Luck of the Draw, Part 2: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows
By Michael Lanza
We step into the ankle-deep North Fork of the Virgin River, in the backcountry of Zion National Park, and water at refrigerator temperature immediately fills our boots. Until sometime tomorrow afternoon, we’ll walk in this river almost constantly, crossing it dozens of times—with the 50° F water, at its deepest, coming up nearly to our waists. As we splash downstream, the canyon walls of golden, crimson, and cream-colored sandstone steadily creep inward and stretch higher, soon eclipsing the sun. We’ll see very little direct sunlight as the sheer walls of Zion’s Narrows eventually tower a thousand feet overhead and, at times, close in to the width of a hobbit’s living room.
Drinking in the scenery, I’m feeling a surreal sense of luck just to be in this place, considering that, for various reasons, it has taken my friend David Gordon and I a few decades to finally get here—and the fact that it’s sunny and warm in November as we set out on one of the most uniquely beautiful and sought-after backpacking trips in the entire National Park System.
The Narrows is the roughly 14 miles of the North Fork’s canyon upstream from where the road in Zion Canyon ends at the Temple of Sinawava. Enormously popular, the lower end of the Narrows teems with hundreds and sometimes thousands of dayhikers on hot days of late spring and summer, when the river is warm and low. Many of those people don’t go beyond the first mile or two of the Narrows, while some hike as far as Big Spring, five miles upriver, the farthest point you’re allowed to venture without a wilderness permit.
Backpacking the Narrows from top to bottom—16 miles from the Chamberlain’s Ranch trailhead to the Temple of Sinawava trailhead—requires a permit that’s very hard to get, whether you try to reserve a campsite in advance (they get scooped up as soon as they become available) or try to get a permit on a walk-in basis no more than a day in advance of starting the two-day trip.
But there’s one other way of snagging a permit—perhaps the easiest, given the towering hurdles of the other two methods, though it does involve pure luck. The park holds a Last Minute Drawing for unreserved campsites between seven and two days prior to the date you’d like to start. (See Permit info in the Make It Happen section at the bottom of this story.) When I saw an unusually warm, sunny forecast for the first week of November—not a high-demand time for Zion permits—I grabbed two of the most-coveted wilderness permits in the National Park System through the Last Minute Drawing: backpacking the Narrows top to bottom, and dayhiking Zion’s Subway top to bottom. (Read my story “Luck of the Draw, Part 1: Hiking Zion’s Subway.”)
David and I have both had backpacking Zion’s Narrows in our sights literally for decades. But for various reasons—including the short season and stiff competition for permits for both—it has taken us this long to get to them. Now, thanks to watching the forecast, good timing, flexibility in our schedules, and sheer luck, we are spending three straight November days of temperatures in the 60s knocking off two of the best hikes in America—the Subway and the Narrows—and seeing relatively few people, a situation unheard-of during the peak seasons.
The Narrows Day One
By mid-afternoon, a few hours into the hike, the only evidence of sunshine that we see is where it sets fire to the upper canyon walls, a few hundred feet above us. Down in the canyon’s basement, we walk in the shadows of a premature, extended dusk.
Here in the upper Narrows, several miles above its confluence with Deep Creek, which triples the river’s volume, the North Fork of the Virgin River meanders through adolescence, a skinny but energetic stream—at least during times of low water levels, which is when park officials open the Narrows to hikers. (See the Make It Happen section at the bottom of this story for details about safe river levels for hiking.) We’re still above the true “narrows” stretch of the canyon; pine trees grow sparsely along the river, like thin hair on an old man’s head, and the rims wear a green crown.
Black water streaks bleed down blood-red walls smeared with spilled-paint splotches of white rock. At sharp riverbends, where flash floods and high water have done the destructive work of erosion, cliffs crest overhead in petrified waves.
Our canyoneering boots and neoprene socks do not keep our feet warm so much as prevent them from getting painfully cold; I wouldn’t do this hike without them, except perhaps in really hot weather. We’re also carrying dry suits in our packs for the deeper water we’ll encounter later today and tomorrow. Here, we don’t need them yet for water that rarely tops our ankles. (See details on gear at the bottom of this story.)
