Thursday, June 20, 2013

Hiking the Narrows in Zion National Park – a Vacation Highlight

We woke up planning to hike the Narrows this day, but first we had breakfast – a goodly number of thick silver dollar pancakes served with sliced strawberries and bananas, plus an available topping of peach preserves (homemade, I believe, from peaches grown in their own garden).   There were also humdrum sausages, orange juice and coffee or tea. Although breakfast is advertised as being available from 8:30 to 9:30, the host had no qualms when I asked that we be able to eat at 8 AM (I felt that asking for earlier might have been pushing it).  When I made the reservation, I told myself that I would be regularly taking advantage of the offer of a voucher to have breakfast at a restaurant in town if we were out hiking early to beat the heat, and could not have breakfast at the regular time; but each day we were there, we were just lazy and had breakfast at our B&B.  Tough to stay at a B&B when hiking is the major agenda.

I recall having had some qualms about staying at the Amber Inn B&B because of some mixed reviews on Yelp and Trip Advisor, but in the end I rather liked the place.   It is in a nice setting – I addition to the datura pictured in yesterday’s post, here are some of the views from the parking area garden this morning of the landscape on either side of Rockville, Utah.

Owner Nida, who seems to be the main proprietor of the husband/wife team, was knowledgeable about hiking in the area and had plenty of useful advice, not that I always took it, and her assistance with the Narrows hike was invaluable.  When she heard the night of our arrival that we were planning to hike the Narrows, she told us we could borrow her ski poles, and before we left in the morning, she pressed us to take them.  I have never been a big fan of hiking with walking sticks – I prefer to be able to use my hands for holding things to keep my balance, and hate to be encumbered with extra items to hold that I might just put down and carelessly leave.  Had they not been offered, I would not have thought to obtain any, even though I saw many people heading into the park holding wooden walking sticks with a hand-strap. Based on what I had read about the hike, my main concern had been to wear the right shoes for walking in the water (and by coincidence, some good closed-toed water shoes had been on sale at Costco a few weeks before we left).  But had we not had the ski poles, this hike would have been impossible — we could not have made it past the first few hundred yards of the Narrows.

Before setting out on the trail, we stopped at Sol’s Supermarket to pick up some food to eat on the hike that day and for the next two or three, and I was surprised to find that, contrary to what I had seen in some guidebooks, at least for what we were buying, the prices in this hiking-town supermarket were not out of line compared to supermarket prices back home.  Then to the Zion National Park Visitor Center, where were we told that the water levels in the Virgin River were unusually low because there had been so little winter rain, so we could expect that we would be walking in water well below waist level, and even below knee level.  Because Nancy was concerned about entering deep river water, this information clinched our participation in the hike — and thank goodness, I would have been very disappointed had we not been able to hike the Narrows.

Cars are not permitted on the Zion Valley Road in the park; instead, visitors ride shuttle buses.   We rode first to the Grotto stop for an easy hike up to the Emerald Pools.   On our bus was a group of college students from Texas who were doing a Lance-Armstrong-related bike ride from Texas to Alaska to raise money to fight cancer (I was able to resist a smart remark about raising money for steroid use).  They got off at the same stop, but with a very different hike in mind — I was envious of their plan to hike to Angel’s Landing, which culminates in a mile-long traverse of a narrow ledge to a gorgeous, gorgeous viewpoint, with a dropoff of more than 1000 feet from the ledge.  I knew my limits: that hike would not have been right for me, but it was terrific that this group of young people were ready to do it together. 

We took about an hour to hike to the three pools (here are some views from that hike),

After we stopped off for a quick refresher at Zion Lodge (ice cream for me, coffee for Nancy); here is a view of the mountain overlooking the lodge ( I think this was the East Temple).

we were ready to challenge the Narrows — this meant taking the shuttle bus to the northernmost stop, walking alongside the Virgin River on a flat path called the Riverside Walk, and then entering the river to walk up the river itself. 

