Our trip to Zion National Park over Labor Day weekend went according to our plan, but not without a few glitches. We’re house shopping, but there’s a shortage of houses on the market in San Diego that have the things we’re looking for. When a good house does come up there are multiple offers within the first day or two, so we were a little nervous leaving town for 3 and a half days. Before we even got to the high desert there were several new house listings and two were in neighborhoods we are very interested in. On paper they weren’t exactly what we were looking for, but they were strong possibilities. We decided we would go ahead with the trip with one small change to the plan; we would leave Zion early Sunday to get back early enough to see the houses. This would give us one less day to hike the Narrows if the conditions weren’t good, but Zion is fairly close and we can always go back.
I’ve wanted to hike in the Zion National Park Narrows since I first visited Zion in the eighties. I love a challenge so I eventually want to hike from the top down in the Narrows, but I also like to get to know an area better before I go for the big challenge. I did lots of planning for this trip, and have friends and family who have hiked here many times. Regardless I wanted to experience hiking in the Narrows and learn a few things before doing the full 17 mile top down Narrows hike. We also planned to do at least one other hike while in Zion, on the Canyon Overlook trail. It is a short hike with a terrific view of the valley at the end. There are lots of other trails in Zion and we had them on the backup list if the weather conditions were not right for the Narrows.
We had a campsite reserved at Watchman Campgrounds near the entrance to Zion National Park. The reservation website allows you to see pictures of the campsites so you can see what you are getting. I picked one with plenty of shade, near the restrooms and water. What I couldn’t see in the reservation website’s picture is the great views we would have. Watchman Campgrounds is being renovated and our campsite was in pristine condition.
We stayed in Mesquite Nevada the night before getting to Zion so that we could drive through the Virgin River Gorge (great drive) during daylight and have lunch with family in Saint George Utah. We got to Zion in the early afternoon, set up our tent and headed out for a drive and the short hike on the Canyon Overlook Trail.
I had hiked this trail in 1987 when my oldest two kids were young. My oldest daughter had been two years old at the time. What I didn’t realize until I was sorting out pictures for this post is we just happened to take a picture in front of what appears to be the same tree just about 5 feet further along the trail, and about 25 years later.
My memories of the trail seemed reliable, but as I walked along, the canyon next to the trail seemed much deeper than in my memories.
When we got to the Canyon Overlook, it was also different than my memories. I wonder what other memories have become unreliable? I remembered it as a flat sandstone dome overlooking the valley. It is not flat…
Not a dome…
but it does have terrific views of the valley below.
On day two we got up, ate breakfast, packed a lunch and prepared to head out to the Narrows Hike. We stopped by the visitors center to find out what the flash flood conditions were, and our plans hit the second glitch. The flash flood threat was high for today but low tomorrow. There was a 30% chance of rain and the park service was not taking any chances. So we decided to head back to camp, change from the trail/water shoes we planned to wear into the Narrow into hiking boots. This was a big disappointment for all of us. We got on a shuttle and decided to ride all the way up to the Riverside Walk trail first, then make our way back down the valley, possibly making the Angels Landing hike the new big hike of the day.
The Riverside Walk trail is gorgeous and is fairly flat and paved. It is a trail that just about anyone can handle. The canyon is narrow and the walls amazingly high. Not The Narrows, but still terrific scenery.
As you can see in the above picture we have our hiking boots on, not planning to hike the narrows. But the sky was fairly clear, no thunderstorms in sight.
The start of The Narrows hike is at the top of the Riverside Walk. Nearly a third or more of the people on the Riverside Walk were continuing up the canyon on the river. We wanted to go at least a little way up, but hiking boots are a bad choice for the river. The water level is too high for “waterproof” boots, and they will get swamped. We decided to take a chance that the weather would remain clear and to head back down to our campsite and change into the gear we brought for hiking in the river. It is a long round trip, but the weather held and when we got back to the top of the Riverside Walk we decided to hike up the river at least to the start of The Narrows.
Mystery Falls was the first landmark we came to. The canyon is still fairly wide at this point, and there were still a lot of people in this area.
We decided to stop for lunch just past Mystery Falls.
After a quick lunch we continued up the river. The scenery is amazing as the canyon narrows and rises higher above the river.
Just past a very cool corner, the canyon narrows even more.
Most of the hike is in the water.
There are dry areas along the way, but there are very long stretches where you are in water all the time. While planning this trip we read several blogs that suggested light trail runners and neoprene socks. We went to Adventure 16 in San Diego to get our equipment. REI has great sales, but Adventure 16 always has great advice and terrific service. The salesman didn’t recommend the socks for this time of the year, saving us about $30 apiece. He was right. The water was cold, but not that cold. Our biggest issue was sand getting into our shoes and socks. We had to stop a couple of times to empty that out. We were all wearing lightweight shoes with mesh sides and very little padding. They worked well. The water is very clear in the area we hiked, so the shoes are still like new. I have seen videos of areas with murky water, so don’t count on clear water for every hike in The Narrows. I think an old pair of lightweight running shoes would have worked fine at this time of year for the hike we did.
Here are a few of my favorite pictures in the narrower section of The Narrows hike.
We passed Orderville Gulch on the way up and considered heading up it for a ways, but decided to continue up the main channel.
We finally decided that maybe we had gone far enough. Because of having to return to our campsite we had started later in the day than our original plan. We also knew it would get dark early in the canyon. A brief discussion about hiking this canyon in the dark with no flashlights or headlamps motivated us to turn around and move quite a bit quicker on the way down. My 18-year-old son Sean set a very fast pace for us on the way out. The fact that my son enjoyed this hike so much made this hike even more special for me. My wife also had a nearly constant grin on her face!
With the faster pace on the way back, I started to think about the best/fastest way to hike in the water. There were usually rocks just downstream of every corner. If you were able to cross the stream just before the start of the rocks, the bottom was generally sandy without being too deep. By following the path with the least rocks you might get a little more wet, but you’ll make much better time. I was actually surprised to see the bottom of The Narrows hike when we got there. We were all very happy we had decided to go on this hike. It was planned to be the highlight of the trip and it exceeded all our expectations.
It was completely dark and we were all very tired when we got back to the Zion National Park Visitor’s Center near our campgrounds. Rather than cooking dinner we decided to eat in Springdale. The town is just outside the gate and very convenient if you are staying in the Watchman Campgrounds. We were a little under-dressed for the Spotted Dog Cafe. We were also sweaty, dirty, still in our hiking clothes, and not so sure about our hygiene after a long day hiking. Just in case, we asked for outside seating. The food was interesting, but not awesome (we were very hungry so “not awesome” is saying something here). But we all felt better after eating and definitely ready to a good night’s sleep.
In the morning we packed it up quickly and hit the road for San Diego, certain we were on the way to finding our dream home. That didn’t happen (this time), but we had accomplished what we came for in Zion!