Chamberlain Ranch to the Temple of Sinawava
26 kilometres / overnight hike with permit
There are some adventures that stand out above others. It could be close or far from home, a funny experience, a scary moment, unforgettable weather or something personally significant.
Walking down The Narrows in November stands out to me for being completely unique. The seclusion, conditions and the extraordinary canyons of Zion National Park were totally unimaginable.
Picking up our permit from the National Park office we then hired our pre-arranged gear from Zion Adventure Company, fitted out in our Star Trek suits (you’ll see!) and were shuttled by a friendly employee to the start of our overnight walk. At the trailhead an open creek ran through pasture dotted with cow pats. There wasn’t a canyon or cliff in sight.
Regrettably I wore my suit from the start, marching in the sunshine, the top half rolled down making the heavy duty waterproof zips scritch on thick Gore-Tex. The waterproof Five-Ten shoes were comfortable considering how rugged they were.
Slowly we started to zigzag across the creek, clear water flowing gently with soft granules of sand underfoot. The crossings became more frequent, and soon we were walking alongside cliffs. Then without an exact obvious spot the trail disappeared, and the Virgin River itself became the trail.
Wading in wonder we strolled along, staring at cracks our climbing friends would drool over, the cliffs rising higher and higher as we continued into the canyon. Icy water started to appear, unbroken crystals on the surface as the river flowed underneath, the canyon walls resolutely blocking sunlight.
The river turned from a gentle flow to swift currents around rocks, though the “trail” was always easy to spot and it was easy to pick the shallow areas. I ventured in to my waist, my backpack bobbing up and my suit inflating toward my chin as the air pushed up from the pressure of the water. I imagined the feeling was as close to walking on the moon as I’d get…
More winding corners, and before long we were wading through icy water. Like ice breaking ships our legs found their way through broken pieces, or made a way by breaking through. It was slow going as the bottom of the river also had ice underfoot, making it slippery and easy to lose balance as the water flowed downstream, pushing around my legs.
We passed an impressive pillar, standing defiantly in the middle of the canyon. The light was disappearing and we hadn’t seen any sign of our campsite. Then things got really memorable.
After wasting so much time standing around looking at potential climbs, we realized we were well behind schedule and headtorches were required.
My walking poles went from occasional ‘knee helpers’ to my best friends, helping me keep balance in the dark, as each tentative wade took me one step further downstream.
Then the moon peeked over the side of the canyon, lighting up the opposite side in a moment forever burned into my memory. The Narrows, at night, in November – still and graceful, intimidating and flowing all at once.
Dikko and I stood for minutes, with our torches now off, standing in the icy river looking at cliffs in the moonlight, the water a constant song.
It was strangely eerie but relaxing as we forgot our timetable and waltzed along with the river. Soon we soon saw a reflective number. We were at the first campsite and instantly had a better bearing on our exact position in the canyon. I was relieved I’d packed my large headtorch as it shone far down the canyon seeking out the campsite markers easily. Another 45 minutes and we arrived at Campsite No. 9, nestled in a maple grove against the canyon wall.
I was relieved to be at the site and keen to get out of my suit and avoid getting cold as the temperature dropped toward freezing. Strategically I stayed in my hired canyoneering shoes, with the neoprene socks sloshing about while I set up the tent and Dikko cooked dinner.
Hot drinks fuelled my mental preparation to change for sleeping. In the end it wasn’t so bad, and thick dry woolen socks felt absolutely heavenly.
The next morning was crisp and again I mentally prepared to return to the outfit that allowed me to walk in cold water for hours on end. Luckily nothing had frozen overnight, and once it was all back on I felt ready for our second day downstream, it was warmer for feet to be in the water than out which urged me to get moving!
We had seen nobody for well over 24 hours, in a hugely popular national park, and it was glorious. Becoming more confident I wanted to float along instead of walking on the rolling rocks. The icy sections had all disappeared and I waded into deeper parts of the river, where turquoise water gave way to deeper blues.
After some boulders I stepped in to deeper water. Stupidly I forgot to unclip the chest strap on my backpack, and gathering speed floating with the current my backpack lifted up buoyant, the chest strap tightening under my throat. I did an egg-beater kick in the water to keep my head above the surface but my pack had other ideas. It was tight around my neck and pushing my head under. I eventually garbled a yell to Dikko, who instantly jumped in to unclip the strap.
On the bank I felt annoyed at myself, and Dikko laughed obviously feeling heroic. My hair was saturated but I proved a waterproof suit really is waterproof. As I returned to walking instead of floating we marvelled at the springs feeding the river and the motivated ferns clinging to the tiniest cracks.
Soon voices carried up the canyon and we happily greeted two people walking upstream for the day. They continued up and we continued down.
By this stage we were just above a section called Wall Street, where the canyon walls closed in to be 10-20 metres apart, and towered up to 400m above. More people started to dot the river as we worked through the narrowest parts of our hike. It was just the most amazing experience and seeing others didn’t ruin it at all, everyone was in such wonder.
The further downstream the more apparent re-entry to civilization became. However the giant canyon walls still demanded stares, and stops to crane in wonder. Like a laughing clown machine I felt my face tilted back, turning back and forth and mouth gaping at the enormity and grandeur of nature around me.
Since leaving our site the river had been less frozen and by now it was almost warm. I let the friendly flow guide my steps to meet the end of a maintained walking trail where many people without gear admired the start (or end) of the walk. Looking back upstream I knew what was around the corner, and the many corners after that, all the way to Chamberlain Ranch where we’d started.
It really was a magical trip and unlike anything I’d ever done before and I can’t recommend the Narrows enough. If you seek solitude, with a friendly river as your guide and the peace of deep sandstone canyons, I recommend the Narrows in November – it’s truly unforgettable.