The Hike: Planning and Considerations
The Virgin River Narrows is one of the most popular hikes, not only at Zion National Park, but in the entire U.S. National Park System. There are several options for hiking the Narrows, but all involve a copious amount of hiking in the river itself; estimates of walking in the water during a Narrows hike vary from roughly 60% to 75% of the time, depending on the specific hike chosen, the length of the hike and the river’s water level at the time.
The Virgin River Narrows is a part of Zion Canyon where the walls are extremely high and relatively close together. Most of the time the river is lapping against both walls simultaneously which obviously means that the hiker must trudge through the water. Water levels and current strength vary greatly, but–aside from flash flood conditions, when no one should be in the Narrows under any circumstances–both are highest during the spring, given the snow melt-fed nature of the Virgin River. Of course, the time I was going to be there was early May (i.e. springtime).
I didn’t have the opportunity to hike the Narrows during my 1998 visit to Zion and I was determined to rectify that omission this time around. Further, I didn’t just want to do the hike–I wanted to photograph in the Narrows, and with my normal array of equipment and that absolutely included my tripod. Shutter speeds are typically slow in the Narrows; the best time to photograph is before (or after) direct sunlight begins to encroach on the canyon. So, it tends to be fairly dark in the Narrows, especially early in the morning. Besides, the river rapids are generally best rendered with shutter speeds of 1/4 second or less. That means handholding of the camera, by any rational standard, is out.
Last week, in my role as a twice-a-month guest blogger at 1001 Scribbles, I presented my attempts to plan for the Narrows hike in comparative detail. Rather than regurgitating that information here, I direct you to that post, if you’re interested in the back story. My focus here will be on the hike itself and the photographic experience, though I’m sure I will inevitably lapse into occasional brief planning-related digressions.
I ended the last entry with my early evening shoot along the Riverside Walk, the one-mile (one way) paved path that leads from the Temple of Sinawava to the Narrows. I knew that I would be back on that path first thing in the morning the next day, because that had been the plan for a couple of months. I had been monitoring the river level from afar (via a U.S. Geological Service Website) for weeks. While the river, after a burst of activity causing water levels to rise so precipitously that the Narrows had been completely closed to hikers for several days about a week before my arrival at Zion, had been falling there were still reports of very high water in places. I had spoken with someone at an outfitter in Springdale just five days before my planned hike and was told that there was at least one spot, early in the hike, where the water would be at chest level for me. This had me extremely concerned, not for my own safety, but for that of my equipment. (Again, for greater detail on this, I direct you to my 1001 Scribbles post.) But by the day before the hike the reports I was receiving suggested that I might not have to deal with water levels much above my waist. The water was cold, however–45 degrees F–and the current was still quite strong.
I had reserved a drysuit, some drybags for my equipment and had rented a backpack (since I didn’t want to take a chance on ruining my expensive photo backpack) and had jerry-rigged a system for carrying my tripod and had picked up all of the gear the day before the hike so I could hit the ground running the following morning. I wanted to take the first shuttle bus up canyon and be the first person in the river. It wasn’t a competition–the earlier I was in the river, the more time I would have to photograph without having to worry about a lot of foot traffic from others as the day wore on. I had deliberately chosen a Monday to do the hike, figuring that traffic would be lower than on a weekend. Remember: I had never done this hike before and the special circumstances surrounding hiking the Narrows meant that I would have no opportunity to scout the location prior to the hike. I was going to have to scout while I hiked “for real.” That, plus the unique gear-carrying considerations (everything–including the tripod–had to be completely packed up, with photo gear and accessories stored in drybags–each and every time I decided I wanted to set up for a shot) meant that the going would be very slow.