Eons of geological uplift and the erosional force of the river carving into the Navajo Sandstone created the Narrows. Floods continue that eternal work. The Narrows and many other similarly tight canyons can transform from placid to deadly in a span of minutes—which is why you should avoid them if there’s any chance of rain. A flash flood in 1998 abruptly raised the Virgin River’s volume from 200 to 4,500 CFS (cubic feet per second), acting like a giant, high-speed plow coursing downstream, damaging the park road in Zion Canyon. On Sept. 15, 2015, seven people descending a slot known as Keyhole Canyon were killed in a flash flood in the worst disaster in the history of Zion National Park.
By late afternoon, we reach the beginning of the true “narrows” section. The walls pinch down to 15 to 20 feet apart and shoot up several hundred feet. For the rest of this day, we’ll wade water that comes up to our calves—and briefly higher—through a dark, cool, and church-quiet hallway in solid rock, with only a sliver of sky visible high above us.
We hear the North Fork Falls well before we see it. At 8.5 miles from the trailhead, the river pours thunderously over a 10-foot-tall, boulder-and-log jam. To bypass it, we squeeze through a claustrophobic passage on the south side of the waterfall, between a massive boulder and the canyon wall, and then wade a short distance back upstream to see the waterfall.
Get good gear. See my lists of the “10 Best Packs For Backpacking” and “5 Best Backpacking Tents.”
Minutes beyond the North Fork Falls, we clamber over a log pinned between the close walls and lower ourselves into the deepest pool of the day. The numbing water rises crotch-deep on me; I wade across it as quickly as I can propel myself forward into shallower water. Around the corner, we reach our home for the night, campsite one, the first of a dozen designated campsites in the Narrows. (This campsite made my top 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites, and I grouped the 11 other sites in the Narrows together as one on my list of the 15 nicest backcountry campsites I’ve hiked past.)
Our camp sits on a slightly elevated patch of dry ground, on one side of a cavernous opening where a tributary canyon joins the North Fork. Within an hour, by 6 p.m., it’s completely dark. With no moon out yet, stars riddle the Y-shaped slice of sky visible to us above this confluence of two canyons.
After dark, a mouse skitters around our site, obviously accustomed to pilfering food from backpackers. As David sits on a log enjoying the quiet and the stars, he feels the mouse crawling up his pant leg and kicks it off. With the forecast for clear weather, we didn’t bring a tent; we lay our pads and bags on the comfortable bed of soft, dry sand. But a few times during the night, I feel the mouse crawling up the outside of my bag and kick a leg out to send it airborne.
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The Narrows Day Two
In the morning, we awaken to a clear sky—what we can see of it, anyway. At the bottom of this deep hole, beneath close walls that dwarf skyscrapers, we remain in deep shadow. A breeze blowing down canyon sharpens the knife-like chill in the air, as the temperature sits in the high 30s Fahrenheit. The forecast had called for lows in the 20s, so we’re lucky on that count. But “lucky” isn’t the word I mutter while tugging my wet, stiff, half-frozen neoprene socks and boots on over my feet and taking my shocking first steps back into the 50-degree river.
Before long, though, the air temperature starts rising and our feet warm up as blood finally seeps back into them—even as we’re constantly crossing the ankle- to calf-deep river. I shed two of the three shirts I’m wearing and my wind shell, and roll the top of my dry suit down to my waist, thinking: It’s November, and I’m hiking in shirtsleeves.
Low-angle sunlight gradually infiltrates the canyon. Some walls catch indirect light reflecting off other walls, making them appear to glow. At every turn, the cliffs display a different face, a complex mosaic of curves, cracks, columns, pinnacles, and buttresses in a rich geological color palette. Mature trees lend the green of conifers and, at this time of year, the yellow of cottonwood trees.
High above us, the wind blows clouds of dust off ledges, and the sun backlighting the tiny dust particles makes them sparkle as they float earthward. “Pixie dust,” I tell David. Moments later, a gust hurls leaves off the rims hundreds of feet overhead, creating an identical effect, the leaves twinkling in the sunlight as they float downward.
