The scene before me looks like news footage of a crowded New York City sidewalk. A stream of people, hundreds, maybe thousands deep, approach. These people trickled in a few at a time at first; a giggling, young couple here, a group of shirtless college boys there. But as we near the end of our hike, in what is the most geologically spectacular section of canyon, a mob of human traffic is somehow the most interesting thing to look at. Never in my life have I been part of such diversity while on a hike. A man speaking Russian passes me as he narrates a selfie video with his phone. A frail-looking old woman with a long walking-stick ambles by. A large Latino family approach. They have no packs for day hiking, but carry half-empty gas station water bottles in their hands. I marvel that they walked this many miles through a rocky riverbed wearing nothing but flip flops on their feet. The lower Narrows in Zion National Park is literally a melting pot as tourists from across the globe seem to have funneled in between these red rock walls all at once, just like my imaginary New York scene. Somebody even wrote graffiti alongside a natural spring on an overhanging wall, only instead of spray paint, they used mud from the riverbank. Just last night, as my friends and I camped on a sandy shelf above the Virgin River, we felt absolutely alone. Amongst the crowd today, it is clear that the only way to truly experience the Zion Narrows, is to backpack from the top down.
The Narrows is one of the most popular hikes in Zion National Park. This is very obvious based on the thousands of tourists hiking up from the Temple of Sinawava. But very few people go backpacking from the top down, because a limited number of permits are issued for travel above Big Spring, located about half way up the main gorge of the Narrows. This place is a draw for everyone who visits the park, as it’s undisputedly spectacular. Canyon walls rise thousands of feet above the river. Natural springs that seep from sandstone walls create hanging gardens of fern, moss and colorful flowers. Plus the novelty of hiking in a river, fighting against the current while ambling atop smooth rock and slick mud, is a singular experience that cannot be found anywhere else in Zion that doesn’t also require technical knowhow and rappelling experience. The first time I entered the Narrows, I was one of those tourists gawking at the landscape while hiking up from the bottom. But, sadly, the thing that stuck with me from that trip was how overcrowded the canyon was. So when my friend, Dave Hert, scored an overnight permit to backpack from the top down and experience the Narrows the way it should be, I said yes before he even invited me.
To hike the 16-mile length of the Zion Narrows from the top down, you need a shuttle. That’s how I find myself packed into a van run by the Zion Adventure Company. I came to escape crowds, and end up sardined in a vehicle with one. The hour-and-a-half drive to Chamberlain’s Ranch at the hike’s start feels like a long haul for it being so early in the morning, because our late arrival to catch the shuttle in Springdale means I didn’t get to have coffee. As my “no caffeine” headache reaches its peak, we spill out of the van into the high desert, already hot despite the hour. Chamberlain’s Ranch is a dry, flat place with no hint of a spectacular gorge in sight. I shoulder my pack and follow the group, which includes Dave, my friends Matt Walker and Jared Anderton, and two of Dave’s friends from St. George, Aaron Parkin and Robert Stanley
Unlike starting at the bottom, where the scenery is stunning right off the bat, beginning at the top means walking through some of the most uninspiring countryside you can think of. Pastures dotted with pinyon and cedar are filled with cows corralled behind an electric fence. I warn everyone to watch where they pee. Here, the trail is actually a monotonous dirt road for the first three miles. One point of interest, however, is Bulloch’s Cabin, an abandoned homestead that is now crumbling log walls and a sagging roof.
Soon after the cabin, the trail narrows and slowly descends into a wash of the North Fork of the Virgin River. It is only a trickle of a stream, but this water hints at what’s to come and I finally feel like I have arrived. As the stream banks grow higher, the trail becomes narrower, as it crosses the stream several times. Every mile we tick off, we go deeper into the gorge. Canyon walls form, then become tall and sheer. As the stream cuts down into lower layers of rock, varnished stone is revealed, black and striated from thousands of years of flash floods and geologic upheaval. The canyon narrows until the sun disappears behind the rim where it only illuminates the cliff tops with a warm glow. Evergreen trees grow from impossible ledges high above where it seems nothing can live, yet these trees are huge despite their cramped homes. In fact, some trees grow right out of the sandstone wall, where a small crack is all it takes to provide enough soil and water for a lifetime of growth.