As a result of all of this, I had to be reasonable about how far I hiked in from “the bottom up,” as the term goes for hiking up river from the end of the Riverside Walk. (You can also hike the Narrows from “the top down,” but that’s an entirely different kettle of fish, for a variety of reasons, including requiring the hiker to obtain one of a very small number of permits issued daily by the park service. For more about the Narrows hiking options, go here or here.) As a result, I had no illusions about hiking the length of a “bottom up” Narrows hike by going all the way to Big Springs (a round trip of roughly eight miles). Given the amount of time I would be losing by dealing with photography, my goal was to reach the “Wall Street” portion of the Narrows, where the walls close in very tightly, by late morning, perhaps hike into it a bit, and then turn around and head back. I had to have all of the rented gear back to the outfitter absolutely no later than 7 PM in any event and I knew I didn’t want to brush up against that deadline. I figured that being back to the Temple of Sinawava by mid-afternoon was a reasonable goal. That would mean 6-7 hours in the river, which would be plenty.
As the day of the hike approached, I came to realize how psyched out I had become, given my concern about how water levels might impact my ability to safely carry my equipment. I was particularly concerned about the tripod and the potential for the leg joints and the head to be submerged in water. Like any “true” (in this case, “true” is a euphemism for “idiot”) photographer, my own safety never entered my mind; my gear was my only concern!
The day of the hike arrived, I woke up extra early to put on my thermal undergarments and drysuit, got all of my already assembled gear together, including the day’s nourishment (an apple, two granola bars and a couple of bottles of water), got in the car and drove to the Zion Museum, parked the car and waited for the day’s first bus. Just a few minutes after 7 AM it arrived, almost completely empty. When the bus made it to the end of the road–the Temple of Sinawava–only two other people besides myself were still on board, and they stopped at the restroom facilities. I made a bee-line for the Riverside Walk and double-timed it for the full mile, all the way to the river. By the time I got to the gateway to the Narrows, even though the sun had been up for over an hour, it was still quite dark at the riverside, buried as it was between two narrow canyon walls well over 100 feet high. The place–which had been bubbling with activity when I was there early the previous evening–was deserted. I wanted to be the first person in the river and so I was.
The Hike Begins
The water was very shallow at the outset as I forded the river, walking carefully at first over a seemingly endless set of rocks. As background, I’m extremely fit and naturally athletic. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be up to the hike physically, and I was correct about that; I had no problems. I’ve done more than my share of photographing in and around shallow water and I’ve traipsed through water knee-deep or below countless times. But this was something altogether new. In the Narrows, I wasn’t hiking through water to get somewhere; the water itself was the “somewhere.” Furthermore, footing was going to be a constant issue. Most of the river walking was on rocks deposited on the river bottom. The rocks were somewhat slippery and some of them aren’t well anchored. I had a walking stick with me and it was a welcome companion, both for maintaining balance on occasion (though I didn’t employ it for that unless I was well above knee-level in water) and for probing the depths of the river.
Very early in the hike–I’d say maybe 1/8 of a mile from the start–I was walking in a section of river without the commonly rocky bottom. It was still pretty dark, but I was treading on a shallow, sandy bottom, with a water level at mid-calf level. I could see that I needed to cross to a shoal ahead of me on the other side of the river and I started to make the crossing. I took a step and the water level rose to knee-high. Another step and it was thigh-high. A third step and it was waist high. After the second step, the bottom of the river was no longer visible. I was still walking on sand, but it was falling away and rapidly and I had no idea how deep it would get. There was no one else in sight, so I couldn’t follow anyone’s example. I probed the river bottom with my walking stick and it was completely submerged. I took another half step and the water continued to rise, above waist level. I was smack in the middle of the river and by probing with my stick I couldn’t find any shallower area in any direction except to go back the way I came. How to proceed? Looking around, I noticed that–though I couldn’t see the bottom anywhere–the relatively shallow areas that I had already traversed were brownish in color (a function of the sandy mix). Deeper areas that I was looking at were green-tinged. I could see brownish-colored water on the other side of the river perhaps 15 or 20 feet ahead of me. I decided to take a chance that the water I’d have to walk though–already a few inches above waist-level on me–wouldn’t get any deeper as I approached the brownish area ahead. What choice did I really have, I reasoned, other than to turn back. So, standing on tiptoe to keep the water from lapping at the bottom of my backpack, I moved ahead…and sure enough, the water got no deeper and then got shallower. That turned out to be as deep as any water I’d encounter on the hike and on the couple of other occasions when I ran into something as deep, I could see the river bottom. In fact, when I returned through the same area well into the afternoon, sunlight was directly hitting the river and I could easily see the bottom, making crossing the river on the way back a snap.
