By Michael Lanza
We rightly think of America’s national parks as inviolable public treasures, protected in perpetuity to remain unchanged forever, always there for us to admire and enjoy. Zion National Park’s closure yesterday of one of the very best backpacking trips in the Southwest—the 16-mile descent of The Narrows from top to bottom—due to a landowner suddenly revoking public access to the trailhead where the trek begins, reminds us that even the best-guarded treasures can be looted.
Zion announced on Sept. 25 that “no trespassing” signs have been posted by the owners of the private Chamberlain’s Ranch, outside the park’s northeast corner, the location of the trailhead where backpackers and dayhikers begin the top-to-bottom hike through The Narrows of the North Fork of the Virgin River. While much of The Narrows remains protected within park boundaries, the park has closed all access to it above Big Spring, including all backcountry camping. Dayhikers can still hike from the Temple of Sinawava Trailhead, in Zion Canyon at the bottom of The Narrows, upstream about five miles as far as Big Spring.
Beloved by backpackers, The Narrows is arguably a hike without peer—indeed, perhaps the archetypal Southwest canyon hike and one of the most uniquely magnificent multi-day hikes in the National Park System.
Hikers beginning at the upper end descend a canyon that grows steadily deeper and more spectacular, squeezing down to only about 20 feet wide in spots, while its sandstone walls rise up to a thousand feet tall. The perennial river coursing through the canyon nurtures denser greenery than typically found in Southwest canyons, creating striking contrasts with the golden, crimson, and cream-colored cliffs on both sides. 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. In fall, the leaves on the cottonwood trees change to a brilliant yellow.
From the canyon’s constantly shifting character to oddities like a waterfall pouring from cracks in solid rock, creating a hanging garden clinging to the canyon wall, The Narrows is a geological and biological wonder.
In early November 2014, a friend and I took advantage of a window of unseasonably sunny, warm weather to backpack The Narrows. I’ve backpacked for almost 30 years in many U.S. national parks and wilderness areas and still consider The Narrows one of America’s top 10 best backpacking trips. I hope Zion National Park managers are able to negotiate access for hikers and backpackers to Chamberlain’s Ranch again, so that I don’t have to remove The Narrows from that list.
The late writer and historian Wallace Stegner got it right when he famously described our national parks as “America’s best idea.” The 59 parks, from the world’s first, Yellowstone, to other places whose names have become synonymous with American wilderness and values—Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, Sequoia, Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Everglades, and certainly Zion, among others—still attract and inspire hundreds of millions of visitors from all over the country and the world every year. In 2017, national parks received 330,882,751 recreation visits, just shy of the 2016 record of 330,971,689 visits.
But our parks face many threats from outside their boundaries that create impacts on everything inside, from legal battles over whether to allow the hunting of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone region to efforts to lift a ban on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon watershed, and many more. We’ve certainly seen that national monuments are not safe from the shifting tides of politics since the Trump administration radically shrank Utah’s Bears Ears (by 85 percent) and Grand Staircase-Escalante (nearly in half).
The greatest existential crisis to ever face our parks, climate change, is expected to precipitate the disappearance of namesake natural features from some parks—glaciers from Glacier, Joshua trees from Joshua Tree, and the list goes on—and create myriad impacts from the diminishment of Yosemite Valley’s world-famous waterfalls to the inundation of much of the Everglades by the sea.
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The abrupt loss of access to an iconic national park experience offends our sense of entitlement. This isn’t supposed to happen in our national parks. Imagine Yellowstone closing Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin—or perhaps a more-apt comparison, backpackers losing access to parts of the Teton Crest Trail that lie within national forest outside the boundaries of Grand Teton National Park.
The closure of Zion’s Narrows serves as a stark reminder that the work of conservation never ends—not even for our national parks. It’s a clarion call to all of us to do something about it. As millions of people hike and backpack, ski, paddle, climb, fish, and sightsee in the parks every year, many people and organizations work behind the scenes to help enable the efforts of the National Park Service. Those groups need our support.
If you love and cherish the parks—or even just the idea that they exist—find an organization or more than one that’s doing good work to help protect them, and send them a donation. That’s the best footprint you could leave in any park.
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See my feature story about backpacking Zion’s Narrows, which requires a paid subscription to read, and this photo gallery of hiking and backpacking in all five of southern Utah’s national parks: Zion, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef.