This summer I planned and executed an almost ten week road trip through 10 U.S. states, for which I packed my itinerary with as many national parks, monuments, national preserves, and forests as I could. There are several parks that I would say I looked forward to more than others. Along the way, I was eager to see if they would live up to my expectations, or if some of the underdogs might take the lead as far as favourites go.
In hindsight, I can’t quite peg why Zion National Park wasn’t at the top of my early list, but if I had to guess, I would think it’s because I was worried about how busy, or touristy it might be.
It was very busy, and it was packed full of people even in the middle of the week. I had to camp out as early as 5:30 a.m., just to get a campsite for a couple of nights, and despite being so well-organized, I was immediately struck by how much it felt a little like being at a zoo.
Parking is more or less non-existent inside the park; it is very limited. Thus, set in place is an extremely efficient shuttle system. Two shuttles run in the area: one is a Springdale branch (the small town on the boundary of the park) and one is an internal Zion branch. If you’re heading in from Springdale, the shuttle takes you to the park entrance. You disembark, pass through the gates, and then wait in amusement park style queues to board the Zion shuttle into and around the park.
The shuttle includes brief audio clips that provide some context, history, and features of the park, which was great. But again, it felt a little like a safari tour. You can jump on and off of the shuttle as many times as you like, and it takes you to each of the major trail heads in the main canyon.
So, how did Zion shuttle itself into my top five? If you are as willing as I to push a little past the crowds, and find yourself some time and space to absorb the park in solitude, you will quickly realize how full of magic it is, and boy, was I ever rewarded with magic on my hike through The Narrows!
In the summer, days are hot, nights can be cool, and for the four or five days that I was in the Zion area, mornings started out really windy and crisp. I didn’t make it on the first shuttle of the day, but it turns out I didn’t need to, given how far I was willing to hike.
I got to the Temple of Sinawava at about 8:30 a.m., and followed a few groups down the initial one-mile river walk before we donned our wet gear and first stepped into the Virgin River.
It seems most people, especially families with smaller children, tend to only hike the first one or two miles of the river due to water levels and more technical river crossings. Once you’ve reached the river, depending on the time of year and water levels, 60 to 80 per cent of the hike is actually in the river. Hiking in the direction I did, meant hiking up stream on the way in. Early on, I learned some great strategies for navigating the water:
1. Use a walking stick, and wear shoes that are strapped on to your feet (not flip-flops or crocs, considering they could be lost to the river current). There are companies in the area that offer gear rentals, but I brought along my kayaking water shoes, and a trekking pole. I used the trekking pole as a third leg, which allowed me to always maintain at least two points of contact while in the water.
2. Face upstream, always. In some instances, it is easier to criss-cross the river and walk along rocky banks than walk straight up-stream through the deepest water. When crossing the river, I employed a side stepping strategy, moving laterally. When your toes are facing upstream, the water splits and moves around your legs with less resistance than if you were perpendicular to the stream. I used the same strategy when I was returning and traveling downstream. If you face downstream, the current can kick your feet out from under you.
3. If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, chances are you have heard the term “Drishti”, which means gaze or focused attention. If I couldn’t see my feet in the water, looking at the water rushing around me made me uneasy and unsteady. Instead, I chose a stationary point in the direction I was travelling, and I relied on my other senses to guide me through the water - I felt my way over the rocks, allowing my feet to guide me towards which spots were safest to step.
I figure I travelled about 15 kilometres round-trip through The Narrows, and I would have probably hiked forever if I could have. I have my most powerful experiences in the outdoors when I get time alone, which happened more frequently the further I hiked. I felt lucky to have those moments in this space. It’s in the solitude that I began to grasp the profoundness of my surroundings: 1,000+ foot vertical sandstone walls on either side of me that over years, have been carved by the very river that I was standing in. It was extremely humbling.
I appreciate places that appeal to all of my senses, and The Narrows surpassed all of my expectations. I could have spent days admiring the way the sunlight filtered past canyon walls, where some reflections made the walls appear metallic. I marvelled over the turquoise colours of the water, its coolness and its freshness, resembling a little oasis in the middle of a red rock desert. In those moments alone, the silence and the beauty were captivating.
I hiked the two extremes of Zion National Park, it seems. Two days before I hiked through The Narrows, I climbed 2,150 feet to Observation Point. The contrast allowed for some serious perspective of scale that I haven’t experienced in any other park so far. That spectacle alone has been enough to set the park apart from my other experiences, but my time in The Narrows is what really captured my heart.
- Ellysa Evans