Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Zion Narrows Top-Down

The Zion Narrows: Top-Down Overnight Hike!

So glad I finally got to writing this post.  It's long but the hike was priceless.  The night after Weightlifting Nationals in Salt Lake City, Hillary, Liz, Colin and I drove down to Zion National Park to hike the famous Narrows!  We were so excited since the scenery on the hike was suppose to be spectacular!  It was also all of our first times river hiking!  What an experience!

There are three ways to do the hike: bottom-up (most popular), top-down day hike, or top-down overnight hike.  The last two options require a permit and unlike some other hikes, it is strictly enforced.  We decided to do the top-down overnight hike so we can take our time and enjoy the scenery.  We reserved the permit in May, three-months in advance and I can't tell you how difficult that was.  Hillary and I were literally on the NPS site for over an hour on different browsers trying to secure one of the twelve campsites.  It was well worth it as we got a campsite permit to hike the Zion Narrows top down in mid-July, the best time to hike it!

So when I searched the web about the Narrows top-down hike, I couldn't find very much blog posts about it so I had to rely on general websites.  The Narrows top-down hike was labeled as strenuous and when I read that, I totally blew it off.  We hike Na Pali last September and that hike was also labeled as strenuous, but really wasn't.  That was also the last hike we did leading up to Zion.  So in terms of preparation, I had to rely on my weightlifting skills, hah.  Also while reading about this hike, for some reason I totally glossed over the fact that the hike was going to be 70% in water and I've never done river hiking before.  I also read that the average speed in the water for this hike is one mile per hour.  For some reason, I totally blew that off too.  After going on the hike, I have to admit, it was one of the hardest hikes I've ever done.  I definitely underestimated how tough and taxing river hiking can be!

Packing.  When it comes to backpacking, it's crucial to pack light.  Only pack things you need.  The three most important things for this hike are: 5.10 canyoneers, neoprene socks, and a walking stick.  Good news is, you can rent them from local companies near the park.  We rented our gear from Zion Adventure Company.  Lucky for me I didn't have to carry the tent!  This is what I packed into my Camelbak:
  • 5.10 Canyoneers.  Trust me, you'll want to rent/buy this exact pair regardless of which Narrows hike you decide to do.  When searching for footwear for river hiking, I've never seen so many blogs/articles/websites recommend the same exact shoe.  After wearing these myself, I highly recommend them.  You'll stick to those slippery rocks like glue!
    • We rented ours from Zion Adventure Company for $22/day.  They have a Narrows package which includes essentials for the Narrows hike.
  • Neoprene socks.  The ones from Zion Adventure Company have traction on the bottom.
  • Walking stick or hiking pole.  Trust me, you'll want these regardless of how great of a hiker you think you are!
  • Chacos or a pair of slippers, or both if your feet are divas.  You can do the first three miles and the last mile of the hike in these.  Your feet will want them especially after being in those 5.10 canyoneers all day
  • At least 2L of water/person.  You'll want enough to get you to Big Springs.
  • Dry Bag
  • Sunscreen and also lip balm with major SPF
  • Poop bag, just in case.  Respect the Leave No Trace policy.
  • Toiletries
  • Water purifying tablets.  I also had the Camelbak Water filter so my water didn't taste like the tablets.
  • Sleeping Pad, for comfort.  For camping, I just used the sleeping pad and a blanket (below).  I slept in a long sleeve, long pants, and hiking socks and was plenty warm.  If you get easily cold, you may want to bring a sleeping bag since it gets pretty cold at night, like upper 50's/lower 60's.
  • Warm liner.  I used Sea to Summit's Reactor Extreme Thermolite Liner.
  • Synthetic/Polyester/quick-drying clothing.  Top, long sleeve, long pants, shorts.  I also brought hiking socks, which I actually didn't use for the hike, but instead slept in them.  They felt like heaven on my blistered feet at night.
  • Hat.  Though mostly shady, when you're not in shade, it's HOT.
  • Bathing suit, worn underneath
  • Sunglasses
  • Microfiber towel.  Didn't actually end up using this
  • Headlamp
  • Apples, KIND bars, trail mix, granola, and jerky, all gluten-free.
  • First Aid
  • Hiking clips to hang my shoes on my backpack
  • Camera.. the heaviest item in my bag.  I actually brought my DSLR and a waterproof camera
I also brought Deet and all forms of bug spray with me since I always get attacked.  Surprisingly, I didn't get bit by anything!

