The water may only be knee deep, but the current is fast and slick rocks on the bottom of the river make it difficult to find my footing. A sign we passed earlier in the day noted that the water was 45 degrees and flowing swiftly, which makes sense given the fact that much of it is snow melt coming out of Colorado.
Walking upriver is like traversing a maze in the dark. It doesn’t necessarily mean walking straight up the center of the river. I’m constantly looking at the step in front of me, calculating depth by the color of the water and with my walking stick. I look for banks on either side of the river and try to determine what the shortest, least resistant path is between them. It often feels like the route with the shallowest water and least number of rocks is longer than what I’d prefer to walk from Point A to Point B, but this hike isn’t about getting to the end fast. It’s about the challenge, the strenuous push of one leg after another through an environment few people will ever get to hike.
At first, the river is relatively wide, and the water only hits my shins with the occasional brush of my knees. It isn’t like any other average hike but, despite the cold water, it isn’t particularly taxing. Certainly walking against a current isn’t a simple task, but it’s a manageable trek. About two-and-a-half miles upstream, another canyon joins the Narrows. Shortly thereafter, the walls narrow and the sunlight fights to slip into the canyon. This is Wall Street.
With nowhere for the water to run, no extra sand banks to bury, the water rises to my thighs and occasionally I have to hold my backpack up as it sneaks above my waist. I’m with my husband and our foreign exchange student, both of whom have at least ten inches on my five-foot-two frame, and they grab my bag when the water creeps higher up my chest. Wall Street goes on for nearly a mile, the slick rock walls creating a kind of natural sanctuary around us as we continue to hike upstream, our feet still searching for safe places to step among the slippery rocks on the bottom of the riverbed.
Past Wall Street, the river widens a bit again, and we’re given a few sandy banks on the sides. At one point, we can wade chest deep around a boulder, or we can rock scramble around it on the bank. Feeling adventurous, we continue to plunge through the river, laughing as we fully recognize the hilarity of our situation. It’s goofy and challenging and just too much fun not to go through the water.
I’m thankful for the dry suit I’m wearing even though it feels bulky. I look like a character straight out of Star Trek with the bright patch of color across my chest and a wide diagonal zipper running across it, but fashion isn’t my main concern as I slowly hike my way up the Virgin River. Known as the Narrows, this is one of Zion Canyon National Park’s most popular and challenging hikes. Many people reach the end of the paved path where the hike up the Narrows begins and dip their toes. Some tentatively tiptoe their way across the river to the bank on the other side in an attempt to begin the trek unprepared. Most don’t make it past the first few bends in the river though, unless they’re outfitted in appropriate gear.
We’ve made the 10-mile day hike up the Narrows before. It was September then, and the water was lower, slower. We wore Keens and heavy wool socks, layers of quick-dry clothing. Though manageable and pleasant, I was cold by the end of that hike, and I eagerly agreed to wear a dry suit with river-specific boots and neoprene socks for this trek.
When we’ve reached a landmark known as the Boulders, we’ve hiked approximately four-and-a-half miles upriver. We can go a bit further—as far as a campsite on the western bank for overnight hikers—if we’re so inclined, but we decide instead to climb up one of the boulders and take a snack break. My husband peels off his dry suit for the hike back down river, but the other two of us stay fully suited up to keep the heat in. Our foreign exchange student takes advantage of the suit’s capabilities on the way back by blowing it up through the neck and floating downriver with the current as if with a built-in inner tube.
I think trekking back down the river is easier because the current is going with us, but my body is also exhausted, and on a few occasions I’m almost knocked off my feet by the force of the water coming up behind me. We keep trucking on, passing a few people pushing toward the Boulders, a few more through Wall Street and several more casual day hikers as we near the entrance to the trail.
Our river boots leave dark prints on the concrete as we leave the water. We unzip the dry suits and peel off the tops for the walk back down the paved path to the shuttle bus stop. Looking at the river from the dry comfort of the bench, it doesn’t appear to be rushing all that fast or with such force, but I know better. I already know my legs are going to be tired in the morning, and my toes feel like they could use a healthy barefoot walk through a patch of grass.
We pack away our cameras and I tie the top half of my dry suit around my waist for the final leg of our trek. On dry land now, the walk is simply a means to the end of a day saturated in the river water of Zion National Park.
If you go:
- Check the weather before you hike. If it has rained recently or there is a chance of rain, there is a chance for flash floods, which makes this hike extremely dangerous.
- If you get cold easily or this is your first time hiking the Narrows, I recommend renting gear from Zion Adventure Company.
- Don’t hike beyond your means. This is a difficult hike and everyone in your hiking party should be comfortable with the conditions.