Settling Into a Photographic Routine
Having overcome the first significant obstacle, I moved along, keeping a keen eye out for photo opportunities. Since they were almost literally everywhere, I had to fight the urge to try to stop at every possible spot, because the actual process of setting up for a shot was pretty involved. I needed to have a place to take off the backpack, and that meant a dry spot–a shoal, basically–and then the tripod–which I had covered with a Hefty bag, to prevent it from getting wet–had to be carefully removed from the back of the pack. With the jerry-rigged strap system I had established to hold the tripod in place overcome, I would then open the backpack itself, removing the dry bag with the camera and a Zip-loc bag with a few accessories (cable release, bubble level, polarizing filter, micro fiber cloth, etc.). From there I went going through the normal steps of actually setting up the shot. When I was done, I had to reverse the whole process. It was quite time consuming. As I did this repeatedly, I got better (i.e. faster) at it, but there was only so much speed that could be applied. It was far from an ideal situation, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances.
I brought my D700 camera body with the 24-70/2.8 lens attached. I also brought two other lenses–a 14-24/2.8 ultra-wide angle lens and my 80-400 telephoto zoom. Those lenses were carefully wrapped in thick towels and placed in a separate drybag. As it turned out, I never even considered using either one. Every shot I took in the Narrows was shot with the 24-70, and every image involved utilizing the polarizing filter. Had I known what to expect, I would have left the other two lenses behind, but they really never got in my way–they just represented a few additional pounds of weight.
Dealing with the tripod was annoying to put it mildly, but it was absolutely necessary and I don’t regret having gone to the considerable trouble of bringing it along for one second. About halfway into the hike I encountered a gentleman from Great Britain who had brought his D300 and do-it-all 18-200 mm lens on the hike, but had left his tripod behind because he didn’t want to deal with it. We conversed for awhile and then agreed to compare photographic notes when the hike was over. Sure enough, I encountered him again back at the Riverside Walk at the end of the hike and he asked me my feelings about bringing the tripod. I told him that it had been a royal pain in a lot of respects but if I was doing the hike over again the tripod would make the return trip. He told me that he agreed; he said that he greatly regretted not having his tripod with him because, while he’d been able to get some snapshots, there was no way he’d been able to obtain any keeper images due to the lack of a stable platform to deal with long exposures.
As I moved along on the hike, I encountered a number of spots where the river had to be forded despite relatively high (roughly waist-level) water that was simply flying. At times like this, the walking stick was worth its weight in gold. I never fell or seriously lost my balance, but trying to ford a river while walking perpendicular to a very fast moving current, treading on unstable rocks while toting a heavy pack was somewhat challenging. The stick helped a great deal in these instances–and they were instances, plural.
I kept finding intriguing scenes, and despite my stated goal of not stopping too often, I kept taking my pack off and setting up for shots, on the “bird-in-the-hand” theory of shot opportunity. Because I was moving so slowly, I started to encounter other hikers–people who were catching up to me because they weren’t stopping for photos–before too long. I knew that the number of people would only increase as the day moved along. One complication of dealing with other hikers was that, due to the lay of the land, once they moved in front of me, it would be a long time before they would be out of my shot. And that wasn’t anyone’s fault. The going is fairly slow and the only time they’d be out of range–for a wide-angle shot looking up river–is when they went around a bend in the canyon. Sometimes that could take the better part of 10 minutes. The vast majority of other hikers were extremely solicitous of what I was doing. There were some notable exceptions, but very few; most hikers waited, if they saw me bending over my camera and asked if I was done before proceeding into the shot, which I thought was quite gracious of them.
In terms of subject mater, I found myself particularly intrigued by the number of trees that were somehow growing deep within this inhospitable canyon, the shapes, textures and colors of the canyon walls, and the magical effects of reflected light in this setting. Above all, there was the river…the constant presence of the seemingly endless flow of water through this setting. I found myself setting up in the water for most of the shots I took.
