Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Zion Narrows - May 2013

I'd visited Zion twice before this trip, in 2011 and 2012.   I was blown away by the beauty of the park, and no part of it was more intriguing than the Virgin River narrows.  My love for canyoneering came from some early trips I'd done that were extended, non-technical canyon backpacking trips, in places like Wet Beaver Creek and Tonto Creek.  Trips that involved wading and swimming along wild waterways in incredibly beautiful settings.  This is the most fun type of backpacking trip out there.  The Zion Narrows, therefore, presented an irresistably beguiling challenge.  Here was the absolute peak of this type of backpacking.  The actual narrows were closed on both previous trips I'd taken, which only heightened my desire.  I hiked in along the paved tourist trail on both previous trips, and just seeing the scenery on that section of canyon was enough to lock me in.  I was GOING to do this hike, it was just a matter of when.

This was as far as I got the first time I visited in 2011

Finally, in 2013, I pulled the trigger.  I did some research on the Zion permit system, which is not nearly as bad as Grand Canyon, and managed to secure a campsite in the Narrows for a mid-May Saturday with no problem.  I reserved the Friday before off from work.  I also managed to sneak out of work by mid-day Thursday, so I was able to roll into the Hurricane/St George Utah area by sunset Thursday night.  Using a few different guidebooks, I put together a plan to do a variety of dayhikes on Friday before launching into the Narrows the next day.  This would also give me the opportunity to pick up my permit from the Zion BC office the day before as well.  I snuggled into an awesome campsite at Snow Canyon State Park on Thursday night. 

Highly recommended if you need a St George campsite
The next morning, I was up at the crack of dawn to do a little hiking around Snow Canyon.  This was actually a super-cool little park.  Its just off a side road in St George (you literally take a left at a Denny's and moments later you are in red rock land).  Despite its small size, its got some wonderful red rock formations, with cross-bedded sandstone and fins of rock similar to what you see at Arches. 

Petrified Sand Dunes

The Petrified Dunes trail is a little marvel of engineering, routed right over the top of the rock formations, similar to the Devil's Garden trail at Arches.
Snow Canyon view
Once you get to the other side, there are lava formations and lave tubes/caves to explore, as well as a small set of pink sand dunes. Its a great variety of stuff for such a tiny little park.  I pieced together a 6 mile route with the help of the book "WOW Guides - Utah Canyon Country," and it was a great way to start the day.  A perfect little sampler of red rock country hiking.

inside a lava tube

Sand Dunes
I had breakfast in St George, then hurried over to Zion.  I decided to check out the Kolob Canyons section of the park.  On my visits before, I'd always stuck to the main section, so I was curious what this little corner of the park had to offer.  I drove in along the Kolob Canyons road and did the short dayhike out to the Timber Creek Overlook to take in the scenery.  On the way out, I stopped at the ranger station to pick up permits.  This was a good move, as there was no line and I was able to get my permits with little hassle.  Much better than dealing with the crowds at the main visitor center.

Kolob Canyons
Once I left the park, I drove up the road to Kanarra, Utah.  I had stumbled onto a description of a non-technical slot canyon outside of Kanarra via the website (a great source for Zion info).   I paid the $10 parking fee and hiked up Kanarra Creek to the narrows. 

Entrance to the Kanarra Creek narrows
This turned out to be a GREAT move.  The narrows on Kanarra Creek were absolutely stunning.

This was my facebook photo for a long time
The water was flowing clear and strong, making for even more beautiful scenery.  Kanarra Creek would be a full-on technical canyon, but its proximity to a town means that its been discovered, so there are log ladders at all of the "technical" drops.  This meant sharing the space with others, but it was still far less of a crowd than Zion would present.

lower falls
I made my up the first log ladder and through to the second set of narrows, which if anything were more beautiful than the first.  Honestly, after this I could have turned back to Arizona and the trip still would have been a win in my book.  But I was just getting started.

