Have you seen pictures of the Narrows in the summer and thought, “That looks beautiful but not with all of those people around!” I feel you, but what if I told you there was a way to avoid the crowds and have a solid type 2 adventure? I’m excited to share this with you because there is something healing about having a beautiful slot canyon all to yourself, especially with our current Covid-19 society. This is about the time I Top-Down Hiked the Narrows in Zion National Park over Thanksgiving weekend in 2018.
The Narrows is a 16-mile long slot canyon located in Zion National Park, Utah. Doing the full hike requires a permit from the NPS and needs to be reserved three months in advance. The top-down hike starts on private property just outside of the park, which a shuttle from a local gear shop can take you to, and then heads down the canyon until you wind up at a road in the Park that has a bus stop to take you back to the entrance, where the gear shops are. Logistically, it’s not too bad once you secure a permit, because only one shuttle needs scheduling. When you arrive at the Park, you have to check in, pick up your permit, and select a campsite. So get there early if you can. On to the story.
- Overnight Backpacking Gear
- Breathable Hiking Shoes
- Trekking Poles
- Extra Socks
- Warm Jacket
- Wool Tights
- Stove and Fuel
- Enough Food for Two Full Days
Hiking the Narrows in Winter
After seeing post after post of the breathtaking views found in Southern Utah, my girlfriend at the time recommended that we go and explore them. Since I just moved to Utah for school and didn’t want to spend the money to fly home to Alabama for Thanksgiving, only to do it again in a month for Christmas, we decided to beat the crowds, embrace the cold, and hike the Narrows over Thanksgiving break.
We loaded up the car, headed south, and were on our way. The first night we slept in the car on some BLM land right out of town. Early the next morning, we went to the ranger station to pick up our permits. But upon arrival, the ranger informed us of some possible rain coming in that day and advised us to wait a day to see it if cleared up. Due to the low number of visitors in the winter months, we were able to move our permit to the next day.
Luckily we had the time, so my advice to you with slot canyon trips is to check the weather and be flexible on your start date, as flash floods aren’t something you want to mess around with.
Zion is impressive, so we didn’t mind and took the day to hike Angels Landing. The rain turned into snow flurries at the top, with a massive rainbow after. We then ended our Thanksgiving Day in a bar watching football and eating buffalo wings.
The next morning, with packs loaded, we boarded the shuttle and headed through the Park to the drop-in point for the hike. The only other folks who would be in the canyon with us for the trip were the eight others in the van. After unloading, we all took some time to eat a snack and use the privy before donning our drysuits. The hike starts about a mile above the canyon’s mouth, and it feels and looks rather funny to see all these people walking on a dirt trail in drysuits.
When we got over a mile in, the walls started to grow around us, and the dirt began to slip away into the water, until hundred-foot sandstone walls surrounded us. The other hikers had faded away; the only sounds were wind and water rushing through the canyon. It was otherworldly feeling so small and alone in this ancient place.
As we sank further and further down, the air got colder, and the sunlight further away. By mile 5, ice sheets were starting to form on the side of the river, and I sure was glad for those drysuits we decided to rent at the last minute.
There was a log jam around one bend stopping the water, and a thick layer of ice formed over it. My lighter partner could walk on top of the sheet easily, but I was not as confident in my abilities. There was no way around, only ice from canyon wall to canyon wall, so I climbed on top and slowly shuffled my feet across the ice. With every move, I feared the ice would break, plunging me under.
Up to this point, the deepest section came up to my waist. I’m 6’3”, so I was worried that this dammed water could be much deeper. I made it to only one step from safety when the ice suddenly cracked, my left leg sinking into the water below. I caught myself with my hands as I fell forward. Laying flat on the ice, I used all fours to slowly move toward the shore. Whew! I made it, but not without some adrenaline and post fear shakes.
The rest of the day wasn’t nearly as eventful; we went past a frozen waterfall and took in the sights as the last light crept up the canyon walls. At about eight miles in, we stopped to filter water from a spring where another river joins the flow. There, some hikers from the bus caught up.
Ever heard the saying, misery loves company?!? Well, we were feeling that hard, and so were our compatriots. Their assigned campsite was much closer than ours and big enough for the 5 of us. They were enjoyable … as people who purposefully plan a trip like this as a vacation tend to be.
We sat around camp telling stories of past adventures, had a dance party, and enjoyed good food. They were fascinating, all from Alaska; one was a dentist getting his pilot’s license, another a boat captain with a hot air balloon license.
During the storytelling, the dentist pulled out a luchador mask and exclaimed that it is the best thing to bring on a backpacking trip because it has the greatest fun-to-weight ratio. We proceeded to take turns putting it on.
As we retired to our tent, pillow inflated and legs heavy from walking, we saw lights below our vestibule. “Scorpions!” our campmates screamed, headlamps pointed our direction.
We sprang up, looked around and found ... glowing vibrators under our tent. They burst out laughing before promptly saying goodnight as if this was a normal everyday thing for them.
Confused, humored, and with hearts racing, we laid back down to go to sleep. The next morning, to get back at the pranksters, we crept up to them while they were sleeping to blare dubstep music at them. I kid you not, the female of the group shot up from her sleeping bag in a pink wig! They were a fun group.
After leaving camp, the walls grew even taller, and the wind began to blow leaves down from above. Standing in the river, surrounded by sandstone and fall foliage, is still one of my most peaceful and beautiful memories.
Nature is a spiritual place and moments like that keep me returning for more. The rest of the hike flew by, and before long, we started seeing crowds of people hiking up from the bottom. And you know, they didn’t bother me because I had my uninterrupted time with this place. My soul was full of the experience.
This is not a how-to, so do your research and have fun!
If you do go, please pack out all waste and trash. This is a beautiful place. Let's keep it that way. Follow LNT for the area or please don’t go at all. Thank you!
Continue hiking with Bennett 'Jolly' Fisher: https://www.instagram.com/bennettfisher/