Hiking with a difference

Trip Start Apr 14, 2010
Trip End Apr 16, 2011

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Flag of United States  , Utah
Sunday, August 14, 2011

The next stop on our road trip was Zion National Park where we'd been organised enough to book a plush campsite, complete with pools, slides and hot tubs, but not to have done any research on what to do there. Gordon remembered some amazing hiking from previous family holidays (although confessed that as a stroppy 13 year old he hadn’t thought it so amazing at the time) so on the drive over we opened up the guidebooks to read about the various hikes.  We were soon ruing not having researched a little earlier when we started reading about 'The Narrows’ hike; a hardcore 16 mile hike almost entirely through a river canyon for which a limited number of permits are available that are booked up as soon as they are released.  All was not lost however when we asked at the campsite and found that 8 extra permits are released each morning for the following day.  The additional flaw to the plan; they are released when the permit office opens at 7am and you needed to be in the queue well before that to stand a chance of getting one.

And so our plans for a nice lie-in were delayed and instead we were up and on the road at 5:30 the next morning to drive to the permit office on the other side of the park.  The Tank though didn’t seem to like the early mornings either and about 5 miles down the road, once we were really in the middle of nowhere, decided to stop altogether.  Luckily it seemed to be only a small strop and after a few minutes she started up again and this time deigned to take us all the way to the office where we found 20 or so people already ahead of us.  Luckily plenty of them were wanting different permits and by 7:15 we had permits for all of us to do the Narrows the following day – hurrah!

Which left us with a whole day to explore Zion and do the famous "Angel’s Landings" hike.  Zion National Park is an amazing red walled and green bottomed valley and Angel’s Landing is a huge red sandstone bluff sticking out at a curve of the valley. To get to the very top the path follows the crest of a thin ridge with chains to hang on to and some spectacular drops off either side.  On reaching the bottom of the trail we found a warning sign saying that the top section in particular is very dangerous and that 6 people had died on the trail since 2004.  Optimistically the ‘6’ had been stuck on and so could be replaced as the number increased.

Luckily we had a perfect day for it, clear blue skies and sunshine and spent the next few hours trekking up increasingly steep mountain switchbacks and then out onto the final exposed ridge where we had to go single file hauling ourselves up on the chains.  The views as we went up got better and better and at the top they took what little breath we had left away as we scrambled out to see the surprisingly green and utterly stunning valley laid out far below us.  Our early start also meant we were ahead of both the heat and the crowds (which were surprisingly minimal for mid-summer) who we could see toiling up below us as we smugly picnicked (virtually on our own) at the top.  By the time we got back down to the bottom of the valley the river was looking unbelievably inviting and it didn’t take much encouragement to jump in for a swim.  It felt delightfully refreshing ... for about 60 seconds after which the cold set in and we all ran for shore & the warmth.  Hmm, a whole day walking in the same river (but upstream where it would be even colder and not in the sun!) tomorrow now sounded a literally chilling prospect.  Our fears weren’t allayed on going to hire the kit we’d need (including wetsuit socks, special shoes, a walking stick and some special rubbish bags should the call of nature occur while we were in the canyon) where we had to first watch a safety video cataloguing the different signs for flash floods. For the record these are: sudden changes in water clarity from clear to muddy, rising water levels or stronger currents, increasing roar of water up-canyon and sudden appearance of river debris, including other hikers, one presumes. Unfortunately when you walk all the way through it, large sections of the Narrows have no shoreline or safe area whatsoever to climb onto to get out of the way of the water. You are really in big trouble if a flashflood comes down!

Suitably kitted out (and feeling excited and slightly nervous) we headed back to the campsite for an early night before yet another crack of dawn start the next day.  The estimated time to complete the full Narrows hike is 12 hours so to avoid hiking the river in the dark we had to leave camp by 6:30.  Getting up in the cold and dark made getting into the river seem even less attractive, especially as once we were within the deep parts of the canyon we wouldn’t get much sunshine.  Luckily the first hour of the hike was on dry land so the sun was up and we were a little warmed up before we finally had to get into the water.

The Narrows was like no other hike we’ve ever done.  It was totally gorgeous, following an increasingly narrow canyon with vertical sculpted sandstone walls which at some points we could touch on both sides at once, while staring up at a ridiculously small crack of blue 200m above our heads. Wading through waist high water with these cliffs rising up above us was unbelievable.  Amazingly, we barely saw another soul for the first 10 or so hours of the hike (before we got to the busier section accessible from below). For most of the day we literally had the place to ourselves; unreal.

Sixteen miles would normally seem like a tough but reasonable hike in normal conditions particularly without a big backpack. However, negotiating the canyon inevitably meant to-ing and fro-ing constantly and several sections climbing up and down the sides of the steep canyon. We also must have crossed the river 100 times - no exaggeration. The first few hours in the river were quite fun as the river bed was generally made up of sand and little pebbles and the footing was quite good, the river shallow and not too fast flowing. By the end, however, the little pebbles had transformed themselves into rounded, smooth but yet uneven and slippery football sized boulders that were constantly having toes stubbed on them and getting revenge by jumping out and tripping people up. The river got deeper and the current got stronger. We all had at least one full wipe-out in the river, Sarah’s perhaps being the most comedic as she was carrying the camera at the time and lay on her back sprawled in about two feet of water, head slightly under and spluttering, heroically holding the camera up and out of the water in both hands (and consequently not able to get herself up). During the day the water got deeper and deeper and we spent quite some time walking through water at least waist high and sometimes chin height (which on Deborah translated as chin height and about a foot over her head respectively). As we got more tired through the day the deep sections actually came as a welcome break as we just floated down them with our rucksacks acting as cushions.  All in all we reckon we were walking, wading or floating through water for about 80% of the walk- and that added a whole new dimension to it. It was an incredible, crazy day and we could barely believe that the park had let us do it.

