The Narrows will definitely be on the list of the 10 best hikes. It is a totally different type of hike than Vickie and I have usually done. Specifically, it is canyoneering, exploring canyons. The ‘trail’ is really just following the riverbed that has carved its way through the rock over thousands of years. You criss-cross the Virgin River as you hike deeper into the canyon. The farther in you go the narrower the canyon becomes.
Vickie and I were again hiking with Wayne and Joni. We decided to get an early start to beat the massive crowds we were expecting to see on this popular hike. To get to the Narrows trail head you need to take the shuttle bus from the visitor center parking lot to the Temple of Sinawava stop. It is a 40 minute ride to the last shuttle stop at the Temple of Sinawava at the head of Zion canyon. This is where the Virgin River flows from the Narrows into the wider accessible part of the canyon. The narrows trail starts at the end of the 1 mile Riverside Walk. We started into the Narrows by 8:00 am.
We took this hike in late June and we were informed the Virgin River was flowing a higher than normal for this time of year. For us this meant deeper water, faster current, and more treacherous hiking. For me it also meant more fun. We were going to get wet.
Just outside the park you can rent equipment specially designed for canyoneering like the Narrows hike. The shoes were high tops for ankle support and with special soles for improved grip on the wet and slippery river boulders. They had neoprene insulation booties built in for insulation from the nippy river water. The rental also came with a sturdy walking stick for added stability during crossings. Wayne and Joni decided to rent the boots & walking sticks and Vickie and I opted for running shoes and a hiking pole. My suggestion is to rent the gear if you are going to be going all day or overnight. For the 6 hours we were on the trail, running shoes with wool socks were good enough
Right after leaving the paved trail of the Riverside Walk we came to our 1st river crossing and our 1st chance to get wet. The canyon was wider at the beginning although it would get narrower as we journeyed farther up the Virgin. The river meandered across the floor of the canyon moving from one side to the other. The walls were up to 1000 feet tall. We picked our way up the start of the trail staying on the river bank, to try and stay dry, as much as possible.
I was leading our group slowly and carefully across the river to get to the obvious trail on the opposite shore. I was taking the shallowest route to limit how deep we went and how wet we got. The deeper water had more force so foot placement was more unreliable.
As we continued upstream, we became more comfortable with how the current pulled at our feet and more confident in stable foot placement. Then, we were able to move a little faster as the day wore on.
The farther upstream the narrower the canyon, and the deeper & faster the water became. The hike was an out and back so the distance you went was determined by how ready you were to get wet and how long you were willing to stay wet. Once you got wet, you were going to be wet for the duration of the hike. Even though the heat was slated to be over 100 degrees, the sun only hit the bottom of the canyon for brief periods of the day because of the huge walls on each side. The water was cold. After about 3-1/2 hours, we picked a place to stop for lunch before it got deeper than thigh high. It was just past Wall Street.
This brings me to the stages of getting wet. When going into cold water there are 5 stages of submersion. At each stage the water rises to the threshold and you decide if you are willing to cross the threshold to journey farther up the trail. The first stage is up to mid thigh. The second stage is waist high. The third stage, mid chest. The fourth is all the way up to the neck. The final stage is total submersion. After our chosen lunch spot you had to go through stage 2 to continue on. 90% of the hikers decided this was the turnaround point. Vickie and I decided to proceed on, stage 2.
We moved on up the river. The farther up river we went the closer together the walls were. They got as close together as 30 feet. It was a slightly claustrophobic moving between massive rock walls that were 1000 feet high on each side but only 30 feet apart.
The narrower the canyon the deeper the water was.
We kept moving until we passed the third stage of wet in cold water. We meet some through hikers coming down from Chamberlains’s Ranch. They told us that we would be swimming if we continued around the next bend. Vickie and I continued around to the next bend and stood there debating the need to carry on. That water was cold and we had a long hike back. We were just about to turn around when three young guys caught up to us. I informed them that they would have to swim it from this point and asked if they were going to continue. The 1st guy said, “You betcha”. I scratched my head and looked more carefully at the 2nd guy and noticed he was wearing a Vikings T-shirt. Then at the 3rd guy who had on a Twins hat. They were 3 Minnesotans. The 1st guy jumped in without contemplation or hesitation. The 2nd guy didn’t even wait for the 1st guy to get even partially across and he was in. The 3rd guy said “Have a nice day” did a cannonball and was off.
I looked and Vickie and smiled. She read my mind, we had to go now. I jumped in (the fourth and fifth stages of getting wet). Exhilarating!
We kept moving upriver for about 45 minutes after that spot. Around each bend was a new formation to look at. We wanted to keep going. We only saw a few more through hikers coming downriver; otherwise the whole canyon was ours. We had to turn around because Wayne and Joni were waiting for us.
By the time we got back in the afternoon, the river was choked with people trying to cool off from the 100 degree heat. We were happy to get back and now in the heat of the day we finally were able to dry out and warm up on the walk back to shuttle stop.
Here is some final advice for hiking the Narrows.
- Go early to beat the crowds. You will have a considerably more peaceful hike and you can enjoy the experience. You won’t have to travel along with the gaggle of young boy scouts in matching shirts singing, poorly, at the top of their lungs so they could delight in their echoes from the canyon walls that we passed on the return trip.
- Rent the shoes. You can go faster, farther and stay warmer.
- Go ahead and get wet right away. Again, it will allow you able to go faster and therefore farther upstream. The farther you go the more you experience and the less people you will see.
- Make sure you do this hike! It can be done by anyone at any age. Just set you pace and go. The experience is one you’ll always remember.