The Hike
The hike starts at Chamberlain's Ranch, which is actually not in the park.  It takes about 2 hours to get there from the south entrance of the park (~33 miles, 12 of which are on an unmaintained dirt road).  Most people catch a shuttle to the trailhead and then catch the free park shuttle when they're done.  We booked our shuttle with Zion Adventure Company for about $40/person.  It's definitely worth it, if anything for your car, but also to save you some time from retrieving your car after completing the hike.  It takes ~2 hours to get there!  The shuttle departs at 6:30am (arriving at the trailhead at 8:30am), or 9:30am (arriving at 11:30am).  We took the later shuttle since we arrived late Sunday night.  We arrived almost at noon and had time to hike to our campsite before dark.

The first few miles of the hike is completely in the open so you definitely want to sunscreen and wear a hat.  It is also not part of the park, until about seven miles in (where the campsites start to appear) so don't camp there or go off wandering as it's private property.  The trail is actually a well-kept jeep road, and you can actually do it in slippers.  It's also easy to follow... just follow The North Fork, which at this point looks more like a stream than a river.  Also, on the trail you'll see a lot of grassy fields, cows, scattered trees, and some canyons in the distance.  This is the easiest part of the hike.

Us at the start of the trail @ Chamberlain's Ranch


The North Fork River starting small!

Lots of cow sightings

2.5 miles in @ Bulloch Cabin

About 45 minutes into the hike, we reached Bulloch Cabin which marks about 2.5 miles.  Shortly after this point, the trail ends and we continued along the river.  We stopped for a break and put on our 5.10 Canyoneers, which turned out to be a good idea as the rest of the hike is in the river.  As we entered the North Fork Canyon, we had to cross the stream frequently.  It's not so bad at this point since it's shallow and there aren't too many rocks.  This section of the canyon was hot but very beautiful.  I found myself frequently stopping to take a picture before I realized, the whole hike is the scenery.  The scenery here is very different from that after Deep Creek.  The canyons almost look petite and the river is shallow and small.  The area is spacious and there's a lot of sun.  We also often see large fallen trees or debris that got washed into the canyon from previous flash floods.

River hiking starts here!


Baby steps first

For the next few miles, large shaded areas are sparse so when we saw one with a fallen tree we stopped for a snack

one of the many fallen trees

As you can see above, the hike has been pretty spacious.  The canyon doesn't really get narrow until about three miles after entering the North Fork canyon.  At this point you're pretty close to park boundaries and the views from here just get better and better.  More rocks start to appear as we got into the meat of the Upper Narrows.

Canyon walls were getting higher.

Some parts were narrow, but still very open

Beautiful contrasting colors!

Upper Narrows beauty is about the little things, like the beautiful color patterns on this canyon wall

this part of the hike can get quite hot since it's completely in the open

Shaded by the occasional giant canyon walls

The Upper Narrows is a LONG stretch and every step of it was gorgeous.  It's easy to lose track of time in this section.  The canyons go from looking "small" to large and were an array of colors.  The giant canyon walls kept it cool and shady so even though the temperature was well over 100F.  This made the hike very pleasant.  The water was also warm.  After walking a bit, we got our first real taste of the "Narrows"!

oh hey, we're in the upper narrows!

trees growing everywhere

Giant holes and our first taste of the "Narrows"

The Upper Narrows

After walking in what feels like forever, the next landmark is the North Fork Waterfall, which is the halfway mark distance-wise, but not in time.  This small waterfall is about 12 foot tall and there's a path around it.  Apparently people have broken limbs trying to jump the falls.  About another more mile until the junction of Deep Creek and North Fork river and the campsites (finally!).

The North Fork waterfall was small this year

The long hike through the campsites is gorgeous!

