Zion National Park: How not to die in the Narrows

Zion is world-famous for several hikes, but none is more famous than the Narrows. Basically, take a fast-moving river in a very narrow slot canyon and take intrepid people who want to hike in the river and you have the famous Narrows hike. People die in this place on occasion  as there is just no where to go in the event of a flash flood. The walls are a thousand feet of towering, smooth, sandstone cliffs and barring Spiderman- like abilities, you’re pretty much screwed if you get caught here in a flood. Why do it? Because it’s awesomely beautiful.

Gorgeous, isn't it?

Being married to a man with a butt smaller than mine is bound to make me look bad in a place like this. This is a hard hike. The water is cold (yesterday, a balmy 58 degrees) and it’s running fast (68 cfs) and you are slogging upstream against a current. If you have a brain in your head, you either rent appropriate canyoneering shoes and neoprene socks  (Zion Adventure Company rents both for about $20) along with a decent hiking stick or you own your own gear and you use it. Plenty of morons get in the water and decide to head upstream barefoot or in open-toed sandals or flip-flops. This is a terrible idea. The rocks are slippery and the footing is uncertain, and thousands of pounds of rushing water are trying to topple you. Not wearing appropriate gear can be dangerous. I know this because I broke my neck here in 2009.

In May of 2009, this rock broke my neck.

In 2009,  I decided to wear a pair of water shoes from Merrell in the river. It seemed reasonable, but these are not canyoneering shoes and they lacked the grip of better shoes designed for canyoneering. The flow rate was also almost 140 cfs which is about as high as it can be and the park will allow you to get in the water. I lost my balance in the water and in a freak accident, ended up slammed against the rock with a broken neck and a blown disc. I was about 1 1/2 miles into the canyon at that point. If you hike in, you have to be able to hike out. I did not realize I had broken anything and thought I had a shoulder injury. Not quite.  By the time it was over, I had a bone graft, several screws and a titanium plate in my neck and a permanent loss of strength in the right arm from nerve damage. This is unfun. Don’t do what I did. I got injured because I was careless and because I decided I did not want to wear the less comfortable 5-10s in the river. The only redeeming thing from the experience is no one can question my toughness as I hiked my bad self out of the canyon under my own power  (I will admit it is a damned lucky thing I’m not paralyzed).

If you do this hike, you will see a ton of Europeans, some of them hilariously over-outfitted. (Drysuits in August are not necessary and you will have sweat running down your ass crack in ways you did not anticipate). You will also see some girls in bikinis far up river in very cold water. They are Swedish or Danish and think 55 degrees is toasty. Pay no attention to these blonde glamazons as they are not of this earth and they exist to make you swear to hit the crosstrainer daily while subsisting on lettuce and air. If you slog up river far enough, you will be rewarded with this:

A much better version of Wall Street

Expect to get wet (chest deep in a few spots) but most of it is hard in the water and trying not to fall over hiking.

Troy in the river

This is a bucket list kind of place so unless you are in a wheelchair or dragging oxygen, you should do this before you die.

6 Responses to Zion National Park: How not to die in the Narrows

  1. David says:

    Thanks for an informative and well-illustrated post! Sounds like this hike made up for the Vegas disappointment. No aches, pain or pre-hike trepidation? Can I assume racking up a growing number of these treks and the crosstrainer are both paying off?

    Your point about the difficulties of walking on a shifting, uneven surface, not to mention a wet one, Is well made. I’ve twisted an ankle on more than one occasion with a lapse of attention when tired, though you have me truly beaten injury-wise with breaking your neck! I took the opportunity to learn a bit more about footwear when my mother worked for an outfitter company some years ago and upgrading boots definitely helped.

    The remnants of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee have been conspiring to recreate an ersatz version of The Narrows in our basement so I am babysitting sump pumps. Of course, eight feet of painted cinder block are a sad substitute for thousand foot walls of natural rock. I can only imagine how impressive it is to be there. Our soggy basement pretty much lacks appeal to anything other than the likes of ducks and Newfoundland dogs.

    • This hike totally made up for Vegas. It is much nicer to see it when not suffering from a broken neck. I am sorry about Lee and Irene and your basement. I recommend a serious pump to get the water out and Xanax to take while it’s happening.

  2. I’m nowhere near Narrow-minded enough to survive this.

    • Drugs that end in the letters ‘pam’ and just general insanity are all you need to hike this if you’re not the outdoor type. I will save this joke though for the next time my husband says “Hey, let’s go to Zion and hike the Narrows.” I’ll say “no, I can’t hike with someone so Narrow-minded.” Then he’ll roll his eyes.

  3. Val Steed says:

    Having just hiked the Narrows from the top down I can concur that this is an excellent blog with very good recommendations. The right shoes, two walking sticks, and the reminder that you will get totally wet at some point no matter how high the water is running are all good advice.

    • The Narrows is a great hike and if you go outfitted properly, it’s great. If not, it can suck. I would love to do the Narrows with a flow rate below 100. I’ve never managed to do it that low.

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