Utah's Zion Park: the Wildest Wade in the West

With its colorful, soaring sandstone cliffs overlooking a pristine green valley, local rangers call Zion Nation Park "Yosemite in color." (Off the record, of course.)

The most beautiful hike in one of the most stunning national parks is the 16-mile hike-wade through the Narrows of Zion Canyon.

The route follows the Virgin River through a winding gorge that is often hundreds of feet deep, and is often only as wide as the river itself (which is anywhere from 15 feet upstream to 50 or 60 feet downstream).

A ranger told us we'd be wading 60 to 70 percent of the time, and that the water was so cold from early season snow melt that we'd be the first hikers down it this year.

Good. We all like a challenge, and this was part of our plan: We camped at the trailhead and I did the hike alone while my wife, Anne, was in charge of our three-year-old daughter, Sarah.

Anne drove the 37 miles down to meet me at the end of the hike. She would then do the hike the next day while I took care of our daughter and drove down to meet her.

Like a tourist in Manhattan

After a couple of miles along a dirt road, the route enters the Virgin River gorge, and it seemed the beauty and gorge walls increased with every step - soaring 30, 50, 70, then 100 feet high.

Soon the oranges and pinks and siennas of the sandstone cliffs were 200 feet above me on either side, and I was like a tourist in Manhattan for the first time.

Every step makes you want to rubberneck upward, but unlike hiking on a trail, you have to be conscious of where your foot is placed with virtually every step.

Sunlight reaches down into the canyon in different places and at different angles, illuminating the sandstone, the fluttering green leaves of cottonwood trees, vertigo-proof ferns in vertical cracks high above the ground, and mysterious, beckoning side canyons.

It seemed as if I was wading most of the time, but actually it was more like one-third of the time. It was constant route-finding, trying to figure out which way is easiest, and in so doing, fording the small river dozens of times.

I was also careful that the water only came up to my waist in the river's deepest section.

My hike differed from Anne's experience. During her hike the next day, the water was up to her neck (which is hard to explain, given that I'm only two inches taller than she).

She was momentarily swept off her feet, which can be a little disconcerting to even an excellent swimmer, but her tightly sealed Zip-lock and rafting dry bags not only kept her clothes dry, but buoyed her backpack as well.

Despite temperatures in the 90s, it was never too warm because of the constant wading in water that was recently snow. The sheer canyon walls also created delightful shade.

July and August often have temperatures of over 100 degrees F., and they also have the greatest threat of thunderstorms, so now through October is probably the most comfortable, safest, and least crowded time to do the entire hike.

After the appropriately named Deep Creek more than doubles the volume of the Virgin River (to about 30 feet wide) midway through the hike, the scenery becomes even more spectacular and the hike becomes even more challenging just about the time you think neither is possible.

Hiking alone is generally not recommended because of general safety considerations, but when efforts are made to be as safe as possible, hiking alone can be a wonderful thing to do. I enjoy hiking with others, but the experience is usually more social than contemplative.

The canyon was devoid of any hikers or animals (the periodic flash floods don't make the gorge much of a home for animals) all day, yet it was never a lonely experience.

Viewing such spectacular scenery forces you to contemplate the gifts of nature, and with the soft of dusk approaching the Narrows of Zion Canyon, it's not difficult to realize there isn't any place you'd rather be.

Soon Sarah's voice could be heard echoing through the canyon, "Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!" There she was playing in the shallow part of the river, waiting.

When Sarah tired, she rode on my shoulders on my increasingly rubbery legs for almost a mile.

But what about those naps?

All went according to plan. We ate in the delightful Zion Lodge (the architecture's not quite as old or spectacular as many national park lodges, but the setting more than makes up for it).

While Anne and Sarah slept, I drove the 37 miles of winding roads back to our trailhead camp. One has to be careful about hitting deer on such a road, and being so tired, I had visions of a chorus line of dancing deer doing the can-can along the side of the road.

Anne did the hike-wade the next day in two or three hours less time than I had taken (Yeah, but did she take any naps?) getting to our truck while I was unsuccessfully trying to persuade Sarah to do the same hike up the paved tourist trail toward the Narrows.


A warm day is best

While hike-wading the Narrows in Zion National Park the entire 16-mile length is something only experienced hikers in good shape should attempt, hike-wading up from the bottom a few miles is something most people could try on any warm day when there's no spring runoff or flash flood danger.

You'll need to pick up a free permit at the Zion Visitor's Center to do the hike, and backcountry camping must be done in the dozen or so designated campsites, safe from rising water.

Check the Visitor's Center for the latest weather report and keep alert for thunderstorms.

Getting to the bottom of the hike means driving as far back into Zion Canyon as you can, then walking one mile up the paved Riverside Walk until the trail ends and the wading begins.

The trailhead at the top of the Narrows is more difficult to find and requires a shuttle unless you want to retrace your route back upstream. In fact, the Zion National Park map won't show you how to get there, but some detailed maps of the area will help you find your way.

A gravel road goes north to the Narrows trailhead 18.3 miles from Highway 9. The road, which is paved for much of the first mile, is just less than three miles east of the east boundary of the park.

We opted not to wear sandals as they don't offer enough support in the rocks, and while many prefer the lightness of athletic shoes (ideally combined with wet suit socks for warmth), you might want the additional ankle support of hiking boots - even if they'll become heavy when filled with water. The extra clothing we wisely carried, along with the quick-drying synthetic materials we stashed in those handy Zip-locking freezer bags, proved to be a good idea for an extended, damp hike.

Zion is definitely worth visiting even without wading through the Narrows; the Riverside Walk and hikes to the Emerald Pools and Weeping Rock are all beautiful and unique, and they're all less than two miles round trip with a minimum of climbing. The five-mile round trip, 1,500 vertical foot hike up to Angel's Landing is literally and figuratively one of the most breathtaking you'll ever experience.

And after the hike was behind me, I was hit by the same thought that came to me back in the canyon: There's no place I'd rather be than here.

Zion National Park is 158 miles northeast of Las Vegas and 320 miles south of Salt Lake City in Utah's southwest corner.

*For further information, write to the Superintendent, Zion National Park, Springdale, UT, 84767-1099 or call (801) 772-3256.

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