Virgin River Narrows, Zion NP

We’d been looking forward with some trepidation to this hike. Last time we were here in April 2008, it wasn’t possible because the currents were too strong and water levels too high. The Narrows at Zion National Park is not a hike in the traditional sense because it involves wading in the Virgin River virtually the entire length (save for a few sandbars here and there), in spots chest-deep. Most people do The Narrows in summertime when it’s a lot warmer. The intense Southwest heat gets considerably tempered by the water and high canyon walls that don’t admit as much sunshine.

Today, we finally got to hike The Narrows. First, we rented equipment from a local outfitter in Springdale, which included wooden hiking poles, waterproof boots and neoprene socks. The day didn’t start off so promisingly. A light drizzle was beginning to fall. Sucking it up, we decided to go ahead. The first step into the river took some adjustment, getting our feet entirely wet since the shoes and socks would do little to keep water out. The next mental and physical adjustment was getting used to walking on smooth, slippery rocks, most bigger than your feet, which meant that often we were struggling to keep our ankles straight. Hiking poles helped. I was certain that even the light precipitation overhead was accumulating in the river with thin sheets of water cascading down the canyon walls to raise the water level and boost the power of the current.

After we hiked a short distance upriver, we confronted our first test. A large depression in the river, like a bowl, made the water a lot deeper so that we had to wade chest-deep to get to the other side. At this point, you have to lift your belongings up in the air to keep them above water level, all the while maneuvering against the current. Oh, to be a little taller.

Most people hike to an area called Wall Street which is the deepest slot canyon in the world. Our attempt to reach Wall Street was thwarted by constant heavy drizzle which chilled us to the bone, almost to the point of hypothermia. We would have gone on if not for my wife’s sore ankle and my sore knee. Our lack of conditioning took its toll. We decided to turn back and had to retrace our steps in mild pain. The hike was definitely an experience.

The weather was much better on the following day (sunny with few clouds) so we thought it might have been better to have taken the hike then. But, we learned from a cashier in the Zion Lodge gift shop that, because of yesterday’s rains, the water level was higher and the flow rate stronger. Bottom line: you can never predict hiking conditions just by looking at the weather.

Word to the wise. Keep your electronics in a waterproof bag. I rented one from the outfitter. Dutifully, I took it out as needed when snapping photographs and put it back in when done. As you can imagine, this removes photographic spontaneity. At one point, I decided to chance it by hooking the camera strap over my neck and under one arm and proceeded to wade across the river. Bad idea. I slipped backward and the camera got submerged, though briefly. I yanked it out and hoped for the best. I wound up having to send the camera in for repairs. Human error like this is not covered under warranty. I repeat, keep electronics in a waterproof bag.

Check out this YouTube video of the Narrows hike (photographed by Amazing Places on Our Planet) taken only three weeks after ours. The water appears to be a lot calmer than when we went. Makes me envious.

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Angel’s Landing Hike, Zion National Park (UT)

You reach a point somewhere on Scouts Lookout when you have to decide if you’re going to finish the last one-quarter mile of the Angels Landing hike that ascends a narrow fin of rock over a saddle and hogsback. On either side, the trail drops off precipitously over a thousand feet to the Zion Valley floor, with only occasional chain railing to provide support, both physical and psychological. Scouts Lookout, an area at the top of the reddish rock area in the photo above, is prosaically known as “Chicken-Out Point.” It’s here where you confront your fear of extreme heights, not to be taken lightly since several have fallen to their deaths. This typifies the drama of Zion National Park, where towering Navajo sandstone cliffs dwarf your conventional sense of scale, where every hike leads to spectacular sights and provokes a profound sense of wonder. What natural forces led to the creation of this stupendous valley, scouring and removing thousands of feet of sand and silt deposits in the process?


First portion of the trail is a series of switchbacks

The hike is 2½ miles from the parking lot to the top. It begins with a grueling set of switchbacks that eventually leads into a beautiful slot canyon, called Refrigerator Canyon for its cool respite, before emerging into a tight series of switchbacks, known as Walter’s Wiggles, that quickly gains elevation.

Refrigerator Canyon

Refrigerator Canyon

Walter's Wiggles

Walter’s Wiggles

Chain supports appear periodically along the trail, especially during the final half-mile stretch along the steepest part of the sandstone fin that ends up at the overlook. When foot traffic is heavy, much cooperation and common courtesy are required among hikers going in opposite directions.

Chain supports

Chain supports provide “comfort” along the more challenging parts

The trail then levels out at Scouts Lookout where the “Decision” has to be made, a mere quarter-mile to go. Alas, we “chickened out” when a portion of ridge appeared to have no chain supports along the narrowest portion of the fin. We were content that the hike up to this point had already been one of the most awe-inspiring we’d ever taken. Purchasing the “I survived Angel’s Landing” t-shirt would have to wait for another time.

It’s a hike like this, with its not insignificant challenges and undeniable exhilaration, where you can appreciate the vast scale of the natural world just a short distance from a parking lot.

Hidden Canyon Trail, Zion NP (UT)

What started out as a hike to Weeping Rock turned into a much longer, splendid hike toward Hidden Canyon. Instead of turning left at the interpretive panel as we should have, we mistakenly turned right. After an hour of hiking that severely tested our legs and lungs, the trail became progressively more challenging, a portion of the trail fashioned from sandstone blocks laid out as steps, the later portion along steep cliffs with support provided only by chains bolted to the rock wall. Anyone with the slightest fear of heights would probably feel quite uncomfortable here. Hidden Canyon itself was still a mile further up, but because we didn’t have enough water (we were equipped only for the short hike to Weeping Rock), we decided to turn back.

Sandstone steps simplify ascents on steeper climbs

Sandstone steps simplify ascents on steeper climbs

Portions of the trail hug the cliffs with sheer drop-offs

Portions of the trail hug the cliffs with sheer drop-offs

Geology notes: All along the way, we became awed by the sheer massiveness of the cliffs, white on the top and rusty red on the bottom. Although different colors, they are all part of the 2000-ft thick Navajo sandstone formation. The white upper portion is “bleached” of iron oxide, most of which has percolated downward. The cliffs in Zion Valley are some of the tallest in the world.

Sheer, massive cliffs typify the Zion landscape

Sheer, massive cliffs typify the Zion landscape

A fascinating feature of Navajo sandstone is the phenomenon called cross-bedding where sections are partially composed of inclined layers. This is thought to have been caused by changes in the environment of sand deposition caused by wind or water on angled surfaces. The Navajo formation is basically an enormous sand dune cemented as rock, a clue that this area was a vast desert.