The pace I was setting was even slower than I had feared and it was early afternoon by the time I arrived at Orderville Canyon–the only side canyon one encounters on a bottom up hike in the Narrows. The remarkable Wall Street section of the Narrows begins immediately past the mouth of Orderville Canyon. I found a shoal right at the spot where Wall Street begins. Foot traffic was now becoming a real problem, in part because sunlight was now an issue. Fortunately, on a couple of occasions, clouds blocked the sun for a few moments and, as long as I was set up and there were no people in the way, I was able to get the shot I was looking for. I spent 20-30 minutes standing in the water waiting for that combination of circumstances when taking the Wall Street image that accompanies this entry.
After I finally got the shot, I packed up my things and moved forward. I hiked perhaps 1/2 mile into the Wall Street area. As remarkable as it was, I took no more shots. Part of the reason was the light, but the bigger issue was the absence of any place to discard the backpack. There was water from wall to wall in the canyon and no rocky shoals to utilize. The water levels were consistently at least thigh-high and the current was unforgiving. I finally decided that the photographic experience in the Narrows was over, so I turned around and headed back in the direction I had come.
I made very good time on the way back. As the canyon grew wider, there was sunlight everywhere, so I was no longer looking for photo opportunities, and since it was so much brighter it was much easier to judge the river bottom depth, even in areas that had been problematic on the way in. Since it was mid-afternoon, and since I was getting closer to the beginning of the Narrows with every step, it became increasingly crowded. By the time I got back to the end of the Riverside Walk, it was past 3 PM. I hiked the final mile of the Riverside Walk, after taking off the Neoprene socks I had rented along with the canyoneering-style shoes, just to pour out the water and small rocks that had crept in. I boarded the first bus I could at the Temple of Sinawava and was back at my car at the museum before 4 PM. All of the gear was back at the outfitter in Springdale by 5, at which point I headed back into the park to make something out of the final few hours of daylight. It had been a long day, but it wasn’t quite over yet.
The Narrows Assessed
I would encourage anyone who is up to the physical grind of the “trail” to hike the Narrows if they have the opportunity, though proper planning is recommended. If you’re well-equipped, and you go at a time of year that is conducive to hiking in chilly river water, you’ll have a great time in a marvelous, unique setting. Most people hike the Narrows in summer, when water levels are lower and temperatures are higher, but I deliberately wanted to do the hike at a time other than when most people do it, for obvious reasons. As it was, I still had to get into the river before anyone else to have a decent amount of solitude there. Traffic levels are always something to keep in mind. I would imagine that hiking the Narrows in the middle of the day on a summer weekend is much like negotiating the Manhattan sidewalks at 5:05 PM on a weekday, and that’s not the kind of experience I’m interested in having when I go to a national park.
Photographically, the place is a challenge, though that has nothing to do with the subject matter, which is pretty much universally phenomenal. While you don’t need a lot of equipment (as I mentioned, I used only one zoom lens, covering from wide angle to “normal” focal lengths), it’s really technically impossible to obtain high end photographs in the Narrows without a tripod, despite the difficulties entailed in carrying one. Oh, and a polarizing filter is an absolute must as well.
Technical difficulties notwithstanding, the Narrows is a phenomenal place, one not to be missed by anyone physically able who is making a trip to Zion.
The Remains of the Day
Though the Narrows represented the day’s primary focus, it wasn’t the only thing I did on my third full day at Zion National Park. I spent the late afternoon and early evening walking the Zion Canyon Road, from the Temple of Sinawava to Big Bend and then later, further up canyon.
Time was fairly short, but I managed to get a few shots in an area I’d heavily mined: between the Court of the Patriarchs and Canyon Junction.
This 1.5 mile walk along the canyon road seemed to yield something new every single time I traversed it.
It had been a very long day and I had another early morning planned; I hoped to catch the first bus up canyon again and be the first person on the summit at Angel’s Landing.