Zion Casts a Spell

Playing the Slots
  |  Gorp.com

I refused to look down. Until I absolutely had to, that is. I harnessed up, secured my figure eight and stood there, shoulders slouching, head turned down, like a child in disbelief over a humiliating outfit from Grandma."Am I gonna have to wear THAT?" Or in my case, "Am I gonna have to hang on a rope and rappel down THAT?" It was a drop that even Thelma and Louise might have reconsidered going over. It was the adrenaline-inducing start to our first hike in the most popular hike in all of Zion — Orderville Canyon, an extension of the do-if-you-dare Narrows Trail.

Where the Virgin River enters Zion National Park, its waters have carved an abyss, which in places, is only 20 feet wide and over a 1,000 feet deep. The Narrows, undoubtedly one of the best known, most impressive and unique of Zion's backcountry trips, starts from the headwaters of the Virgin River. The river snakes 16 miles through a water-sculptured gorge of sandstone arches, grottos and soaring fluted walls. You may take one of several routes, but for each,the route is the river and there is no maintained trail.

There is always an element of danger in any outdoor pursuit. The Narrows however is particularly special. "Hiking" is not quite accurate for this trail. Swimming and wading through the river is more like it. The water can be very cold, a huge contributor to hypothermia and this trail is particularly susceptible to flash floods. A buzzkill to a hike within awe-inspiring landscapes is always remembering to scope out possible escapes —places you can climb up to escape an unannounced flood.

Many think the Narrows is the best hike they've been on. One GORP forum contributor offered tips to this hike. "If you do decide to do the whole hike in one day, keep in mind that one mile through a river is a heck of a lot slower than one mile on land. You'll need to move reasonably fast if you want to get out before dark," Greg Barish said. "It's easily the most rewarding hike I've done."

The temperature was just too cold to attempt the entire Narrows hike, but the intro into Orderville Canyon was exciting enough.

I finally looked down. We were dizzyingly high. But I walked over the side anyway. I was surprisingly relaxed. As I hung over the cliff and corkscrewed toward the ground, I smirked and thought of my coworkers with their earphones on plugged into their computers at work. This was going to be a great time!

Twenty-Foot Wide World
The hike lasted all day. I kept tripping, not because I am typically clumsy, but because I kept looking up at the gigantic canyon on both sides of me. We stopped to eat our lunch, and traced our steps back to where we started. I kept wondering if we would have to climb up what we rappelled down, but it turned out that after the six-mile return to the starting point, there was a place to hike up instead of going completely vertical. We were exhausted at that point, barely making it up the steep hillside.

The last portion of our hike back was rushed because Mike and Jud noticed water streaming down the canyon that wasn't there when we started in the morning. Flash floods are always a threat to these slot canyon hikes. A rainstorm can pound down miles away and just sweep into the canyon without notice. Hikers were killed recently in the Narrows as a result of these flash floods. Evidence of floods past decorated the slot. Whole trees were lodged about a hundred feet above our heads. I could only imagine water rushing through at top speed at that height - the sound, the force, the fear. Although it wasn't the season for these sudden killers, we were uneasy nonetheless.

We made it back safe and sound despite the caution.

Before departing on my trip to the park, I did my research. GORP's forum on Zion gave me incredible insight into the must do's and must not do's. I walked away convinced that Angel's Landing was a hike I must attempt.

In complete contrast to the rather level Narrows Trail, the more strenuous Angel's Landing follows along the scenic drive through shady, tree-covered landscape. Passing the Virgin River, the trail steadily climbs up the side of the main canyon with sharp switchbacks.

It's easily the steepest ascent of all Zion's trails. Why is it called Angel's Landing? "Probably because only an angel with wings could perch safely on the steep, narrow and very high walkway that is part of the trail," Steve said in the GORP forum. You will get an incredible view of the whole canyon sprawled out below you — not to mention an incredible lump in your throat from the dizzying height and unstable footing. Mike, another GORP forum contributor said, "You gotta do Angel's Landing. Don't do it if you're scared of steep dropoffs though and I wouldn't do it if it's windy. It's scary enough the way it is!"

I was intrigued. Another forum guest challenged my sense of adventure even further. "Angel's Landing has very little in the way of safety. It has many areas where the only thing between you and the ground is a slanted slab of rock and loose sand," said John.

In comparing Angel's Landing to other hikes, particularly Observation Point, Catherine said in the GORP forum, "I prefer Observation Point. The path is wider than the last section of Angel's Landing, so you can stay further away from the edge if heights freak you out!"

With all this hype, I was disappointed to not have the time to explore Angel's Landing. There are so many options within the park that getting it all in within a short period of time is unrealistic.

In fact, after my four-days spent in the park I hadn't even touched the less-traveled Kolob Canyons Section, Emerald Pools Trail, and so many other incredible sights. But a friend of mine who has touched every continent and eaten every imaginable insect in unmapped villages and parks throughout the world reminds me as I travel, "Never do everything in the first trip. Always leave something to come back to."

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »