Hiking the Narrows

Occasionally, I look through travel books or magazines searching for ideas. There are often photos of beautiful locales and listings for resorts, expensive hotels, eateries, and other aspects of luxury travel. I can’t generally afford luxury travel and I am not a big fan of pretending to be a member of the bourgeoisie with servants dancing around me. Earlier in the year, I stumbled across two books catering specifically to adventure travel—trips where you learn about yourself and get dirty. Thanks to The Rough Guide to Ultimate Adventures I was informed of something I never suspected—there are many reasons to visit Utah.

Slot Canyons, deep and narrow gorges, abound in Utah. They are spectacular. My Rough Guide highlighted one in particular—The Zion Narrows in Zion National Park. The itinerary: hike 16 miles (mostly in a shallow river) through the Zion backcountry within the confines of a slot canyon over the course of 2 days. The particulars: The Narrows were formed by the Virgin River. Over the 16 miles we’d be walking through it, its depth would range from ankle deep to waist deep with the occasional hole requiring swimming. Water flow would vary from mostly stagnant to somewhat powerful swiftwater. When not in the water, the hike includes a lot of rock hopping and scrambling. The walls of the canyon often rise over a thousand feet on either side. Nearby rain can cause flash floods (a few occur each year) so the weather must be monitored preceding and during the hike. Once inside the canyon, you must commit. Hiking is your only feasible way out as rescue is relatively difficult and time-consuming. I love climbing and scrambling. I love water (especially moving water). When water and climbing are combined, I am truly happy. From the moment I read about the Narrows in the Rough Guide, I knew I had to go.

Zion is a 7-10 hour drive from L.A. greatly dependent on traffic running through Las Vegas. Erika and I did a number of things this year, but visiting Zion had not fit into any of our plans conveniently. As fall approached, it became clear that our chances to hike the Narrows were dwindling. The waters would grow colder and dry suits (not just wet suits) would be required. Erika is not made for the cold. Labor Day weekend was our last hope. I logged onto the National Park Service website a month prior. Only 40 people are allowed through the Narrows each day as overnight hikers. Luckily I was able to reserve the last four spots for Sunday, Sept. 6 at Camp 2. Thankfully, our posse was only four people: Erika, Al-Insan, Steven, and me. Now, we just needed to wait for the weeks to pass.

I watched the weather intently the week before. Rain and thunderstorms. This could mean flash flooding or a strong water flow that would lead to the park service closing the canyon. I was anxious. Friday came, the weather forecast claimed sun was coming for the weekend. We hoped for the best and left for Utah. The four of us piled into Steven’s Prius and took turns driving towards our destination. We detoured around Vegas to avoid heavy traffic and drove through the night. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sets aside public land in various areas that can be used for camping. There are no sites, facilities, or cost. At 5:00 A.M., we pulled onto a BLM site a few miles from the park. We cautiously maneuvered through the sands and trees paying close attention not to drive into the nearby river we could hear but not see. Thankfully, we never got stuck in the sand. We discovered just how lucky we were the next night as we helped push three different vehicles of increasing size (a car, then a SUV, then a huge RV) out of deep ruts. As the sun rose, we slid into our tents to sleep.