Soon the trail disappears altogether and we are shin deep in the river, which is our guide from this point on. The further we hike the more the spectacle seems it can’t get any better. And then it does around the next bend. But this is only the top of the canyon; a mere appetizer of what’s to come. A few more hours in, and the canyon walls occasionally close in, creating minis slots. Boulders add to the challenge as I climb and squeeze past. Tangled deadfall of huge tree trunks and debris is wedged into narrow slots by flash floods that almost require acrobatics with a heavy pack to pass through.
Simon Gulch appears on my right, and looking up the tight defile, I yearn to take a side trip and discover what lies beyond. But the day is nearing its end and the sun has long since disappeared. Almost immediately after Simon Gulch, we reach the first camp site marked as “Deep Creek” on a numbered, carsonite post. Each camp in the Narrows is located on a small, sandy ledge above the river, higher than the flash flood line (hopefully). These sites are tiny and can only accommodate an average of six people. Most are nestled behind a wall of trees, providing a sense of privacy and solitude against other passing hikers. I harbor no worries in that regard, as we have seen only one other group since entering the canyon.
Diffused light reflecting off the river and sandstone walls forces me to remove my camera for the thousandth time. I simply cannot stop framing stone pillars, purple skies, and a blur of water in my viewfinder. When I look up, I am alone. Enveloped by silence, I look around and savor the feeling of having one of the most legendary and sought-after places in Utah to myself, if just for a moment.
I catch up to my group at the North Fork Waterfall, which seems to have been created by logs and boulders that have jammed up between the canyon walls by numerous flash floods. As I peer over the edge, Dave, who has been here before (in fact this trip to the Narrows is his second time this year) tells me we have to take off our packs and jump. For the briefest of seconds, I believe him. But I can hear the false encouragement in the voices of the others and spot a faint path to the left leading into what appears to be a solid cliff. Hiking up, I find a small cleft in the wall that bypasses the waterfall. Dave acts disappointed, but I don’t think he really would have let me jump… I don’t think…
Another hour of hiking and we come to the confluence with Deep Creek, which is nearly as large a creek as the Virgin River at this point. I stop to pump fresh water through a filter where this side-stream intersects the North Fork. Supposedly the water is cleaner here as the cows at Chamberlain Ranch have made the Virgin River side unsafe to drink. Deep Creek, however, is good water and we all refill our bottles and hydration packs. Below where Deep Creek merges with the river, there is now twice as much water, which means the river is now deeper. I can tell immediately as I step in above my knees.
Beyond Deep Creek the canyon widens again, and we quickly pass by the other camp sites: River Bend, Right Bench, Flat Rock, Ringtail, Kolob Creek, Box Elder, Boulder Camp, and finally our site, camp #9, named Left Bench. The name is apt as it is nothing more than a 10-foot wide ledge tucked into a shallow, overhanging cliff. A grove of maple trees hide it from the river. We barely have enough room for all our tents and it is dark when we finish setting up. I hang my wet shoes and pants, unfold my backpacking chair, and crack open a beer that, thank the spirits of the West, is still relatively cold after hiking through a desert canyon all day. Beyond our wall of maples, the river is slow and produces a faint gurgle that lulls me to sleep.
Day two, I wake early, filled with anticipation for hiking through the true Zion Narrows. What I mean, is that the upper section of canyon, while beautiful in its own right, simply does not compare to what is downstream. The canyon section you see in postcards, where photographers flock and ill-prepared tourists gawk, is found in the lower reaches of the Narrows. This is the Wall Street Corridor, and the name speaks volumes. I hope that by getting this early start, we can find ourselves in that place before the hordes arrive. I put my camera in an easy-to-reach spot, and we break camp and walk down river.
