Zion National Park: Canyoneering in the Narrows

December 24, 2011

A conversation with my mother’s college roommate inspired a pre-New Year’s Eve trip to Zion National Park in Utah.  While her roommate and her daughter went to New Orleans for Christmas, we decided on the original plan of Zion.  We rented a car in Las Vegas and drove up Interstate 15 through Nevada, Arizona, and finally to Utah, where we turned off the interstate and passed the towns of Hurricane, Virgin, Rockville, and Springdale, arriving in a deep river valley gouged out by eons of flowing water.  The Virgin River cuts through ancient dense sandstone, carving out a narrow river valley amid the tall red and white cliffs.

The prevalent sandstone in the park is part of the Navajo formation, a huge unit of sedimentary rock laid down in the Jurassic period, one of the largest sand seas, or ergs, ever in what is now North America.  In the Jurassic period, Utah was closer to the equator and thus strong trade winds, which blew quartz sand into dunes.  The red color is from the iron in the original rocks that were weathered down to form sand, according to the USGS [PDF].

The sandstone shows evidence of cross-bedding: aeolian deposits formed dunes in an ancient dune sea that were layered down at an angle, which eventually solidified into rock and were later exposed by the modern river’s carving power.  The inclined layers, some more horizontal than others, tell a story of the previous environments that characterized this area thousands of years ago.  Cross-bedding also happens because of sedimentary deposition that forms underwater dunes, not just because of wind-driven processes.

Earth isn’t the only planet where we see cross-bedding: the Mars Exploration Rovers saw cross-bedding features exposed in the cliffs ringing craters on the red planet.  Will future explorers hiking in Valles Marineris be similarly wowed by the cliffs towering over them, showing evidence of cross-bedding or whatever may be common in rift valleys?

Cross-bedding at the edge of Victoria Crater on Mars

The cliffs just continue upward, sometimes rising 3,000 feet above the 4,300 foot elevation of the valley floor.

Snow clung to portions of the cliff in shadow.

We drove as far into the canyon we could with canyoneering gear rented from Zion Adventure Company, a local outfitter.  This amounted to drysuits, two pairs of waterproof socks, hardcore canyon shoes, walking sticks, long underwear, and neoprene gloves.

This area is known as the Temple of Sinawava, and I can only imagine what John Wesley Powell thought as he visited this place for the first time.

Mother-daughter portrait at the Narrows entrance

Our waterproof camera we brought didn’t yield photos, so words will perhaps have to do.  We parked and trudged a mile in our gear to the end of the trail, stepping into the rushing water and fording the river as dozens of folks out for a stroll gazed onward.

The canyon narrowed tremendously as we hiked, sloshed, and swam several miles into the gorge, apropos of the name of the canyon: The Narrows.  In some places it was 20″ from wall to wall.  Waterfalls, rapids, and weeping rocks emerged around every bend.  Some walls were covered in sheets of ice, slowly dripping with running water underneath.  Fallen logs across small waterfalls helped us clamber further into the Narrows.  Brave ferns clung high up in small rock niches.

Cross-bedding was evident on every wall face.  The river was blue-green, rushing cold against our legs.  It was a quiet, serene icy kingdom of just us canyoneers, clambering up and down rocks as we came to the turnaround point, a small waterfall gushing into a spherical cavity, hollowed out by rushing water and rocks.

Even though the water temperature was around 38 ˚F, the drysuits did their job flawlessly.  I stayed warm and dry, and remained quite happy to be one of only six people in the Narrows that day.  After several hours we emerged from the Narrows out onto the trail to the amusement of numerous hikers who’d taken the easy mile or so stroll from the parking lot to the entrance point of the river.  The last thing they expected was a mother-daughter duo, separated in age by almost 40 years, jubilantly walking out of the river as if this was a completely normal thing to do in almost freezing conditions.

Driving away from the Temple of Sinawava, we looked back at the cliffs of Zion as the shadows lengthened and night approached.

In Zion, the roads are red!

The turkeys were bold.

The shadows grew to encompass the entire valley.  Night fell, black.  Multitudes of stars came out, their photons not washed out by the immensely dark sky.

Starving, we went to the Zion Lodge for dinner.  I ordered the biggest steak on the menu, after laughing at the local beer names.

 A fantastic first day in the canyon.

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2 thoughts on “Zion National Park: Canyoneering in the Narrows

  1. I’ve only been to Death Valley in the spring and summer. How was the light there in December? Death Valley’s magnificence I feel is along a much different axis than Zion’s—wider expanses, more weathered, different textures. Amazing mountains. Glad you had a chance to go!

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