Photos courtesy of Luke Daniel Photo
Five years ago, Luke and I were still developing our hiking skills and had no business taking on a 16-mile river hike in one of the deepest slot canyons in the world, objectively speaking.
Never before had we Velcroed on a pair of canyoneering boots, nor hiked in a river. Our decision to thru-hike the Narrows in Zion National Park was based on a picture I saw on National Geographic’s website. A few months later, the full weight of our choices became very real as we sat on a washed-up tree trunk, ingesting yet another damn Pemican bar, somewhere deep within the Earth. We were cold, our feet hurt and we still needed to locate campsite #12 before nightfall.
To sum it up, we felt approximately 2,000 feet in over our heads.
Perseverance and a good attitude got us out largely in-tact, excluding our feet which became partially mummified inside of rented neoprene socks. We hobbled away from the experience with some valuable lessons learned about nature, namely, how wild and isolating it can be, even within the boundaries of a national park.
Those of us who live in cities sometimes forget this, especially when much of our time spent outdoors is within earshot of a highway.
But the truly unfortunate part of our first trip into the Narrows was zombie-walking through the last five miles of the canyon. This is where the scenery gets really good. So, five years later, we decided to come back and re-hike it from the bottom-up with fresh legs and a much better attitude.
Given how popular this hike has become since our first visit, we waited until the Labor Day crowds went back to school and made it a point to begin our day well before sunrise. We hiked the mile-long Riverside Walk in the dark and entered the chilly, ankle-deep water of the Virgin River with the first light of day.
Moving against the current was easier than I anticipated. Taking a slower pace against the rushing water forced me to carefully select my footfalls and get used to the rhythm of my walking stick. Luke and I were able to pass the few people ahead of us, earning ourselves a few precious moments of alone time with the canyon.
Try as I may, there is simply no adequate way to describe the alien beauty of the Narrows’ stone walls reflecting 18 million years of river currents frozen in time. But for the purpose of this blog post, I’d say it’s probably a lot like being inside the lair of a Norwegian Ridgeback dragon. Yes, the kind that Hagrid raised.
After about 90 minutes of splashing, we entered Wall Street, where the canyon walls rise approximately 1,000 feet and squeeze in to about twenty feet wide. This section of the Narrows is a place unlike anything I’ve ever seen – the beautiful underbelly of the Earth where darkness is perpetual, yet somehow breeds so much life.
Ferns and hanging gardens sprout out of moist cracks. Potholes are filled with river stones and miniature plants that lend an air of a cultivated terrarium. Full-size trees defy the odds by clinging to narrow ledges.
Suddenly, a brilliant beam of golden sunlight cut through the darkness, igniting hidden tones of yellow, red and orange in the rock. We flocked to it like it was the only light we’ve seen all day (it was) and warmed our faces for a brief moment before it disappeared.
Shortly after passing through Wall Street, we came to a small slot canyon named Orderville that combined the fun of bouldering around Hidden Canyon with the addition of water obstacles. We had to scale a small waterfall simply to enter. The further we went, the deeper the pools became and the taller the boulders to climb over.
At one point, I stood in chest deep, milky blue water trying to wedge my leg into a crack between two rocks, searching for a foothold. A kind stranger on the other side offered his hand to pull me up, but it was just too slippery. Eventually, I managed to heave myself over the pile of boulders. A few moments later, Luke did the same.
We walked over to the five-foot-tall waterfall marking our turn-around point, soaked up to our necks, arms bruised and shins scraped bloody. Once again, we probably had no business slinking around this slot canyon the way we were. Yet, there we were, standing on top of a giant pile of rocks, giggling with a true sense of accomplishment.
In that respect, our two trips into the Narrows were not that different from one another. We took chances in unknown territory and pushed our bodies to their limits in the name of terrible fun. But this time, when I reached the end of the trail and removed my rented canyoneering boots and neoprene socks, my feet were perfectly fine.