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 V.21 No.30 | July 26 - August 1, 2012 

Get Out!

For the Pure of Heart

One of the most beautiful hikes in the world is only nine hours away

In the late-day sun, the shapely walls of the canyon reminded me of Barcelona.
Elizabeth W. Hughes
In the late-day sun, the shapely walls of the canyon reminded me of Barcelona.
The Zion Narrows hike is like nothing I’ve ever attempted. The trek through this stretch of national park in Utah was long, challenging and wet. Our 16-mile journey along the Virgin River crossed back and forth across the water, sometimes with us just walking through it.

We broke the journey in half and got a permit to camp at one of the 12 sites within the canyon. Even spread over two days, this canyon is tough stuff. Once you start, there’s no way out. Precautions must be taken for flash flooding, as the river below the campsites grows narrow and deep. An afternoon thunderstorm could turn the beauty of the Narrows to terror in a matter of minutes. Even on a sunny summer day, the lower canyon is shady and cool, and deep water forces hikers to swim a few sections to get to the end.

The towering canyon walls with waterfalls and trees reached toward the sky.

Trees growing out of the rock
Elizabeth W. Hughes
Trees growing out of the rock
Now that we've talked danger, let me tell you how gorgeous the canyon is. The early hike from the trailhead at Chamberlain’s Ranch was a lovely walk through green pastures. As we entered the canyon midmorning, the sun shone, the vegetation was lush, and the flowing water was cooling and welcome. We splashed around and took pictures while the canyon walls grew taller around us.

The water levels stayed low, and obstacles like a small waterfall were enjoyable puzzles to figure out (Over? Under? Around? Through?). The air and water have sanded away surfaces, leaving awe-inspiring sculptures. The only sound was the water flowing over the rocks, instilling the calm, peaceful air of a cathedral.

Sometimes it was hard to keep moving because I just wanted to sit there and take it all in. But there were 30 pounds on my back, miles of stream to wade through and only so much daylight. The slippery rocks demanded concentration and meticulously placed footfalls. Hiking in wet boots is tough and slow-going. With stops for pictures and snacks, our group could count on a steady pace of about one mile each hour.

As the day waned, the sun drifted from the left side of the canyon to the right. About the time we landed at the confluence of the Kolob and Virgin Rivers, the daylight bid us adieu, and the canyon walls grew taller still.

Our trail, the riverbed
Elizabeth W. Hughes
Our trail, the riverbed
For most of the day, that landmark of the confluence had been the source of speculation, anticipation, song and dance. There are 12 campsites within the Narrows, and they are assigned by the number of people in the group. Those who stay at the earlier sites have a longer hike on the second day. Those who sleep at the spots farther downstream have easier access to fresh water at Big Spring. Of course, we were at site 12, so once the rejoicing was over, we hiked through a darkening canyon to settle in for the night.

With the sun down and about eight miles of canyon hiking behind me, I was tired. These last few miles really felt like some sort of forced march. My feet were wet, and my back was sore. I was the last in our group, trudging slowly to the finish.

Once we arrived and stashed our packs on high ground, we were off to play in the stream. The rapids and boulders that had made the hiking so hard were now our friends. We dried our soggy feet, made dinner and set off to sleep, exhausted. I can’t imagine hiking all 16 miles in one day.

The fun of swimming through the Narrows is greatly diminished when you encounter it early in the morning, and it’s mandatory for forward progress. On the second day, the coffee was barely spreading through my veins when I had to take my pack off and swim.

Giant slabs of red rock stretch far into the sky.
Elizabeth W. Hughes
Giant slabs of red rock stretch far into the sky.
The narrowest part of the Narrows began. The towering canyon walls with waterfalls and trees reached toward the sky. I could have spent two days in the lower canyon marveling at the wildflowers, birds and rock formations, all reflected in the azure waters of the Virgin River. Sadly, after the tough five-mile hike out of the canyon, we had a nine-hour drive back to Albuquerque ahead of us. So like horses returning to the barn, we hurried through.

When we saw day hikers heading up the river from the Temple of Sinawava, we knew we were home free. Even though it had only been a short time since we’d left the comforts of civilization, the tourists seemed like strange creatures. “They’re dry! They’re clean! They smell so good!”

The two miles of hike remaining were filled with splendid natural beauty.

Zion Calling

To preserve this canyon and the Virgin River that flows through it, a permitting system allows only 80 people to hike the canyon each day. For full details on the backcountry permitting process, go to:


“Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon” • The Flaming Lips • Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

“Roses” • Outkast • Speakerboxxx / The Love Below

“Heartlines” • Florence + The Machine • Ceremonials

“Food, Glorious Food” • Lionel Bart • Oliver! (1968 Film Soundtrack)

Elizabeth W. Hughes can usually be found speeding away from Albuquerque with her dog, Dixie Belle, windows down, music up, in search of hot springs, cold beer or both.

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