My journey to Zion National Park was fated by the alphabet.
Having a last name like Wolfe is kind of a bummer growing up. My desk was always in the back right corner of the room behind this douchey kid named Patrick Wilson (not that Patrick Wilson). I always got my report card handed back last. Not ideal, but there are definitely worse things, I know.
When I was in college, I took a general education course called the Geography of the US and Canada, and one of our assignments was to write a report on one of the US National Parks. My professor alphabetized our names, and he alphabetized the parks, and that’s how I got assigned Zion National Park, the best one on the list, by far. My alphabetic fortune had finally shifted. It was around this time that I realized Wolfe was actually a pretty cool last name.
“A lot of my past students have called me and said ‘I’m in my park!'” My professor would tell us that all the time while we worked on this project. I wanted to be one of the kids who made it to their park. And a few years later, I made it happen.
Going West for the First Time
While working on my project, I became enchanted. My head would buzz with wanderlust as I poured over photos of Zion’s vertically vast & colorful landscapes: steep orange cliffs, water the color of oxidized copper, purple pebbles, deep green pines. America the beautiful, indeed.
I wanted to go, and I wanted someone to go with me. No, I wanted someone to make my dream happen for me. I’d never planned a trip before. I longed for someone to do it for me, to plan every stitch, to guide me, to make the first move.
3 years later, I was hoping for a trip to Zion with my then boyfriend. It didn’t work out. When I’d bring it up to my friends and none of them gave a committal response, I decided I wanted to make it happen anyway. I decided I would go alone.
About Zion Canyon
The narrows hike winds through a slot canyon, which are so named because they’re deep and narrow. This is thanks to the sandstone that forms the canyon walls. Sandstone is porous, so the water quickly fills all the space in the stone, sinking in deep and, over many years, forming a slot.
The Narrows hike is strenuous. It’s filled with large stones and water that’s difficult to see through. You’ll need hiking poles and the right shoes, and you’ll need to be in decent shape.
Flash Flood Warning
The most important piece of advice is to be aware of the risk of flash floods. Since the canyon is very narrow, it fills quickly with water (that’s what formed it in the first place!). Even if there’s rain miles away, it can wash down to the trail and quickly be a huge problem.
Before your hike, be sure to check the park website for alerts about closures, and check the weather for rain. Don’t go if it’s raining! Also, when you go to pick up your backpacking permit, the park ranger will let you know the conditions. If there’s any risk of flash-flooding, they won’t let you go (and that’s a good thing).
How to Hike the Narrows
To hike the narrows, you need to make sure you get your permit ahead of time, and you also need to hire a service to shuttle you to the trail head.
Footwear: This is a unique hike, and I was not sure of what type of shoes were best. Since the majority of the hike is in a river, you don’t want to wear wool hiking socks. They are just going to get waterlogged and uncomfortable. Ditto heavy hiking boots.
Joe’s extremely helpful guide recommended a pair of LaSportiva trail runners, which I purchased, along with a pair of neoprene socks. The trail runners were perfect because they have rubber over your toes, eliminating the issue people have wearing sandals. There are tons of little rocks and pebbles that you could stub your little feet on.
The shoes also don’t absorb any water, so your feet stay light.
Knowing the Route: Honestly, you’d have to be pretty clueless to get lost on this hike. You’re just following the Virgin River. If you got lost, it would be because you did a 180 and started walking the opposite way.
Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up: You can hike the narrows as a 2-day top-down hike, as a strenuous 1-day top-down hike, or a 1 day bottom-up hike. I choose to do a 2-day top-down hike, starting at Chamberlains Ranch and ending at the Temple of Sinawava.
Permit: All overnight trips in Zion require a permit. It costs $5. You can apply for the permits 3 months in advance, starting on the 5th of the month at 10 a.m. MST. Since I bought a plane ticket before I had my permit, my stakes were sort of high.
I made sure to mark my calendar for the booking window so I could be one of the first to apply. I didn’t have any issues. If you’re doing a day hike, you won’t need a permit, and if you sleep more than 1 night in the park, you’ll need a permit for each night. Since I was doing a 2-day hike and sleeping 1 night, I only needed 1 backpacking permit.
Shuttle: The trail head of the narrows is at Chamberlain’s Ranch, which is a very remote place. It isn’t accessible by the bus that runs through Zion Park. You could drive yourself to the trailhead, but after your hike, you’re going to have to find a way to get back up to the trail head, plus have a long drive. It isn’t worth it.
I used Zion Adventure Company, which cost me $37. They loaded the hikers into a van with an impressive shock system–which brings me to another reason you shouldn’t drive yourself. The terrain is probably going to be too much for your rented Toyota Yaris.
At the end of the hike, I just hopped on the Zion Canyon Shuttle, a free shuttle that travels through the park, at the Temple of Sinawava.
Pooping: You need to pack out your poop. Which sounds gross, but think about it. It’s much better that way. The alternative is to have a valley covered with strangers’ poop. Also, they give you this nifty bag to poop in:
Sleeping at Walmart the Night Before My Hike
I flew in the night before my hike to the Las Vegas airport, rented a car, and drove all night through the Rocky Mountains until I hit the Walmart in Hurricane, Utah. The Walmart is about a 30 minute drive from the park. I slept in the backseat of my rental car with my keys and a can of mace next to me.
(The mace was in my checked bag. I probably didn’t need it, and after this trip, I realized I probably wasn’t allowed to have the mace, even in the checked luggage. Also, probably wasn’t allowed the fuel for my stove. But it turns out they don’t really searched checked luggage for dangerous items. Comforting).
If you didn’t know, Walmart is cool with people parking RVs or sleeping in their parking lots, as long as your Walmart is not on this list, so check it out first. I think that list may just be for RVs though. You’re probably fine parking in a no-park Walmart in a regular car, but don’t sue me if you get caught.
The next morning, I got in my car and set my sites on the Zion Welcome center, stopping for a coffee, smoothie, and mini quiche on the way. You may think this detail is unimportant, but I assure you it’s not. It was one of my favorite breakfasts ever. I stopped in a parking lot to eat my quiche and texted some friends that I was in Utah, and I sent them this impressively unimpressive photo.
Unfortunately, at the time I took this trip, my only means of taking photos was a very old cell phone (a Samsung Galaxy s4 Mini, to be precise). This phone came out before phones have as great cameras as they do today and the photos I took are not of the best quality as the pictures I take with my current equipment.
I know, it’s the photographer, not the camera. But still. I never claimed to be a great photographer. I’m just OK at taking pictures. For me, the camera does more legwork than I do 😉
Crappy photos or not, this hike will forever be one of my most treasured experiences.