By the time we reached the end though, just within the estimated 12 hours, we’ve never been so pleased to see flat (no boulders!!!!), not-slippery and dry concrete path to walk the last mile on. Even more welcome were the hot tub and beer waiting for us back at the campsite.  It was only once we got back and emptied out the rucksacks that we realised that we’d left our passports in the ‘secret pocket’ of one of them and as a result they’d also been swimming with us and were looking more than a little the worse for wear.  Gordon was able to be smug at this point as he has both a UK and a US passport but we were going to have to hope our last few border crossings would accept Sarah’s rather wrinkled passport with some very blurred stamps.

Perhaps needless to say the next day we weren’t good for much and were sporting various degrees of nappy rash from spending a day walking in wet shorts (an impressive look for a group of 30-somethings!) so enjoyed a lazy morning in the pool before heading back to the Grand Canyon, this time to the much less busy North Rim.  We had once again been organised enough to book a campsite (quite a feat in the summer months) and found ourselves in a spacious site about 2 minutes walk from the rim of the canyon itself.  Having watched an amazing sun set over the canyon and enjoyed a thunderstorm flickering on the other side we then had one of our most epic BBQs of the trip so far, featuring our now patented bonfire hot dogs.  This idea of these was shamelessly stolen from Ruth Boyes and consists of making fresh bread dough that we then wrapped around sticks and cooked over the fire, then pulled off the stick and stuffed with a sausage - they are the best hot dogs you’ll ever have!

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon felt completely different to the South Rim.  While the South Rim had more accessible huge views it was, being peak summer season, unbelievably packed  (with half of France for starters) which meant having to take shuttle buses to any of the hiking.  The whole of the North Rim on the other hand was miles from anywhere and even once we were in the park there were long drives between the different hikes and viewpoints and so few people here in comparison to the South Rim.  Being higher than the South Rim, and more hilly, the perspective was also different. You could look down from hilltops on other sections of the North Rim going off into the distance and could see right over the South Rim to the dead flat plains over the other side.

We decided to head to the far side of the park from the campsite and spent the morning hiking between different viewpoints and fighting the undergrowth rather than crowds to get right to the edge for yet another amazing picnic spot, with Gordon once more giving everyone heart attacks scrambling onto rocks on the edge of the precipice. After taking in our final viewpoint we decided to head back to the campsite so we could enjoy the afternoon by the canyon and our final campfire together as tomorrow we’d be heading to Las Vegas where Debs & Isa would be flying home.  Or that was the plan.  Unfortunately the Tank had other ideas and a few minutes down the road decided to stop again.  And this time it was a full on teenage strop and she would not start again.  The Grand Canyon is clearly Tank kryptonite.

Now we have already mentioned that the North Rim was miles from anywhere, and we were now on the opposite side of the park to the Visitors Centre and ranger stations – it was at least 25 miles to the Visitor Centre and over 100 to the nearest town.  Hmmm.  If you looked up “the middle of nowhere”, that’s about where we were.  With the help of some other tourists we managed to push the Tank off the road and then set about trying to get some help.  Unsurprisingly there was no cell phone reception, even to make an emergency call.  One guy who stopped to help had a satellite phone in his car and even that wouldn’t work!  Eventually Gordon & Isa hitched a ride towards the Visitors Centre to call the AAA (which was now feeling a good investment) while Debs & Sarah stayed by the car.  After a couple of hours a ranger showed up but to their shock had to leave them by the car as if she’s taken them with her that would have made her car a ‘rescue vehicle’ and the park didn’t have the right insurance for that.  Health & Safety gone mad.  Another hour or two later their saviour finally turned up in the form of a volunteer ranger who did have the right insurance and was allowed to take them in his car.  They didn’t go straight back though as a criminal was reported to be in the park, who might have been armed, and the ranger asked if it would be ok if they took a detour to check if they could see him on this side of the park.  How exciting they thought!  Debs & Sarah’s international crime fighting careers didn’t really take off though – it turned out that no one knew what car the guy was in so they couldn’t really look for him.  Instead they spotted deer, bison and wild turkeys on the drive back.

We finally all met up back at the Visitors Centre just as the tow truck arrived from the nearest town, 108 miles away.  Having re-crossed the park and loaded the Tank onto the truck it was already dark by the time we set off.  There wasn’t room for all of us in the driver’s cab so he said we could ride in the car instead.  A surreal feeling indeed to be sitting in the cab so high off the ground reading books and having a glass of wine, especially crossing the plains of the park in a huge thunderstorm!  A few hours later we drew in to Kanab, a small town that was yet another location for lots of Westerns.  All that mattered to us by this point though was that a motel near the garage had a room for us, which we were praying would be able to fix the Tank quickly so we could get on to Vegas in time.  Not quite the leisurely evening on the canyon we’d envisaged!
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