The weather gods blessed us. It sprinkled lightly Saturday morning, but never rained the remainder of the weekend. Friday had apparently brought a rainstorm muddying the dirt path leading to the beginning of the Narrows hike. Had we gotten reservations for Saturday, we would not have been able to reach the trailhead. We would have also been immensely tired from the all-night drive. Sunday turned out to be the better option after all. Zion Adventure Company drove us to the trailhead for 30 bucks each and Al-Insan rented canyoneering shoes, a walking stick, and neoprene socks. An important consideration when hiking the Narrows is your gear. You want shoes that are good on rock and in water. You need a pack that can keep your gear dry and a walking stick (or trekking poles) is recommended. I had my reliable Salomon’s hiking/water shoes. They are always great in the water, but do lack some of the rock-grabbing friction I would really need. Steven and Al-Insan were sporting the superior 5.10 Canyoneer 2s built specifically for climbing when wet. My sleeping bag, tiny stove, food, and clothes were packed in dry sacks inside my drypack (a dry sack backpack). The tent was tied to the top. I could be caught in a monsoon and my gear would stay dry. Erika was carrying a small Golite water-resistant pack. Steven also had a small water-resistant pack. Al-Insan, on the other hand, had a large traditional backpacking pack primarily holding his enormous sleeping bag. Day 2 would be the day we hit deeper water and the lower contents in his bag did get swamped. Clothing that dries quickly is also recommended. I was wearing a lycra shirt and swim trunks, as well as lycra socks. Erika had a summer wet suit and neoprene socks. Cotton soaks up water and takes a long time to dry. It is not recommended for this hike.

By an odd twist of fate, the hiker sitting next to me on the shuttle to the trailhead had met Steven a few weeks before. He and his girlfriend (Dima and Sarah) were spending a week hiking through Zion and a few other spots. They had reserved Camp 3 for the night and would become our hiking partners for Day 1. After a bumpy ride up a long twisting dirt road we arrived at the trailhead around noon. Chamberlain’s Ranch, a large privately owned piece of land just outside the park, is the starting point. The area is lush and verdant—open land as far as the eye can see. We followed a path alongside the river leading in the direction of the canyon. Cows flanked us on either side as they grazed. We soon came upon a dilapidated and abandoned cabin, its contents decorated with cow patties. It had apparently become a halfway house for troublesome cattle. We trekked down into the river. The better part of the next 26 hours would be spent in that same river. Our spirits were high and the sights were spectacular.

We hiked for roughly seven hours on Day 1 stopping several times to explore, take photos, eat a warm lunch, and bask in the glory of everything around us. Our excitement intensified as the walls of the canyon began to rise and move in towards us. At certain points, long crevices were filled with fallen rocks of varying sizes. At one point, the canyon narrowed drastically and turned sharply. Here, piles of broken trees were piled atop each other—clearly remnants of a past flash flood. As we neared the end of the day, we began to hear a steady roar. It’s volume increased as we approached yet the source was nowhere to be seen. Certainly we were nearing a waterfall, but there was no evidence of one anywhere. Then, we came upon it. At our feet, the river suddenly dropped roughly 15 feet in a torrent. It was beautiful and probably too dangerous to leap over. To our left, hidden behind rocks was the continuation of the trail. I raced down its incline and veered to the right to the bottom of the falls. The water was never more than chest deep, not good for jumping. It was cold. We would not let the temperature deter us from enjoying our most magnificent find of the day.

As we continued on, the Sun dropped below the canyon walls, its rays penetrating enough to paint us in silhouette while shimmering across the river’s wavelets. Soon a creek crossed paths with the river. We were at Camp 2. Our camp was nestled in a small cove of trees at the juncture of these two bodies of water. We setup the two tents, hung our wet clothes to dry and prepared dinner. Enter Shitmaster. The Narrows has no toilets. It is predominately a river and its banks of varying width. There is no good place to dig a cathole. Thus, when you pick up your backcountry permit, each member of the group receives one silver bag known as Restop 2—a scat bag. The Good News: It is cleverly conceived. It converts into a makeshift toilet. Inside is a gel that converts feces into an odorless (and allegedly harmless) gel that can be disposed of in a garbage can. The Bad News: These bags have to be carried out. We made a rule before entering the canyon. The last person to use one of these shitbags would become Shitmaster. That person was responsible for carrying all Restop 2s in the included yellow mesh bag until someone else used one. Steven had a plan. Immediately following dinner, he ran off to test the functionality of his shitbag. He assured us it was a glorious experience. His plan was simple, do his business first. Surely someone else would need to go before the night was through and that person, not he, would be Shitmaster. His plan backfired. No one else in our group ever had to use the shitbags. Steven would become Shitmaster Prime for the entirety of Day 2.

