Spontaneous trips are often the most rewarding experiences. One of the reasons for this is that you don’t allow yourself to build unrealistic expectations the way you would with a planned trip, which almost always leads to disappointment.
Living in Los Angeles lends itself to exploring a myriad of wonders. Within a 7 hour road trip, you can venture to some of the most exciting, and most beautiful destinations in America.
My most recent YOG tour was a quick 3 day jaunt to Zion National Park in Utah. A buddy of mine was invited by his work colleague, who had managed to secure permits to hike the Narrows from top to bottom. These permits are hard to come by, particular this time of year, so when I was asked on Tuesday if I wanted to tag along on the Thursday, I simply couldn’t refuse.
After some gnarly traffic leaving LA and a few pit stops including In & Out burger in Vegas, we reached the small town of Hurricane just outside Zion around midnight and bunked down for the night in a cheap roadside motel.
The plan was to get to the park early on Friday morning, get our permits and take the shuttle for an hour up to Chamberlain’s Ranch. From there the hike is 16 miles down into the canyon along the Virgin River and through the Narrows, stopping halfway and camping overnight.
Before we even arrived at the park however, the shuttle bus company called us to say that it would not be possible to take the shuttle up because heavy rains the previous night had made the road impassable.
The next best option was to hike the Narrows from the bottom up. As much of the hike requires walking through the river riddled with bowling ball sized rocks, we rented special shoes, wetsuit socks and walking stick from the Zion Adventure Company.
We then jumped on the free shuttle bus, enjoyed the spectacular views of the surrounding red rock formations, and jumped off at the 7th and final stop – Temple of Sinawava, then set off on our exciting journey
After a mile walk along the river, we entered the famous Narrows, and it was nothing short of magical. The sheer vertical walls on either side rose 300 – 400ft high. Sections of the Narrows were a symphony of darker shaded sections mingled with bright gold and red blocks lit up by slivers on sunshine sneaking their way into openings of the gorge.
Traversing through the river, with some sections as deep as chest height, added to the overwhelming connection to the surrounding raw and natural beauty. It was blatantly evident why this hike was recently rated by National Geographic as #5 top adventures in the United States.
Hiking the Narrows does not come without potential peril. Hikers and tourists are extensively warned by park authorities about the prospect of flash floods. Rain showers from storms upriver can cause flash floods in the canyon without it raining over the canyon itself. There are segments of the Narrows, including one called Wall Street, where there is no high ground and extremely dangerous should a flash flood strike.
We considered this when deciding whether we should camp in the Narrows or not that night, but the weather was sunny and the forecast said no rain until possibly the next day in the afternoon, so we continued on past the heavily populated bottom section and up into the serenity where small campsites began occupying the river banks.
After 5 hours of hiking, we set up camp at site No.8 of 12 and crashed about 9pm in anticipation of a 4:45am rise to get back down to the Narrows. At around 1am, there was an unexpected flash of lightning and a crack of thunder overhead. Soon, the star riddled sky was replaced with angry thunder clouds, resulting in 4 hours of heavy rain, and consequently a very uneasy feeling which led to very little sleep.
All those flash flood warnings had now become very real in my head. I imagined getting up in the morning and seeing a raging river, rendering the path back to civilization unhikeable. This would mean possibly having to stay another night waiting for the river to calm down and we were very light on food as it were.
Scenes of the movie “Into the Wild” kept playing over in my head where the main character is forced to eat poisonous berries after being trapped by a rise in water levels. All of a sudden, shit got real!
When the rain cleared, we went down to the river to check it out and were immediately comforted by a relatively tranquil scene, similar to yesterday. The river didn’t seem to have risen much at all, and flowing at a normal rate, making my “Into the Wild” visions rather silly and obsolete.
We didn’t want to take any chances however, packing up and leaving promptly having learned that weather forecasts weren’t entirely accurate in Zion National Park.
The hike down was not as user friendly as the day before, with the water having turned a murky color due to the rain, making it much harder to navigate the uneven bottom of the river.
Nonetheless, we reached the bottom unscathed to find a drastic reduction in the normal number of tourists thanks to a sign indicating that the Narrows had been closed due to heavy rain and imminent flash floods.
Good thing we didn’t hang around too long to take photos in the sketchy sections…although I WAS wearing my Budgy Smugglers, which I’m sure would have kicked me into Baywatch mode should the need have arisen.
Overall it was an amazing experience, and one I recommend everybody add to their bucket list, regardless of where they live.
Here are my tips for anybody keen to hike the Narrows based on my trip:
1. Don’t leave L.A. after 2pm.
A no brainer for Angelenos, but if you’re on vacation and deciding to take a road trip from LA, try to leave between the hours of 10am and 2pm, or better yet at sparrow’s fart in the morning (6am) to avoid spending a fifth of your trip crawling in bumper to bumper. Another alternative is to fly to Vegas and rent a car from there, which should only take you another 2 – 2 1/2 hours.
2. Apply early for a permit well in advance
If you decide to hike the Narrows from the top down, you will require a permit, which is possible to book two months in advance. You’ll want to jump on it immediately as they get snapped up pretty quickly, especially in the warmer months. You’ll also want to reserve one of 12 camp sites located along the upper portion of the hike. Visit Zion’s online Wilderness Reservation System for more info and reservations. I recommend snapping up Campsite #8, which is set further back from the river next to a cool cave for extra shelter.
3. Don’t always believe the weather forecast
It’s very important to check the weather, especially for any rain which may increase the risk of flash floods. Even if no rain is forecast, be prepared for some anyway, as passing storms can whip up out of nowhere in the region.
4. Bring/Rent the appropriate gear
You’ll get wet often, sometimes up to chest height, so be sure to wear quick drying material instead of cotton. You won’t regret paying $37 to pay for a day & a half worth of river walking shoes, socks and walking stick. Be sure to get snug fitting shoe and sock sizes though, otherwise lots of annoying pebbles and other debris will make their way in. The stick is also essential in providing extra stability as you negotiate the rocky river bottom, while also providing a good way of checking water depth. The good people at Zion Adventure Company sorted us right out!
5. Take more provisions than usual
If planning on camping overnight, like it or not, there is a chance of flash floods spoiling the party and requiring you to wait it out another night for the river to die down. Don’t make the same mistake as us and leave a whole bag of snacks in the car accidentally! Also, take plenty of water and drink it often. Hiking in a river can trick you into thinking that you are not becoming as dehydrated as you actually are! If you don’t fancy the weight of extra H2O, REI has a great selection of water filters you can use in the river.
6. Empty yourself before the hike
Just a heads up that this excursion demands a “leave it how you found it” policy, which means you must bring everything back out of the Narrows you took in, including your solid excrement. I recommend a quick coffee at the cafe next to the park visitor center and a visit to the restroom shortly after for your best chance of avoiding having to carry your poop in the special bags provided by the permitting office.
7. Don’t watch ‘Into The Wild’ beforehand
Watching this movie before going into the Narrows is like watching Jaws before scuba diving. I haven’t seen it for a couple of years and visions of the film even kept me awake in my tent for hours. Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but then again, I’m certainly no Bear Grylls…