Upper Falls, Kanarra Creek

Kanarra Creek

I made my way back out to the highway and drove onward to Springdale.  The water in Kanarra had been a bit of a wakeup call.  While mid-May would have been entirely comfortable in Wet Beaver Canyon, it was still pretty cold up in Zion, and the flow was strong and steady.  I decided to reserve a wetsuit at Zion Adventure Company for the Narrows, which would turn out to be a wise decision.  After a fast lunch in Springdale, I entered the main part of Zion and set up camp at Watchman campground.  It was now about 3:30 PM - just enough time to whip out one more hike for the day.

ooooohhh yeeeeaaaaaaaah
Yup, it was time for the infamous Angel's Landing.  For those who haven't done it, Angel's Landing is a landmark hike up a knife edge ridge in the middle of Zion Canyon.  It's a potentially scary hike, clinging to chains as you look down over 1-2000 foot drops.

Watch your step

The hike really is perfectly safe, but it SEEMS risky, and so reaching the top is a totally exhilarating experience.  It helps that the view is one of the best I've ever seen.

Worth the effort
The next morning, I made my way over to Zion Adventure Company, picked up my wetsuit, and caught a shuttle to Chamberlain Ranch.  Time to get this show on the road.

upper part of Zion Narrows
The upper part of the hike is easy enough.  It resembles many of the Arizona canyons I'm so familiar with.  In particular, its eerily reminiscent of West Clear Creek.  Lush grottoes and picturesque canyon walls line both side of the creek/river, and the hiking is easy, mostly on use trails at creek side.  Occasional sections of wall to wall water add some excitement about what lies ahead.

As you get deeper into the canyon, the greenery becomes less and less frequent, and the wall-to-wall sections become longer and more and more stunning.  This is the upper narrows.  It's a total paradise - unlike any other place I'd visited.  I walked along in total enchantment.  I was grateful to be hiking alone as well, as I was undistracted by the chatter than can sometimes pre-occupy a group.  Instead, I was able to quiet my mind and just soak in the beauty. 

a 12-foot falls you bypass on the south

In the upper narrows

Walking with beauty
At the junction with Deep Creek,  I dropped my pack and tried to walk up Deep Creek.  I did not get far.  The flow was fast, swift and cold.  Even with a wetsuit, I turned back quickly.  From this point forward, I would be wading in deeper water.  Nearly 1/3 of the flow in the Narrows comes from Deep Creek.  I didn't realize this at the time, but in retrospect, this trip through the narrows was at high flow.  I was wading knee to thigh deep regularly below Deep Creek, and at one point above Wall Street I actually had to swim.  The next year I came through again, and never had to deal with more than shin deep water.  At the time, I just accepted this as the way it was in the narrows.   If anything, it added to the trip  Being in that huge canyon, grappling with heavily flowing water in the shadows of vast rock walls, was a humbling experience.  That's the kind of experience that draws me back to the wilderness time and again.

huge sections of narrows
After a restful night in a hammock at campsite 7, I set off the next morning down the river.  I quickly made my way to Big Spring and the end of the "top-down" section. 

Big Spring
Below Big Spring, I encountered the only swim of  the trip, a brief section where I was swept off my feet and had no choice but to go with the flow of the river. 

Several miles below the swim, the river enters the lower narrows at a section called Wall Street.  Somehow, this section managed to top the upper narrows, with massive walls, clear flowing water, grottoes, and light like I've seen nowhere else.  I'm not doing justice to the place at all with this description.  In a lifetime spent in stunning places, the Zion Narrows tops the list. Hiking through Wall Street left little doubt that this was one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

lower narrows
I took a brief detour up Orderville Canyon, which had beauty and charm of its own.  Unfortunately, Orderville also marks the end of the "wild" Zion Narrows.  Its the destination for most dayhikers, so below Orderville, the canyon is filled with people.  It still has charm and beauty, but the sense of wilderness is lost.  All too quickly, I passed the waterfall shushing out of Mystery Canyon and arrived at the end of the paved pathway.  I was done for now, ending one of the absolute best trips I've ever taken.

Orderville Canyon

In the tourist section of the narrows.  Still not too shabby :)

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