An hour out of camp, below campsite four, we see the first people we’ve encountered since we started hiking from Chamberlain’s Ranch yesterday—two backpackers who remain ahead of us and mostly out of sight.
Then we reach one of the most distinctive highlights of the Narrows: Big Spring. As if by some black magic, a waterfall gushes loudly from the solid rock of the canyon wall. The cascades nurture a lush hanging garden. The scene looks like it belongs in the Olympic rainforest rather than in the arid desert Southwest.
Just past Big Spring, we enter the deepest and darkest portion of the Narrows, the roughly two-mile-long stretch known as Wall Street. The calf-deep river frequently spans the canyon from wall to wall, and not a trace of direct sunlight penetrates these depths. David and I grow as quiet as the ancient rock flanking us. It’s one of those times when anything you can think of saying seems inadequate.
I always hike with poles. Read why in my “10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier.”
A Hike Without Peer
It would be hard to find a bad canyon hike in the Southwest, and there are many really good canyon hikes. But you can count on the fingers of your hands the number of great canyon hikes, and no matter who’s doing the counting, that list includes Zion’s Narrows.
After the Narrows, hike the other nine of my “10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
A shaded, cool, and extraordinarily deep stone corridor for most of its 16-mile length, the Narrows packs a lot of world-class scenery into a relatively short experience: Even walking at a leisurely pace conducive to neck-craning without suffering a tib-fib fracture, with many pauses for picture taking, we’ll finish about 27 hours after departing from Chamberlain’s Ranch, hiking about six hours a day.
David and I explore a very short distance up Orderville Canyon, a dry tributary slot with walls that rise straight up, as if designed by an architect with a taste for elegant simplicity. Just below Orderville, Wall Street ends and the Narrows widens, becoming an airier canyon of multi-dimensional walls; we step into warm sunshine for the first time since yesterday afternoon. The frigid wind chill and numb feet of early this morning seem like the distant past.
Although the flow of dayhikers has steadily increased since we passed Big Spring, now the humanity spigot flows wide open. Dozens of people splash upriver; we will pass at least a hundred in the mile-and-a-half from Orderville to the upper end of the one-mile-long, paved Riverside Walk leading to the shuttle stop at the Temple of Sinawava—making me glad it’s November and not June or September, when the number of dayhikers balloons by an order of magnitude. I form a mental image of weaving through crowds in the river as thick as Times Square—a scene one longtime local guide described to me as “a zoo.”
David and I agree we’re happy we hiked the Narrows and the Subway from top to bottom, rather than dayhiking either of them bottom-up. We’ve now seen that both trips are entirely different experiences when you see the lengthy sections of each that are not inundated with people.
And yet, even as we’re walking down the paved Riverside Path, I’m craning my neck to look around at the soaring, deeply burgundy walls, and spinning with my camera to shoot the cottonwoods, their golden leaves blazing in the sun. Crowds of loud dayhikers cannot diminish this place. From shortly after leaving Chamberlain’s Ranch (okay, the first 30 to 45 minutes of the hike are nothing special) through to the Temple of Sinawava, the Narrows impresses you as one of nature’s most awe-inspiring, accidental masterpieces. There is nothing like it. The permitting hurdle you have to clear to walk through this place only makes the experience more special for its rarity.
Zion’s Narrows has, for years now, existed in that uppermost tier of iconic outdoor adventures—like backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park, the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, or the Appalachian Trail through the Great Smokies—that require aggressive management through the permit process in order to protect the natural resource and the wilderness experience. Hiking Zion’s Angels Landing is similarly enormously popular; but with no permit required for dayhiking, avoiding crushing crowds demands that you go at times of day or year when most people don’t.
Following the usual route to obtaining a permit to backpack the Narrows might not get you there. You may have to try every means of getting that permit, and take advantage of an unusually good weather window at an unlikely time of year.
And sometimes, as David and I learned from Zion’s Narrows, the best adventures, as with some of the best things in life, occasionally require patience, serendipitous timing—and a little good luck.
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See all of my stories about Zion National Park, including a family backpacking trip through Zion, hiking The Subway, and a 50-mile dayhike across Zion, all of my stories about hiking and backpacking in southern Utah, and these stories at The Big Outside:
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