There are 12 campsites sprinkled in the next three miles or so.  I think from here you can do side trips and explore Kalob Creek and Goose Creek.  The final campsite is just right above Big Springs.  After campsite #2, Deep Creek joins the North Fork river and the hike in the river gets deeper and a lot harder.  The shallow river hiking earlier was child's play compared to this part.  The one mile per hour estimate became reality.  If the rocks weren't slippery, we were crossing giant boulders.  Walking on dry land felt good on the feet and we also traveled faster on it.  Therefore, we started crossing the river more frequently.  This meant that traveling each mile got longer since every time we crossed, we barely gained any distance forward.  Originally, we reserved campsite 1 but after hearing some advice from other hikers, we switched it for campsite 8 to make day two a bit easier on us (you can do this morning of at the south visitor center).  What a great decision!  Because we spend so much time taking pictures, we didn't reach our campsite until about 8pm.. good thing the sun sets around 9pm!  

The hike through the campsites is rocky and slippery 

and filled with a lot of river crossing to walk on dry land

We woke up early the next day since we had plans to be in Vegas for the evening.  After packing all our camp gear up and putting away the DSLR, we started our hike to Big Springs.  This was no walk in the park as the rocks were slippery and the water flow was higher.  It was also kind of cold as the sun wasn't high enough yet so I was pretty happy to have my long sleeve on.  There were also giant boulders in the river and parts that were belly-button deep.  In about an hour, we reached Big Springs which is the 11.5 mile mark and is also the turning point for day-hikers.  Though you can fill water as early as Deep Creek, we filled ours at Big Springs.

The largest springs in the Narrows, Big Spring, early in the morning

post Big Springs and the start/end of The Narrows!

giant rocks

Big Springs also mark the start/end of the famous "Zion Narrows".  The hike below Big Springs is what the hike is most famous for and runs uninterrupted for about the next few miles or so.  It was one of my favorite parts of the hike since you get basically the same scenery as Wall Street (later), minus the crowd.  The canyon walls are enormous!  Every step was breathtaking.  I spent most of the hike looking up and around in awe.  I feel like even if you were a fast river hiker, it would probably still take a mile per hour just in soaking the beauty.  I wish I had my DSLR out but that was dry bagged for safety reasons.  The water was flowing a bit harder during this part of the hike so every river crossing across those slippery rocks got tougher.  Thank god for the shoes!  The poles were also really useful here so if you questioned why you even brought it earlier, you'll be happy with it here.  At this point in the hike we started seeing a few day hikers, but not so much yet as most people don't make it up this far, bottom up.

faster flowing water, slippery rocks, and little to no dry land

the scenery started to get more dramatic

when this is the trail...

Popular lower narrows sites like "floating rock", is everywhere here.

beautiful walls

if you're not walking in water, your climbing rocks on dry land.

The next point of interest is "Wall Street."  The Zion Narrows is distinguished by its 1000ft walls and little to no dry land to walk on the side.  So the views here are pretty dramatic and unlike anything I've ever seen before.  This part of the hike isn't so bad anymore and the water isn't flowing as fast, but still mostly in water and between steep, close canyon walls.  Wall Street also has no high lands, so you don't want to be stuck here during a flash flood.

The start/end of Wall Street!

The gorgeous "Wall Street" area and tons of day hikers.

Pretty still river

walking along the sides tend to be more shallow than walking straight in the middle

Liz and I stoked to be almost done

pretty red canyons

Enjoying the last bits of the lower narrow walls

such pretty formations!

Continuing down canyon, the next landmark is Orderville Canyon.  Only three more miles until completion!  From here on out, we started encountering more and more people.  The hike becomes more open and you can walk on the sandy and sometimes muddy shores of the river.  The sun started coming in, and it got hot.  The canyons still twist and turn here, and the walls are still high, but it's a lot more spacious.  

out in the open!

day hikers eager to reach wall street

Muddy/sandy river shores trail

About 1.5 miles to completion is Mystery Falls, which flows from the Mouth of Mystery Canyon.  It's about 100ft tall and since it was rather dry this summer, it was a bit uneventful (especially compared to the scenery we saw earlier in the hike!).

