"Zion Narrows" Slot Canyon at Zion National Park, Utah

29th April 2015

*Note: Photos are after the write up.

Everyone else was wearing specialized neoprene dry suits and even neoprene socks and shoes. I was standing there in shorts and trail runners. But they are the tourists, and I am the real hiker, I thought to myself. Of course if the water really is that cold…

The mandatory shuttle bus had just dropped us off at the trailhead for the Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah. The hike is the park’s signature hike and provides the chance to venture miles into a slot canyon with two thousand foot high walls on each side. There is no trail. You must hike directly in the Virgin River. The sign at the backcountry info center said the water was 48 degrees. 48 degrees!

If the water was really that cold I wouldn’t be making it in that far. The last hike of my 9 day trip would be a short one. In the White Mountains of New Hampshire back home, simply crossing a forty degree stream or river would make my feet go numb after one minute—in summer. Maybe I should have spent the $45 to $90 to rent that gear like everyone else. But I ignore these rationale objections and follow the voice of intuition that says to just go for it.

The first mile is actually a paved path that follows a lush riparian corridor along the Virgin River. The vibrant greens of grasses, reeds, and freshly leafed out Cottonwood trees really stand out compared to the hundreds of desert miles I’ve drove and hiked through on this trip. But suddenly the pavement disappeared and it was just me, a dozen neoprene clad hikers making final adjustments, and the river.

I plunged my feet in without hesitation. Yep, it’s cold. I made it across the knee deep river crossing to first sand bar. Then a second crossing and sand bar. Still cold. After that, there are no more sand bars in sight. I wasn’t the least bit numb. With the air temperatures in the uppers 70’s it actually felt refreshing. I realized it was going be fine.

A few moments later, a neoprene clad hiker passed by and looked down at my trail runners under a foot of water and asks, "Are you cold or did I just get ripped off in a tourist trap.” I think he had the same realization as me. As I kept hiking that day I found more and more people like just hiking in “regular” clothes too.

From that point on, the hike was pure bliss and one of the most unique of my life. Unlike usual mountain or desert hiking, this hike is a full sensory experience. I constantly could feel the current of the river rushing against my legs, smell the warmth heating up the vegetation, and hear the white noise of the river. As I got deeper in the canyon, the crowds and the walls got higher and narrower. I felt smaller, yet bigger.

About 2.5 miles into the hike, I reached the goal for most day hikers, the Wall Street section of the main canyon at the junction with the Orderville side canyon. I took the mile long round trip detour into Orderville canyon until the waterfall and first (hardly) technical-ish obstacle. Orderville is the narrow slot canyon experience I had been dreaming about for so long. The walls are high and polished—often only 6-10 feet wide.

Returning to the main canyon, I explored a bit deeper into the Wall Street section, but then reached my self-imposed turnaround time of 4 pm. With a flight at 5 am in Vegas the next morning I am cutting it close, but it’s worth having to (attempt) to sleep in the airport.

On the way out there are much fewer people and I even enjoy some extended pockets of solitude. The light reflecting off the canyon walls turns them a soft orange. After arguably the worst year of my life, when walking, hiking, seeing, sleeping and even living a normal life were all in constant jeopardy to some degree (perhaps more on that long story in a later post…), I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude to God. Here I am in one of the most beautiful spots on earth, healthy enough to have hiked 72 miles in the past 7.5 days, and have all my problems seemingly resolved and now washed away. While I am thinking of these things a green hummingbird flies near me, flitting quickly around. Then he settles in ten feet in front my face and hovers there for fifteen seconds, just staring me in the eyes.

A great sense of peace fills me for the rest of my hike out. Standing in refreshing, not cold, waters of the Virgin River, I feel truly whole for the first time in a long time.

Safety Note: Check with the park for current conditions. This hike is not doable if the river is flowing higher than 150 cf/s. Flash floods can occur if rain threatens anywhere in the drainage, even if it is many, many miles away. Check the weather for whole area. You will have no escape in a flash flood.

PHOTOS Addition shots in Utah: Zion Narrows Gallery and Google+ Gallery

Hikers in rented dry suit pants, shoes, and poles.

Hiking in the river.

Occasional Sand or gravel bars

But about 60-70% of the time the only option is to hike directly in the river, there is no escape!

Sense of scale hard to convey. Silhouetted hikers at bottom to attempt it. Have to see in person.

Spring is a beautiful time with cottonwoods and other trees just leafing out with a vibrant new green.

Near the Orderville Junction. Definitely worth bringing a tripod for long exposures to blur water and keep canyon sharp.

Orderville Canyon

In the Wall Street section

Pleasant reflected light on the peaceful walk home

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