Accessing Zion Narrows

Two weeks ago, I teamed up with the Trust for Public Land (TPL) to help preserve access to an incredible part of the United States. It was my third project with TPL, previously working to open the trail to Wilson Peak, an iconic  14,017-foot mountain in southwestern Colorado, and Bridal Veil Falls, the spectacular 365-foot waterfall above Telluride, Colorado, and the tallest free-standing waterfall in the country.

This time, our goal is to keep The Narrows of Zion Canyon open to the public forever. Rated in the top five adventures in the nation by National Geographic, this is a 17-mile hike down a riverbed with huge canyon walls towering on either side.

Most of The Narrows section of the Virgin River is inside Zion National Park, but the access at the top and bottom are on private land and other sections fall under the Bureau of Land Management. Although the park was established in 1919, much of the surrounding lands were homesteads and grandfathered in as private property. Specifically, the 288-acre Chamberlain Ranch accesses the trailhead to the Narrows.

A decade ago, the landowner started building roads and installing water pipelines for a development that may have very well closed access forever. Thankfully, this was put on hold because of the recession and he ended up selling to a more environmentally friendly person. This is when the TPL stepped in to build a coalition of public and private organizations as well as caring donors—all behind the cause of preservation and access. Leading this group, TPL is in the process of purchasing a trail easement that will keep this incredible hike open to everyone. I continue to be impressed by how TPL navigates these very complicated land deals, which often take years of dedicated community building and fundraising.

The Narrows is so popular that the Park Service only allows 80 hikers per day; half of those permits can be reserved in advance and the rest are on a first come basis. The average hiking time is 13 hours but many people break it up into an overnight camping trip so they have more time to explore and soak it all in.

Over the course of 17-miles, the river drops 1,400 feet. It is a challenging hike that is rated 1C IV using the Canyon Rating System, which means no ropes are required, there are sections of waist deep water, and you should be prepared to hike from dawn until dark. It’s highly recommended to bring a headlamp but I didn’t bother.

Much of the time you are walking in chilly water with loose cobblestones that can trip you up. You’ll be cruising along in knee-deep water and suddenly fall into a deep hole or be sent sprawling by a slippery underwater boulder that flips over. Some folks hike in waterproof Gore-Tex hiking boots, but I figured that would just hold the water in, so I chose the Scarpa Epic, a lighter approach shoe that drains the water easily. They were the ticket and I didn’t get blisters throughout the entire soggy day.

I was also glad to have my Leki trekking poles for balance on the slippery rocks. There are several long stretches where I could reach either side of the dead-vertical, and even overhanging, canyon walls with my poles. In places, the sandstone walls were polished perfectly smooth from the water; I don’t know of a climber alive who could free climb them. And sometimes they rose up 1,500 feet on both sides. Jeff Evans, one of my hiking partners, said that when he looked up, the sky was just a sliver.

This is not a place you want to be during a flashflood! In fact, several parties have been killed in this way, so you want to make sure you’re only setting out on a clear day, and throughout the hike, it’s important to always be watching the sides for places to scramble up.

Scott Dissel, development director for TPL, led our group of adventurers and donors. Along the way, he told us that on a previous canyon adventure, he and his hiking party were in a flood. It wasn’t even raining on them but must have been raining way upstream. He heard a deep echoing rumble up-canyon, and barely had time to scramble 20-feet to a marginal ledge to wait out the torrent throughout a very uncomfortable night. Fortunately for us, the weather was perfect and we had a stellar, yet strenuous, day out.

I’ve been to mountain ranges and incredible wildernesses all over the world but these are so remote, few people will ever visit them. What I love about TPL is that they strive to protect those beautiful wild places, not on the other side of the Earth, but right where we live. All three of my TPL projects—Wilson Peak, Bridal Veil Falls, and Zion Narrows—are amazing places to get out with your family and create those strong bonds and life-long memories.

TPL embraces the research of Richard Louv, who wrote the groundbreaking book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” Louv makes a compelling argument that we are losing the unique relationship with the land that has made America what it is, full of ingenuity, a spark for adventure, and a pioneering mindset. TPL’s core belief is that there should be open space within walking distance of every person in the United States.

Even in a big city, there should be a little pocket of trees where kids can play, explore, and dream. When you’re 8 years old, it doesn’t take a lot of land to have a huge adventure – some times just a clump of trees or shrubs – a sanctuary all your own to make up imaginative games that teach the creativity, decision-making, and leadership which may become the foundation to your life. Yet these are the very places being gobbled up by developers or whittled away by budget cuts.

Personally, I agree with Louv’s belief that rather than shuttling the kids around for organized sports or allowing them to sit on a couch with an Xbox, send them outside for unstructured, unsupervised play. With our own children, my wife and I are constantly pushing them out the door and behind our fence to collect tadpoles in the tiny creek, collect what they call “treasures,” and make secret forts. This is why I am honored to participate in these Trust for Public Lands awareness campaigns and work to hang on to these places that speak so powerfully to the kind of life I want for myself and my kids.

Here is an interview that I gave TPL about my belief in their goals. I strongly encourage all of my friends to support this great organization.