Mystery Falls

The last mile is the Riverside Trail, which is completely paved and leads to the Temple of Sinawava.  I was so happy to exit the river and finally take off my 5.10 Canyoneerers!  I can't even describe how awesome that felt, despite the flying dead skin everywhere (gross) when I removed the neoprene sock.  That last mile was tough.  After having seen my blistered, pale feet, all of a sudden they started to hurt.  Regardless, we were determined to get back, shower and eat epically in Vegas.  We walked to the Temple of Sinawava and caught the free park shuttle back to the visitor center.  From there, we caught a free shuttle to Springdale, picked up our valuables from our hotel (Flanigan's Inn), returned our equipment next door at Zion Adventure Company, and headed to Vegas!

My poor swollen feet post hike

For the amount of preparation we did for this hike and considering no one has river hiked before, it went pretty well.  We all made it, no one got injured, no flash floods, we got to our campsite in time, and the weather was ideal for the hike.  We all however ended up with blistered, swollen feet.  We did this hike on July 21st, 2014 and to this day, some of us still don't have our big toe nail.  I still have mine, but my feet started peeling like crazy, like everyday dead skin is falling off, still.  I check with my friends who did this hike with me, and same thing going on there.  That being said, it was so worth it!

If I did it again, here's my Zion Narrows advice:
  • Definitely do the top-down overnight hike.  This allows you to complete the hike with ample time and enjoy the scenery every step of the way.  Unlike other hikes, the entire hike is scenic and different.  The upper narrows looks completely different from wall street.  The area after Big Springs, to me was the most beautiful.  The day hike is nice and covers some of the most beautiful canyon scenery, but it is *extremely* crowded.  Top-down in one day is doable for experienced river hikers, but you have to start early, catch the earliest shuttle, and keep moving.  I feel like you wouldn't have time to enjoy what's surrounding you.  I'm not sure if we would've been able to do the entire hike in 1 day, even if we caught the earliest shuttle.
  • The 1-mile per hour estimate for hiking in the river is real... especially if you stop and take pictures.  You move as fast as the weakest link in your group.
  • When doing the top-down hike, take the shuttle to Chamberlain's Ranch instead of driving.  $40/person may be expensive but it's a 2-hour drive to get there on a dirt road.  Plus when you're done with the hike, you don't have to worry about getting back up there to retrieve your car.
  • One thing that went extra well was how close we were to everything the night before.  We stayed at Flanigan's Inn.  It's no 5-star hotel but the location is prime.  A few highlights: the Springdale shuttle stop is right in front of the hotel, Zion Adventure Company is literally next door, you can leave your car at the hotel parking lot and your valuables with the hotel instead of on the street, the visitor center (where you pick up your permits) is less than 1 mile away, and free hot breakfast buffet.
  • Book a mid-number campsite.  The campsites are spread out over ~3 miles.  Those 3 miles of the hike take ~3 hours, so if you get more done on the first day, the less you have to hike the next day when your feet are likely swollen.  If you can't secure a campsite online (3 months prior), you can switch it up at the visitor center, but get there when it opens.  Also if you don't have a permit, you may be able to get one day of, assuming you get to the visitor center right when it opens at 7am, daily.
  • Bring slippers instead of Chacos.  You can do the first 3 miles and last mile of the hike in flip flops.  Plus it'll feel great when you're at the campsite letting your feet recover.
  • If you're wondering whether or not you should bring a long sleeve and pants, you should.  It actually gets quite chilly at night and in the early morning.  Though it's hot in Utah in the summer, the hike itself is pleasant when it's blistering hot everywhere else.  However, that also means that when the sun isn't up, it can get cold because of the giant canyon walls.
We had a blast and I highly recommend the hike!  It's no walk in the park, and you'll hike through many different types of trails: water, rocks, sand, mud, dirt, etc, but it's so rewarding.  As you can see from the many pictures above, the hike is very scenic and every step is gorgeous.  Writing this post makes me want to go back! 

I'm now on my way to Aruba now, so I hope you all enjoyed the post!