Zion is the fourth most popular national park in the country. It’s a smaller park, but they do a good job of managing the crowds by having a shuttle bus. It is easy to see why it’s so popular. Zion is a truly beautiful place with huge, colorful rock walls towering thousands of feet above the valley. Until recently it was number three; however, attendance has been down since some of the big attractions were closed due to rock slides. When we arrived, the most popular spot in the park, the Narrows, was also closed due to the river running high with snow melt. In a dramatic landscape shaped and reshaped by water erosion this all shouldn’t be a surprise, but Kate and I were still disappointed to find so much of the park inaccessible to us.
We went to Weeping Rock, where water seeping through the sandstone hits an impermeable layer and drips out of the rock walls, carving a large alcove over time. The springs feed hanging gardens of plants that otherwise couldn’t survive here. The snow was melting off the higher elevations and we were lucky to witness waterfalls that only flow for a few weeks a year.
On the bus ride back we overheard a group of girls on spring break who had just come from the Narrows. It was closed the day before, but they did it. We went to the approach trail, a nice walk along the river in its own right, and sure enough people were making their way into the Virgin River where the canyon narrowed to a point where there was no more dry land to walk on. Kate was very excited. I was scared. The next morning we checked that it was still open, rented dry suits and we were on our way. Kate was making up jingles about hiking up a river. I was doing my best to not panic.
When I did the Appalachian Trail I forded a few rivers in Maine. I told myself this was kind of like that, only instead of getting across the river at the easiest point, you walked up the river for miles. The water was 40 degrees, but the dry suit did its job surprisingly well and only our feet got wet. Inside the neoprene socks the cold water warmed up quickly and we didn’t feel nearly as cold as I expected. Working hard against the current also kept our temperature up. It took a while but after the first few bends in the river I relaxed enough to enjoy myself. Families with young children were doing it. It couldn’t be that intense, right?
The Virgin River was looking a little dirty as it carried silt downstream, and tried to take us with it. The opaque water hid the bottom, so we had to tread carefully over a boulder field we couldn’t see. It would be tricky without the current tugging on us; we picked our spots, used our walking sticks and took our time. The water was typically knee high, though occasionally would hit our waists in deeper section. Only once did the river rise to my armpits, and I am glad that happened towards the end when I was comfortable, and not in the beginning of our hike. I was naturally on the lookout for the deep places, but it was actually the points where large rocks rose up that would trip you up. We took plenty of stumbles, and saw one unfortunate soul face plant into the river. It was definitely a challenge. Beyond the feeling of being on a real adventure, we got to earn some awe inspiring sights.
It was incredible to stand in the river and feel the force that carved this canyon. We walked on the banks as much as we could but the majority of the time we spent in the river. Around each bend we got new views and new surprises.
One of those surprises came in the form of a little bat desperately using its wings to stay above the water. Kate used her walking stick to gently help him to a spot of dry land. He lay there panting and shook his head dry like a dog. He dragged himself further up the bank and we liked his chances. We looked after him for a while but decided we might be scaring him, so we wished him well and continued our journey. He wasn’t there when we came back so I’m choosing to assume he made it.
It’s hard to judge distance in the Narrows, so we went by time and gave ourselves two and a half hours before we turned around. At the two hour and fifteen minute mark, we were standing at a fork where a tributary joined the Virgin River. It was the first real landmark we’d seen so we felt like it was a good place to call it a day. That was until a group came from further upstream and told us there was a waterfall. We pressed on.
Worth it. Happy, exhilarated, and tired, we turned back downstream. With the current helping us, the way back was much faster than the way upstream. We also took a lot more damage on the way out. I took a knee on a big rock and was glad the cold water had numbed my shins. Kate was reflecting on how lucky we were to be there and found herself wandering into rapids.
We made it out of the Narrows alive and feeling like heroes. Bravery isn’t the same as fearlessness but means acting in the face of fear. Between the precarious heights of Angel’s Landing and the rushing waters of the Narrows, we packed a lot of bravery into our days at Zion. On to the next adventure.