What I had not quite anticipated was how hard and slow-going this hike would be, because it is not like walking on the sandy bottom of a shallow lake.  This was not like walking in the Grand Wash, but with water.  The Virgin River is a rapidly moving stream, sandy in some places but mostly with large stones on the bottom and a current that a hiker has to fight every step of the way, especially as the water gets deeper, coming higher than your ankles.

Then the current really pushes you, and you need the walking stick to help fight for balance on the uneven stone surface; because you can’t always see the bottom as you are walking, you are in danger of taking a step to a place where balance is especially difficult.  So, if you are as clumsy as I can be, walking is slow going.  In that regard, we had made a real mistake starting the hike only in the afternoon.  I had read descriptions of the hike in both the Lonely Planet, which warned that hikers should allow eight hours to make it past Wall Street to Big Springs, the last point where hikers without a permit are allowed, but also in Fodors, which suggested allowing at least five hours for that same hike.  Because Fodors’ trail description was much more detailed, this is what stuck in my mind – big mistake to trust Fodors over the Lonely Planet. 

But every step of the way was gorgeous, and I rate this hike as the highlight of the vacation.  As in the Grand Wash in Capitol Reef, the walls slowly closed in, but unlike the Grand Wash, it wasn’t hot, because the water kept us cool

If you look at this photo in full size, the hole in the wall (which was higher than where my head would have been had I been standing next to it) is a stark reminder of what happens during a flash flood in the Narrows -- the stones accumulated were no doubt deposited there by a flood.  No wonder the signs all warn not to use the trail when there is even the slightest threat of rain in the vicinity.

It wasn’t all river-walking — there were sandy and rocky beaches, but always there were stretches where you had to walk in the water for dozens of yards.  We passed a spot where the canyon divided (I assume that this was Orderville Canyon), eventually getting to places where the walls were so close, and much higher relative to the width than in the Grand Wash, that there was only limited natural light coming in from overhead

I assume that this was the so-called Wall Street section of the hike.

When we decided it was time to turn around, short of Big Springs, we had our picnic lunch, then started making our way back.  At this point, we encountered a troop of middle-school-aged boy scouts who, we learned, had rappelled into Orderville Canyon, then hiked up the Narrows before heading back out to the Riverwalk and the bus to their camping site.  The kind scout leader from Lehi Utah (I did not get his name) gave me a useful lesson in “reading the water” to pick the best place to cross a fast-moving stream – but not until after I has sat down in the water more than once.  This nice photo showing water high on my shorts

does not indicate the depth of any of the water that we had to cross, but only that I had not been standing up the whole time.  At several points in the hike, I had found that hugging the wall and holding onto it while making my way through fast water was the best bet, but at one point, employing that strategy, and entered water above my knees, without being able to see the bottom, and that was a big mistake:  I was simply swept off my feet by the rushing water and came close to losing my walking stick, immersing my pack and camera and the works.  It was an alarming point in the hike, but happily, I was able to hold on to the rocks on the side of the canyon, put everything sensitive into ziplock bags, and then pull myself back along the side of the wall to shallower water, at which point I crossed at the more workable spot that Nancy had chosen in the first place.

Finally, we made it back to the beginning of the Narrows and rode the bus back to our car.  As we left the park, we glanced down Zion Valley past the entrance station and the last light was striking the overlooking Watchman Mountain

I was sore, having used muscles that had not been stressed at any previous time during the vacation, but it felt good.

We had dinner at Oscar’s Café; the food was fine but by no means special.  But sitting on the patios on a cooling night was very pleasant.  As we were finishing our meal some of the U Texas students from the shuttle bus came in for their own dinner.  Apparently, a number of them had stopped at the Scout Lookout on the Angel’s landing hike, having been intimidated as I knew I would have been by the prospect of that long narrow ledge,.  But they had been pleased by their day even though they, like me, had not reached their final destination.

We headed home, and as we came in, our host Andrei was watching the television in the living room– the United States against Panama in a key World Cup Qualifier.  I had completely forgotten about the game being that day!  I asked if I could join him, and we watched the last twenty minutes together. The drama was already over – the US had scored its two goals and was comfortably ahead.  But it was a good end to a great day of vacation.

1 comment:

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