floating Rock

We set out, quickly warming up again, and spend the next two hours working our way up to Floating Rock, which is part of the famous stretch of The Narrows, called Wall Street. On the way, we dodge the spray from waterfalls and hear small pieces of snow and ice splash into the river around us. Walls of rock jut towards the sky, hundreds of feet high, and we walk under these rocks in the crevasses that have been carved out by water over hundreds of years. It’s an eerie feeling to be walking under thousands of tons of rock wall!

The enclosures are becoming narrower now, and the river bends are more pronounced. We enter deeper water where we have to work against a stronger current. Up ahead we see two hikers on their return. They stop to advise us to go left at the upcoming fork to avoid a bolder and to access Floating Rock and a pretty waterfall. Less than 10 minutes later, we’re standing under a half frozen 30-ft waterfall surrounded by orange canyon walls that are covered in a white, misty frost. Above is a pocket of blue sky and an opening into the canyon that is allowing in just enough light to illuminate the scene for us. Wanting to savor this view, we find a protected area of pebble and sandy riverbed to stand and capture some photographs of this scene. Time is on our side, as after about 20 minutes, the light that was filtering in when we arrived has almost completely disappeared.

Bill hiking up river

Blue skies on our return hike

Feeling the cold set in from standing still and from losing the sunlight, we reluctantly pack up and decide to begin our return journey. We’ve hiked about 3 hours in, but having the current in our favor on the way back makes the hike go by in no time. What’s so incredible though is that the hike back is an entirely different hike from the way in simply because of the different angles of sunlight. What was shaded on the way in is now fully illuminated and we see things that we missed earlier in the day. In some parts, it’s like all new terrain.

After only two hours, we know we’re nearing the end of the trail when we reach the mid-thigh section of water that we so cautiously waded through earlier in the day. Bill and I look at each other with a little bit of disappointment – only in the sense that we don’t want the hike to be over yet!

As we walk out of the river and rejoin the paved trail, quite a few people stop us to ask questions about the hike. It’s not until now that I realize this isn’t something many people attempt, especially at this time of year. Throughout the day, I realized many times just how unique this hike is, but it’s hours later that I start to revisit moments in my mind, pictures on my camera and conversations with Bill that begin with, “How crazy was that part where…,” that I realize this is quite possibly one of the most unique day hikes I’ve ever been on. The thing is though, I wasn’t taking that hike… the flow of the river and the views unveiling around me… that hike had taken me.

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