The Narrows at Zion Canyon: a visual travelogue

In November of 2020, my son and I toured the Southwest US. One of our stops was at Zion Canyon National Park, where we were excited to experience the Narrows. It seemed a great way to escape the pandemic and get away. Spend a few minutes on the journey with us!

Driving, we arrived late in the day at Zion lodge, in darkness. We saw this improbable sight outside our cabin in the morning: canyon walls rising thousands of feet overhead, just outside our door.

We had rented dry suits from Zion Adventures, and laid out our clothing that evening for the hike ahead. In case you’re wondering about the hyperlinks, no this is not a paid post. Just a joyful recollection of an aging parent…

Double boot liners, grippy-soled rubberized river boots, an impervious suit with rubber-gasketed pants and sleeves, and a huge diagonal waterproof zipper across the chest. Hard to wrangle but exciting! We felt like spacemen. We wore several clothing layers underneath.

Normally the Narrows is a super-popular hike through the spring, summer and fall. We had thought that with the pandemic and with wintry November weather, we would have no trouble booking a shuttle ride from the Lodge in the park up to the entrance of the Narrows, 3 miles away. Suffice it to say, plan ahead. Fortunately, we found a last-minute shuttle option with seats remaining. Whew, disaster averted. Otherwise, the lodge had offered us “bikes to rent and ride up there, suits and all.” That would have been more adventure than I needed.

We walked the paved path for the 1st mile. Giddy and nervous, we passed a number of casual hikers who stared at our gear, our dry suits, our 6-foot wooden walking poles, our backpacks. Here, with the residual heat deep in the canyon, the last remnant of fall colors contrasted with the snowscapes outside the park.

And then: the pavement ends. Into the stream! I can feel the cold water sloshing around inside the boot. Hey! my feet stay dry! I don’t care about splashing because I’m sealed in up to my neck, and my backpack has a dry sack inside with food and water. The cyanobacteria poisoning warnings do not deter us. Upstream we went.

Did I mention the incredible geology? We feel puny in its presence.

I was surprised at the grip of these rubber soled river boots. Crunching upstream over large and small rocks was easier than expected. Where was all the slipperiness, the unstable rocks, the twisted ankles? The equipment smoothed that away. I grinned at my son; this was a blast. The water depth was up to a foot and the going was not hard. The current ran a couple of miles an hour.

As we saw fewer hikers, the enormity of the cavern became apparent. At one point, it appeared that the walls were maybe 3 football fields tall, 1000-feet-high sheer walls of stone. These walls plunged right down into the river with no shore or beach to speak of.

From there the river got deeper and faster. In about an hour and a half we arrived at the fork to observation point on the right, with photographers set up to catch the changing light in the canyon. Then we took the left fork to “Wall Street,” presumably named for the impressive sheer walls narrowing in.

At times, the water rises to the hips. Some hikers with only waterproof pants turn back. One couple raised their jackets, exposing bare midriffs to keep their clothes dry, and gamely walked through the first deep crossing. That must have been cold, with the water at 40 degrees. It is sunny, but also snowing.

At a rock outcropping, we paused for lunch. We find a few larger boulders, unpack and have our bagels. Suddenly ravenous, we savor the calories, noticing snowflakes drifting down 1000 feet into the canyon. The light is peculiar: in shadow, with sunlight bathing the Canyon just around the curve, blue sky overhead. It looks like indoor light because of all the bounce and reflection.

This is our turn around point. We rest, recharge, hear the stream burble, feel the snowflakes, our hunger sated, snug in our dry suits, we smell the fall giving way to winter.

It feels – cold, but I’m sweating from effort. The canyon appears unforgiving, but we have supplies and equipment up to the task. Flash floods and cyanobacteria poisoning are a risk, but we have mitigated them. Unlike more extreme adventure-seeking adrenaline junkies, this is the degree of risk and adventure I’m ready for.

It is time to head back. Downstream, like downhill, would be quicker. My main concern was balancing Seeing with Photography.

There is the disappointing idea that the more photos one takes, the less the brain experiences. Or maybe not. Yes, there’s more to show off when you get home, but were you really present? Or did you just line up and frame the shot? But, if you don’t take photos, how interesting is your blog post later? #FirstWorldProbs.

I tried to do both. Who knows.

Downstream was a pleasant splash. Yes, it was 1.5 times easier and slightly faster. There was little resistance to swinging the shins through the water as it flowed with you.

There are great speedway-sized curves to this river, as the millennia of water microscopically carry away molecules of rock every day. The views are magnificent.

It is a hike that promotes mindfulness. Your focus is required for not-stumbling, for pushing upstream, for awakening your senses. The constant, echoed river babble precludes idle chatter.

It is: exploration, sightseeing, photography, companionship, escape, reflection, effort, appreciation for dry-suit and photographic technology, wonder, mindfulness, pure sensation, focus, curiosity, pride of offspring, joy. All at once. Each in turn.

We emerge from the river, dripping and yet perfectly dry. We make our shuttle home.

A perfect day.

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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