Hiking with numb feet is harder than I ever thought it would be, much much harder. I can’t feel anything below my knees, so stepping on a rock feels no different than walking on pavement. Having stiff planks for legs makes balance a huge problem and we’re both waving our arms frantically to avoid an unintentional dip. My boots are completely full of water and absurdly heavy, but I’m thankful for the toe-stubbing protection they provide, as I blindly kick my way across the river time and time again.
As I shiver uncontrollably, thinking about the risk of flash floods and the fourteen miles still to go, I have to wonder; how did I get into this mess?
I don’t even wear a watch any more, so waking up to an alarm is very strange for me. I’ve been in the Mountain Time Zone for nearly a month now, and my watch and clock in the jeep are still set on the wrong time zone. At 5am sunrise is so far away the sky does not even have a hint of light yet, just a smattering of stars visible above Zion Canyon. I met Mike the day before hiking Angel’s Landing and we rendezvous at the visitors center, then set out for the 90 minute drive to Chamberlain’s Ranch Trailhead, immensely thankful for car heaters.
The air has a cold bite as we set off with our tiny day packs and not much gear, knowing we have a massive day of difficult hiking ahead. At the first river crossing about a hundred feet away I play the rock hopping game to keep my heavy leather boots dry as long as possible.
One thought repeats over and over in my mind; it’s not going to last.
The first hour of walking is on a jeep trail in an open valley, and we both eagerly point and smile when we see the canyon walls slowly creeping up from the ground. The Virgin River soon identifies itself to us, and we’re crossing and crossing again in no time.
When told the river is running at 54˚F (12˚C), we cried out in unison “Sounds perfect!”
Stumbling along with our numb feet we quickly realize the task of the day is river crossings. At this early stage of the canyon, only one side rises vertically to an impossible height, while the other side is wide open and flat. With every bend the river takes, the sides are continually swapping and therefore so are we. The river here is only shin deep at best and not flowing with any real urgency, so we make good time and arrive at “First Narrows” ahead of schedule.
We’ve been able to see the sun shining on the canyon walls all morning, but it’s been too narrow and steep to allow the warmth to reach us. We’re grinning like mad when we see a patch of sunlight beaming on the hillside that we can reach and perch there for our first snack break, trying to thaw our feet.
Not surprisingly, First Narrows is the first time the canyon walls close in and are completely vertical, forcing us to walk right down the river. I can’t touch both walls at the same time, but it’s close. We agree it would be a riot to jump off the 15 foot waterfall into the turquoise pool below, shivering uncontrollably as we walk around it.
The canyon opens up again and we hike for many hours, endless crossing the river, hopping over rocks and crossing the river again. All the while it’s gaining water, making it grow in depth and intensity. The crossings are turning into wading, and both of us hesitate when it’s obviously over our waist. We backtrack and try the other side, only to find it even deeper. Mike takes one for the team and goes first – grimacing on tippy toes the whole way.
We continue in this fashion for a long time, never really going above our waists – but it was never going to last. Walking in the river is much harder than I anticipated – the bottom is strewn with rocks of all sizes that move when stepped on, and the flowing water is white and impossible to see through. We silently know a fall is all but inevitable. Mike takes a tiny goat track high above the river, which I really don’t like the look of. Maybe if I back track five minutes I’d find a way around the other side, but I’ve been kinda looking for an excuse to swim all morning.
I take off my pack, hold it high above my head with one hand and forge ahead aiming for the far bank, only 15 feet away. When the bottom drops out from under me I get a huge shock and realize it’s a lot harder to tread water with one hand while wearing heavy leather hiking boots than I thought. I’m fighting hard to keep my mouth above the water and think seriously about ditching my pack, while Mike looks on helplessly from above. I manage to struggle across with a dry pack, and it occurs to me what a stupid thing I just did. I was never going to drown, but I was cold before I started and now I’m really cold.
Pretty soon I’m shivering hard and decide the only thing for it is to keep moving while rubbing my core and thinking warm thoughts. We continue in the same vein, passing Big Spring and reach The Narrows – the insanely narrow, steep section of the canyon that makes this hike so famous. Walking in the river for extended periods is absolutely mandatory as the walls tower over a thousand feet above our heads.
The canyon here is steeper, taller and more colorful than anything we’ve seen yet and it’s clearly the highlight of the day. It’s possible to reach this section of the canyon by hiking up from the main park area and we soon start seeing the odd person, then more and more until it’s quite busy. We realize our huge day is coming to an end, so we subconsciously slow down, trying to soak in every last minute possible. Everyone else has rented hiking poles, dry suits and massive camera setups and are trying to avoid the deeper water like the plague. We throughly enjoy looking freakishly out of place as we wade through the deepest parts of the river in shorts, grinning from ear to ear.
Sloshing along the hike out in soaking wet gear attracts some great scowls and looks of genuine surprise and even fear from other park visitors. The remainder of the day is filled with riding the bus back to the visitors center, picking up my Jeep, driving to get Mike’s car and then all the way back.
With very limited stops it took us nine hours of solid hiking, and all told it’s a fifteen hour round trip day from the visitors center.
Zion Narrows was an amazing day hike, in my opinion clearly worthy of it’s top ten world ranking.