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Canyons are inherently risky. Flash floods occur without notice on sunny days. Technical skills & surrounding topography knowledge required yet does not eliminate risk.
This water-hike takes you 16 miles down the North Fork of the Virgin River from Chamberlain Ranch at 6150 ft, north of the Zion National Park boundary, to 4635 ft at the Temple of Sinawava.
Step One: put your neoprene socks on. Some descriptions of hiking the Narrows suggest that it is a dry hike for a little while from Chamberlain Ranch. If you were to start the hike on a road that runs parallel to the actual trail, that would be true; however, if you stick with the trail, you'll be crossing the Virgin River within the first few hundred yards of the hike. Then you'll cross it again and again until the river itself becomes your trail, so you may as well start with the neoprene socks on! Step two: enjoy strolling through the pasture and the open space because after about an hour and a half, the canyon walls will begin to grow around you. Before you know it, you'll be cut off from the world above by canyon walls that can reach over 2000 ft above you! Or so you think..... In fact, you are not really cut off. Something that makes this canyon different from say Paria Canyon is that from time to time the world above creeps down crevices, ramps, or out of side canyons, and hence you might be awoken in the morning as we were by deer that descended from the world above to forage and drink from the life that the Virgin River gives.
Navigation is not a problem on this hike... stick to the river. There are some side canyons that you may wish to explore... from top to bottom: Deep Creek (9 miles in), Kolob Creek (9.5 miles in), Goose Creek (10.5 miles in) all coming from the west and Orderville Canyon (13.5 miles in) from the east near the end of the hike... but they are obvious side canyons and will not lure you away from the main route unless you let them. Not having to worry about navigation is fantastic because after you pass Deep Creek, the current picks up as does the turbidity. In fact, Deep Creek brings 2/3rds of the water volume into the North Fork of the Virgin River. You have to pay attention to where you step and to your stability. From this point forward you will want to use your hiking poles. We recommend using two hiking poles. Many hike the canyon with one hiking stick; however, your stability and mobility will be greatly increased with two lightweight poles. We found the poles to be useful as depth gauges as well, and on more than one occasion, they were useful to find invisible, submerged boulders and sandbars which could be used as elevated pathways through waters that were over waist-deep. Typically the water was below the knees and with careful maneuvering; we didn't have to get in water over our waists.
A brief word regarding the geology of the Narrows and much of Zion National Park for that matter. The predominant rock formation in this part of the world is the Navajo sandstone, a hard but porous rock which is largely resistant to erosion. Having said that, the river has been able to cut through this formation much like a knife cutting through a layer cake and created the fantastic Narrows we see today. About nine miles into the hike the contact between the Navajo sandstone and the Kayenta formation appears. The Kayenta is impervious and therefore the rainfall and snowmelt over thousands of years which has percolated through the Navajo is forced out of the canyon walls where the Kayenta is. The result is seemingly hundreds of gorgeous springs, hanging gardens and lush riparian vegetation all around you. These beautiful springs will accompany the Virgin River throughout the rest of the hike.
As if the enormous canyon walls with their dramatic carvings and colors aren't enough, you'll also encounter waterfalls throughout the hike. Just prior to the first side canyon, Deep Creek, you'll come upon a 12 ft waterfall (8.5 miles in) in the middle of your "river trail". Don't panic, look to the left and you'll see a crevice that you can squeak through around the fall. Once through the crevice take a look back at the fall. Just after the last campsite (12), about 11 miles in, you'll come upon Big Springs on the right. Big Springs is the picture of what we all want to believe is the source of that bottle water that we drink. Water that has trickled down through thousands of feet of ground bursts forth from the canyon walls in crystal clear cascades over ivy covered rocks. Some in our group chose to drink this purest of water unfiltered, although filtering is recommended. Near the end of the hike, to the left, you'll see Mystery Canyon Falls (14.5 miles in) streaming down 110 ft over varnished walls.
Be sure to listen, too, as you hike. Enjoy the sounds of the water cutting through the canyon and rumbling over rocks. In one section of the canyon known as Wall Street (very imposing, narrow section of the canyon with high walls), you'll hear almost a moaning sound. Walk over to your right and find its source... a crevice in the canyon wall known as Hiccup Spring (13 miles in).
You can do the Narrows from Chamberlain Ranch to Sinawava as a very aggressive 16 mile day hike or you can camp with a permit at any of 12 campsites that straddle the river about halfway through the hike. Other than campsite 1, which is a bit small and too close to the trailhead, all of the campsites are fantastic. We reserved campsites 3 & 4 and would gladly stay at either in the future. We recommend taking the hike over two days: "Slow down, you move too fast. You got to make the morning last. Just kicking down the cobble stones. Looking for fun and feelin' groovy".
The last mile of hike is on a paved trail known as the Riverside Walk. It is an easy, but crowded, walk back to catch a shuttle at the Temple of Sinawava. Hundreds of people take the Walk down to the canyon and dip their toes in the Virgin River. You'll encounter some of the more intrepid "dipping their toes" all the way up to Wall Street. That's how you'll know the end is near. For a moment, you might feel your heart sink just a tad as "your canyon" and your solitude are invaded by the masses. Then you'll check yourself and be glad that so many are interested in this beautiful place, and even if they may not have the time or the ability to hike it as you have, they are checking it out and enjoying it, too. After all, it's not just your canyon, it's everyone's canyon.
Special thanks to Mitch Stevens of the Rincon Group, Sierra Club, Southern Arizona, for leading this hike on 16 - 17 SEP 2008.