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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.

Aialik Glacier, Alaska, Anchorage, bald eagle, glacial calving, Holland America, humpback whales, Kenai Fjords National Park, Kenai Fjords Tours, orcas, puffins, Seward, Seward Highway, steller sea lions, US National Parks, Zaandam

Day 4: Anchorage –> Seward: Touring Kenai Fjords National Park

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Scenes from the drive along Seward Highway.

We’re picked up early from the Anchorage Westmark to transfer to Seward. We don’t need to be on the boat until 8pm so with the extra time in Seward, we’ve booked an excursion with Kenai Fjords Tours. The tour is sold as a glacial tour, but they’ve raised my hopes with talk of whale sightings too.

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Seward Highway Rest Area Views.

It’s a brisk 34 degrees at 7:30, but the forecast is promising sunshine for most of the day and highs in the mid-50s. With coffee in hand, we leave Anchorage by way of Seward Highway. Our driver, Carl, explains that the 125-mile journey that covers Seward Highway is considered one of the prettiest drives in the US. It’s actually only second to the East Coast’s Blue Ridge Parkway.

Soon we’re traveling south, parallel to Turnagain Arm, named for the number of times the initial pioneers who discovered this area had to turn around (or that was one of Carl’s many jokes?) Carl tells us to keep an eye out for Beluga whales, and I immediately make a bee-line for a seat on the right side of the bus to be next to the water. The sun is slow to rise and a low hanging cloud sits just above the lake surface, hiding our view of the glacier in the distance. The water is as still as a pond, and I want to stop the bus, jump off and spend the morning in a kayak, watching this environment wake up.

I’m asking myself how this is the second prettiest North American drive, Shouldn’t it be the first? I’ve never been so awed by mother nature in so many ways. I keep uttering the word, “Stunning!” And in my head I’m thinking, “This is the place I will come back to.” As we round a bend with mountains on our left, Turnagain is now behind us and we enter Dead Forest, a place where now, only a few trees exist. After the 9.2 earthquake in 1964, a tsunami destroyed the land, causing it to take on the consistency of a milkshake. Buildings and homes collapsed and now, only a few trees stand.

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Dead Forest.

We pass through the Chulgach Forest with places you stretch to call a town, like Portage and Moose Pass, where fishing lodges, rental cabins, and RV lots dot the road. Luckily our driver needs a restroom break, so he pulls over and gives us a 10 minute photo opp near a valley- I’m thankful to get a still shot.


A sea otter having lunch in Seward Harbor.

Not too much longer and we can see Seward harbor, the sailboats, fishing vessels, catamarans and the Zandaam cruise ship, which we will be boarding later. We step off the bus and onto a boat where we will spend the next five hours exploring the Kenai Fjords National Preserve. From the boat, a sea otter is floating on its back, gnawing on the remains of a fish carcass.

We head out to sea with Captain Tim and his crew. To the left are the Kenai Mountains, the tops dotted with glaciers that slope down the sides. We cruise for about 20 minutes and turn a corner to see a long glacier sitting off to the right. Immediately, the temperature drops after being exposed to the glacial wind. Off in the distance, Alaskans are playing on jet skis and kayaks. Even a few surfers are out, milking the last of the mild temperatures before winter.


Kenai Fjords glaciers.

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Kenai Fjords glaciers.

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A Bald Eagle watches as our boat cruises by.

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A Steller Sea Lion about to go for a swim.

Captain Tim points out a black bear on the beach, but as soon as we’ve seen it, he hightails it to the forest behind the beach. Off to our right are Tufted Puffins amongst a flock of seagulls. We cruise further, keeping our eyes peeled for whales tails, as we make our way to the glaciers.

At our next turn, we’re afforded views of steller sea lions, perched high above the sea water on craggy rocks, bathing themselves in the sun. Directly across from the sea lions, a bald eagle sits, almost as if watching the world go by.


The fluke of a Pacific Humpback.

We are approaching the first tidewater glacier of the tour, Holgate, when Captain Tim catches sight of a whale in a cove nearby. We trail this whale for a while, watching the flume as she comes up to breathe a couple of times. She shows her tail a few times, and we head on to the next glacier.


We pull up quite close to the the Aialik glacier, and Captain Tim explains that this is one of the largest tidewater glaciers, measuring one mile wide. He continues on about how changes in the oxygen levels affect the color of the glacier – the more compacted the snow is, the bluer the glacier is, due to changes in the oxygen molecules. As Tim talks, we begin to hear sounds resembling claps of thunder, as the glacier begins to calve, or break away. At times, we catch splashes as chunks of the glacier fall into the water. Tim wants to stay put as he has a hunch we are going to catch some good glacial calving, and moments later, he is proved right, as we watch for more than a minute as massive chunks of the glacier calve and crash into the water, causing waves to ripple towards our boat. We leave before the waters get rough, in awe of what we’ve just witnessed.

We follow a couple more humpbacks, but they’re elusive and we only catch a glimpse of a tail here or there in the distance. Tim has other things he wants to show us, so we’re not overly persistent in our pursuit. We begin our journey back to the inlet where the sea lions were resting earlier in the afternoon, and Tim comes on the loudspeaker again to let us know that it’s our lucky day because up ahead are a couple of pods of Orcas cruising through the inlet. Up ahead, I catch a glimpse of two to three Orca fins, and then off to the right are about three different pods, each made up of about three whales. They are just cruising by with no interest in us or what we’re doing there. It is beautiful to watch these animals in their own environment, and I manage to count 13 fins cruising away from us into the inlet.

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A Pacific Humpback splashes on its side.

The trip has been epic, and Tim says it’s time to head back so that those of us who need to make trains and boats can do so, but even with limited time, we make two additional stops on the way back- one to catch the sea lions that are still lounging high on the same rocky outcrop, and two, to follow one last humpback that playfully waves at us and splashes on its side, showing its white pectoral fin.

The crew hands out freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and we make our way back to the harbor. I’m in awe of all we have seen on this ‘glacier tour,’ where we were expecting glaciers and hoping for a whale sighting. We’ve been afforded with so much more.

Captain Tim docks the boat back in Seward Harbor and stands above deck to bid us farewell as we disembark the Coastal Explorer.  A few hundred meters up ahead, Holland America’s cruise ship, the Zaandam, sits docked, dwarfing the surrounding boats.

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Boarding the Zaandam in Seward.

As we make our way to the cruise ship shuttle, a fisherman with a long, scraggly beard bikes by us. Over his shoulder is his fishing gear, and hanging from his bike handlebars is a freshly caught salmon. I think to myself, this must be the Alaskan equivalent of ‘picking up dinner.’

I could easily spend a few more days in Seward, exploring the surrounding villages and soaking in mother natures beautiful vistas, but we’ve concluded the land portion of our ten day Land & Sea Tour, and it’s time to board the Zaandam and cruise South.