Throughout the night tiny mice investigated our campground looking for scraps. They were small, adorable, and superpowered. These minute mice could leap a foot or so into the air and scurry across rock faces with no effort exerted. We kept our food and trash locked away well and they left our site by morning broken-hearted. The story was different at Camp 3. Dima had rigged an immense bag of homemade trail mix to a stick in hopes of keeping the mice away. In the morning, he found only a plastic bag with a large hole on the ground. The mice had carried a pound or so of trail mix away piece-by-piece during the night.

The sun rose on Day 2. We left camp at 8:30 A.M. The air was cool, the water very cold. We each had a waterproof jacket of some sort or fleece. I wore wool socks hiked to my knees like you’d expect were I wearing lederhosen. Stepping into the river before the Sun has risen above the canyon walls is better than any coffee or alarm clock. We were awake. We were off. We passed the remaining 10 campsites dispersed across the next couple of miles. It was interesting to see how each differed and reflected the terrain at its location—some in tiny groves, others inside shallow cubbies. Shortly afterwards we came upon Big Springs, these cascading falls welcomed us to the Lower Narrows. As overnight hikers, we hiked top-down, our trip covering the entire span of the Narrows. Day hikers hike bottom-up and Big Springs is the furthest they are allowed to go before turning back. Few make it that far. Although it would be many more miles before we began to see the crowds of day hikers walking past us, we were now entering the popular section of the Narrows. We were also moving into a long stretch of the narrowest section—an area with no accessible high ground. Walking through the river is the only choice at this point. There is no escape from flash floods in this region. The weather was clear. We waded in.

We spent 8-9 hours making our way out of the canyon on Day 2. After exiting the narrowest section, we somehow warped the space-time continuum. We brought along a topographical map. On the map, the distance from our campground to Big Springs was roughly equal to the distance from Big Springs to Orderville Canyon. That morning we rocketed through to Big Springs despite urine breaks and a few instances of nearly losing shoes in swamp-like regions. Yet, the hike to Orderville lasted hours. The hike is harder after Big Springs—more time in the water, swimming, crossing logs, scurrying over and under, traversing narrow ridges on the canyon walls, cautiously moving through swiftwater—but the difference in ground covered versus time spent increased greatly. Clearly the laws of physics are warped in this area of the canyon. By the time, we did hit Orderville, the view was amazing. The canyon walls began to curve in like an enormous cave tunnel, the landscape grew alien in appearance, and the currents were often stronger (although not as strong as an earlier swim where Erika was nearly pulled under a log). This is when we began to hit the crowds (including an oddly Lolita-ish teen eating a lollipop—more scantily-clad each time we saw her). Before we would see occasional day hikers, now we were being inundated by multiple groups. We knew we were getting near the end. We were growing tired. Despite what anyone says, nothing fuels your body in a hike like this like meat. Unfortunately we were all out of Jerky and other meat products. But, wait! Floating in the lower flooded region of Al-Insan’s backpack were several pieces of waterlogged salami. And so, Salami-Power ignited our energies and fueled our final miles through the canyon as its name echoed across the rocky walls.

The cave-like walls opened up as we approached the end of the narrower parts of the canyon. The crowds had grown very large by this point. It was difficult to fight a smug feeling knowing we had traveled many miles from the top and the many ill-prepared families trotted only a mile or two into the canyon, some even trying to avoid getting wet. We had seen sights only an overnighter can see, views we earned. We hobbled proudly out of the water onto the paved walkway heading back to civilization. Steven happily renounced the task of Shitmaster as he dropped the Restop 2 into a nearby garbage can. We boarded the shuttle that would return us to the Prius several miles away. It would be many hours before we got home and we would be exhausted at work the next day, but we were sharing a natural high—we had surmounted a worthy adversary and become drunk on its many splendors. We were proud, we were happy, we were living.

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