The trip that started it all!
This was our first backpacking trip as a group, and sparked the fire that ultimately led to our goal of hiking the JMT. Zion National Park is located in southwest Utah, and is known for its stunning cliffs, winding canyons, and oasis-like habitats along the Virgin River. Come along with us on our journey…
Day 1: The Narrows, part 1
The Zion Narrows hike is a world-renowned canyoneering experience that takes you through the steep slot canyons carved by the Virgin River. Visitors have the option to hike into it “bottom-up”, from its exit point at the Temple of Sinawava inside Zion National Park, or “top-down”, following the Virgin River 16 miles from Chamberlain’s Ranch, into the national park and finishing at the Temple of Sinawava. Hiking it from the top down requires a permit, as groups must camp at one of 12 designated sites within the Narrows during the 2-day excursion (we chose this option!).
Most hikers tend to rent a drysuit and canyoneering shoes at a local outfitter, as the water can be chilly and deep well into the summer, and the riverbed rocks are slippery. Plus, who wouldn’t want to rock that awesome fashion?!
When taking the top-down route, hikers must rent a private shuttle to bring you from the visitor’s center within the park, to Chamberlain’s Ranch. This was where we found ourselves, bright and early after the 9 hour overnight drive from Denver, ready to hit the trail (well, river..)! After the hour and a half drive along the cliffs and winding backcountry roads, we finally found ourselves at the headwaters of the Virgin River.
We were off! With smiles on our faces and cameras at the ready, we set off down the river. The first few miles weaved through open fields (drinking the water at this time is NOT recommended – even with a filter – due to cow manure), and slowly our surroundings changed as the walls around us rose and we made our way into Zion Canyon.
Here is where the show truly began. Cliffs shooting hundreds of feet above us told the story of the incredible power of the Virgin River, as every turn brought new rock formations, waterfalls, and stunning sights.
There are 12 designated campsites within the Narrows where thru-hikers can stay. Which campsite did we get? Yep, the farthest one – number 12. Legs shaking from the effort of hiking through rushing water all day, we finally arrived at our beautiful site tucked into the hillside. No campfires are allowed within the Narrows, but with the help of our water filter and camp stove, we were able to have quite the feast (if you haven’t had Ramen flavored with Sriracha after a day of hiking, you don’t know what you’re missing..). To say we slept well that night is an understatement!
Day 2: The Narrows, part 2 and Lava Point
The next day in the Narrows brought more excitement as we navigated deeper waters (up to our chests at one point!), scrambled over boulders, and took in the beauty surrounding us. One of the highlights of the day was walking through the famous section known as Wall Street, where the canyon walls came together to no more than ten feet apart at times.
Halfway through the day, we completed our hike at the Temple of Sinawava. We had traversed 16 miles as the crow flies, but that number was easily doubled by the zig-zag nature of hiking across riverbeds and around deep areas. Exhausted but inspired by the journey we had just taken, we set foot on dry land, stripped off our drysuits (neoprene sure does bite the ankles!), and headed back into the park.
That night, we camped at Lava point, a remote area of the park that lent itself to some beautiful star gazing.
Day 3: Cable Mountain
Day 3 brought us 8 miles and 2,300ft up to the top of Cable Mountain, on the East Rim of the park. First switchbacking up the canyon wall, then winding through the park’s backcountry, this hike brought us through a wildly varied landscape ranging from desert-like caverns, across sandstone mesas, through rolling fields and Ponderosa forests, and finally, to the edge of the East Wall where we were rewarded with magnificent views of the canyon below. The hike is strenuous at times, with some steep drop-offs for those with a fear of heights. All water must be packed in (a compressible reservoir is useful in these situations), as there is no reliable source in this area of the park.
We set up camp on top of the mountain (the East Rim does not have designated campsites, but a backcountry permit is required for overnight stays), and were blessed with beautiful sunset views that painted the canyon walls with every color of the rainbow.
Day 4: Down Cable Mountain and into Kolob Canyon
Woken up early by the rumble of thunder on the horizon, we quickly retraced our steps and hiked the 8 miles back to the canyon floor. Thankfully, the weather held long enough for us to get off of the exposed cliffs…
…but not for long! We drove over to the less-visited Kolob Canyons section of the park just as the skies opened above us. Undaunted, we strode off into the lush canyon, with plans to hike 7 miles along La Verkin Creek to a reserved campsite. Unlike the previous day, water is abundant in this location, so we were able to save some weight in our packs!
As we pushed on, the rain above us quickly turned to hail, the red dirt beneath us turned to slick mud, and lightning bolts began striking unnervingly close. With thunder bouncing around the canyon walls, we quickly made the decision to seek cover in the first campsite we came upon. Thankfully, it was vacant, and we hunkered down for the night, hoping that the storm would pass.
Day 5: Out of Kolob Canyon
No such luck! The rain pounded our tent (shout out to the Big Agnes Angel Springs for holding up to the beating!) all night and into the morning, where we accepted our soggy fate. With the promise of a warm car and hot breakfast motivating us, we packed up camp and headed back out of the canyon. Though we were no longer dodging lightning bolts, we were faced with a different dilemma – the gentle creek that we had hiked along the day before was now a raging river that required several crossings and resulted in 3 pairs of very wet feet.
Our return to the car marked the end of our adventures in Zion National Park. We certainly ended the trip with a bang! We took over the Kolob ranger station restrooms where we dried off, thawed our hands under the hot air dryers, and put on our comfy camp clothes and shoes (ahh, cotton..). With that, we went into town, had some well-deserved Panda Express, and waved goodbye to the magnificent park that had touched our lives forever – knowing that it certainly wasn’t goodbye, but rather, until next time!
For a deeper look into our journey (plus a taste of our adventures in Moab that followed!), watch below!