Chris Roams

Travel, Adventures, and Photography

Wet Canyons

A through-hike of the Zion Narrows is 16 miles long and has a bit of an inauspicious start. Private operators in the nearby town of Springdale provide hiker shuttles to various trailhead locations around the park, in this case out to Zion’s east entrance and then up a long washboard dirt road to a spot well outside the park’s boundaries called Chamberlain Ranch, a 2 hour ride. Far from the expected deep and narrow canyon, the first few miles after the drop-off point consists of a leisurely walk down a dirt road through a broad grassy meadow surrounded by gently rolling hills. The remains of a tortured old cabin and a rusting motor along the way provide testament to the pioneers who lived out here when it was even more remote than it is today.

Eventually it is time for the hiking boots to come off and the river shoes to go on as the ranch road ends, the hills turn into small cliffs, and what there is of a trail starts crisscrossing through the river at every bend. Officially the river itself is the trail, although as long as there is a dry mound of dirt piled up somewhere a pack of hikers has blazed a path across it, at least until the river curves up against the canyon wall in the other direction leaving the only earth on the opposite side of its course. For the most part the upper portion of the canyon is very easy with most of the hiking taking place on the dry sandbars along the river’s edge and the water crossings no more than knee-deep. This can vary wildly however and we are very lucky to be able to do the narrows at this time of year. Owing to a mild winter with little snow there isn’t much run-off and the water is low (58 cubic feet per second by the park service’s measure). The park service will not issue permits if the flow exceeds 150CFS and that is often the case in the spring.

In places the walls are graced with the arches that seem so common in Utah and a few usually-dry tributaries have carved out narrow slot canyons. One highlight of this portion of the river is the Narrow’s only waterfall. Only about 10 feet high, it spans the width of the canyon at a narrow choke-point. If it weren’t for a narrow passageway through the rock on the south side of the canyon this single fall would present an obstacle requiring rope to bypass, turning an otherwise non-technical river walk into a technical canyoneering exercise.

Between the time required to get a trailhead shuttle and some shoe difficulties the hour was getting late, and it gets dark fast in the bottom of a canyon. As is all too common in the backcountry the maps have once again proved to be inaccurate. There are a number of designated and signed camping sites along the river that the backcountry permits are valid for. The Trails Illustrated map of Zion supposedly lists the official camp sites, with the first one between the park boundary and the waterfall but only a solitary no-camping sign exists on that stretch of river, quite possibly where Camp 1 used to be. Instead the camp sites now start where Deep Creek enters the Virgin River. Rolling in to camp just as it got dark was a relief, as was filling up on water from Deep Creek. It may seem strange to be worried about getting water while splashing through it knee-deep but while there is plenty of water the Park Service advises hikers that it is not safe to drink above Deep Creek, even after filtering it, perhaps due to runoff from the ranch at the trailhead.

The lower stretches of the river below the campsites become more sinister as the canyon walls get taller and closer together while the water from Deep Creek adds significantly to the flow. Often there are no longer any dry banks along the sides of the river so long stretches of wading directly down its course become mandatory, the riverbed requires careful footing on its smooth round rocks, like walking on bowling balls. The perceived temperature swings wildly, a hiker can go from overheating while walking in the direct sunlight to nearly hypothermic wading in the dark recesses of the canyon and back to overheated in only a few minutes. The water becomes deeper as well, often waist deep. Forward progress becomes an exercise in probing along the river to find a reasonably shallow stretch to walk on and in a few spots the water is so deep that it becomes necessary to simply swim. Never having tried to swim while carrying an overnight pack before I had no idea what to expect, it turns out that it isn’t as difficult as it would seem. To keep the gear dry we had lined the packs with giant water (and air) tight drybags, upon entering the water the air contained in the bags provided buoyancy during what was otherwise a horribly ungraceful doggy-paddling exercise. Eventually the river started to get wider and shallower, then the day-hikers appeared from downriver, then the dry banks resurfaced, and after a few more miles of hurried splashing the mile-long paved trail back into the heart of Zion National Park and its shuttle buses was attained.
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