It isn’t long before we arrive at Big Spring, which is the border between the permit area, which we just left, and the non-permit area beyond. From this point on, we can expect an unlimited amount of people, and there is already a small crowd gathered around the lush spring. This natural spring is absolutely gorgeous and is easily the largest in the canyon. Water pours directly from the stone wall, cascading down in falls to the Virgin River. Hanging gardens dot the cliff around the falls, lending a brilliant green contrast against the red rock. This is a stunning spot that is rightfully the main destination for non-permitted hikers to reach from the bottom up.
We continue on below Big Spring and the canyon becomes suddenly narrow, then descends even deeper. This is the main event – Wall Street Corridor. Walls tower 2,000 feet above our heads and constrict into the tightest section yet. Grottoes, overhangs, twists and sinuous curves depict the course of the river that created this canyon over millions of years. As I strain my neck looking up at it all, I trip over my feet several times by not watching my step in the river. But I can’t help but look above. This is among the most humbling spots to be in all of Utah. The only thing that detracts from the experience of being here is the sudden surge of tourists that approach. It seems our group of six aren’t the only ones who thought an early start would let us have the place to ourselves. We were all wrong.
For miles, the Narrows astound. There really is nothing else like it. It’s not so narrow that it’s a slot, but is wide enough where you can see naturally carved skyscrapers larger and denser than anything found in a big city. Morning sun illuminates the cliffs and sends warm light down to the water that flows with a color of slate grey. Once again, I fall behind the group while snapping photos, which takes longer now that I have to wait for a lull in the crowds to minimize human encroachment in the shot. Then again, people in the river show a sense of scale to the place, which is so massive that we all appear as insects trapped inside the chasm.
Sadly, this deep and most narrow section of canyon is all too brief. As I leave behind Wall Street Corridor, Orderville Canyon opens up to my left. It looks every bit as magnificent as the Narrows, and I make a promise to myself to hike that canyon in the future. Before long, the canyon gets wider and soon a trail appears again for the first time in hours. I no longer am hiking in the river as large shorelines of sand, trees and grass line the canyon bottom. The crowds get crazier and more diverse as we approach the Temple of Sinawava, until I find it difficult to even walk around anybody. I am elbow to elbow with thousands. Children splash in the shallow river. Mothers carry infants. Teenage girls in bikinis tiptoe through the sand. I almost resent their presence considering we were by ourselves just a few hours ago. But instead of being angry, I am entertained by the spectacle. Finally, fifteen miles into the hike, we arrive at the Temple of Sinawava. A stone staircase leads us to a paved trail that we follow for a mile to a shuttle stop, and catch a ride down Zion Canyon back to Springdale.
Tired and happy, I watch out the shuttle window as other tourist attractions in Zion go by. Observation Point. Angels Landing. Emerald Pools. Each worthy of national park status. But none of it compares to the intimidating scale of the Narrows. While the crowds gave me visions of packed New York streets, this landscape is all Utah.
If You Go:
- Backpacking the Zion Narrows is a strenuous adventure. You need to be in shape and have the proper gear. Hiking poles and closed-toed shoes that drain are essential. Do not wear Gore-Tex boots. Also bring dry bags to protect your gear from the river. Wet suits may be needed in the colder months.
- Flash floods are always a concern, so never enter the Zion Narrows if there is even a remote chance of rain. Always check the forecast.
- Permits are required and must be reserved months in advance. Otherwise, a limited number are available for walk-ups the following day at the Visitor Center. Get in line early to snag one of those. Visit nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/narrowspermits.htm for more information.
- Shuttle service is recommended and worth the cost. We used Zion Adventure Company. www.zionadventure.com
- For a post-hike celebration, try the Flying Monkey in Springdale. They have delicious wood-fired pizza and, more importantly, a decent beer selection. www.pizzainzion.com