The Narrows Trip Report by Monica Stapleton

The Narrows Trip Report by Monica Stapleton

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” - The Wilderness Act of 1964


As a Wilderness Ranger at Zion National Park, I’d be hard pressed to find a better office. Half my days are spent in the backcountry of the park, patrolling the trails and canyons that make up the 124,000 acres of wilderness. The other half is spent at the Visitor Center where I issue permits for the vast array of recreation that Zion offers.

A day in the life of a ranger has changed a bit since their inception. Often regarded as the first form of protection for National Parks, the Buffalo Soldiers protected areas in the Sierra Nevada that would soon become Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks. The massive forest fires of 1910 then brought new demand for human-powered work, where men were brought in to battle the blazes that spread throughout Idaho, Montana, and Washington. While the National Forest Service (now known as the United States Forest Service) was formed in 1905, it wasn't until 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson signed the official act that created the National Park Service.

A swimming hole

Rangers’ duties are as unique as the parks that they protect. It is often stated that our job is “to protect the park from the people, and the people from the park.” Our patrols vary from day to day, but our main goal is to help preserve the Zion Wilderness for generations to come. This can look like cleaning up litter, human waste, and illegal campfires, or performing Preventative Search and Rescue (PSAR) on the trails, helping people find the nearest spring or identifying suitable endeavors for the underprepared visitor.

One of the most popular routes in the park, The Narrows, can be hiked in several ways. While 99% of visitors will attempt a short hike in from the bottom, the option exists to hike from the “top,” beginning at Chamberlain’s Ranch and making the 17-mile trek down to the Temple of Sinawava. A true gem of the park, the Virgin River has created a picturesque slot canyon, where sandstone walls tower hundreds of feet overhead. A bucket-list hike for many adventurers, completing The Narrows from the top offers a unique experience of solitude and self-reliance. Most years, the hike is straightforward, with few swims required. The winter of 2022/2023 brought over 300% of the annual precipitation to the area, creating a unique set of challenges. Flows remained exceptionally high through the summer, making travel through the Narrows far more difficult than usual, with a great amount of swimming and wading required. Groups had been struggling to complete the trip, often spending an unexpected night in the canyon, and occasionally spending multiple nights. While temps in Zion regularly exceed 100°f, the canyon can be cold and unforgiving. So, when a coworker and I were tasked with an overnight patrol, we went in prepared to pack out more trash and human waste (yes, I'm talking about poop) than usual.

And right we were. We got an early start up at Chamberlains Ranch, and all was smooth sailing for the first half of the day. It wasn’t until after our lunch break that we ran into our first bump in the road. This came in the form of a family that had already spent their first night camped out several miles before their assigned site. With kids in tow, they had underestimated the challenges the hike would bring. Almost completely out of food and potable water, we offered them some of our food and water and some encouraging words and continued on our way.

a hiker walking through a slot canyon

After reaching the confluence of Deep Creek and the North Fork of the Virgin River, the first of twelve campsites pop up. The sites in The Narrows are above the floodplain, but still, site one had been virtually destroyed by spring flooding. This is a stark reminder of just how powerful water can be. I ponder what it must have been like earlier in the season, as water carved its way through the canyon, bringing massive amounts of debris and sediment through the area. We have ourselves a quick swim break and continue down the canyon.

Sites pop up intermittently and we stop at each one to assess any damage, pick up trash, and appreciate each area's unique characteristics. Some sites have perfect swimming holes, others have flat rocks prime for a backcountry kitchen. I take mental notes, knowing that sites can change from season to season. At each site, I imagine spending a night there with friends. Where I would choose to camp, where I would place the warm beer in the river to cool off while I set up my tent. These are things I consider when people come to the Wilderness Desk to pick up their permit. “Oh, you’re at site 10? There’s an excellent swimming hole near the large boulder around the bend. Site 6? Lots of exploring to do up Kolob Creek.” It’s like becoming a regular at your local coffee shop, able to recommend the best drink to the person behind you in line. What a fortunate position I am in to feel like a local in such a remarkable place.

a hiker in a slot canyon

Sometime in the late afternoon, we make it to camp. We shed our uniforms and took another swim. After a snack, we carefully select our sleeping spots for the night. Willows and maples surround our site, creating a beautifully secluded nook for us to rest. I quickly set up my Haven Net Tent. Knowing that clear skies were expected through the night, I opted out of a tarp. One of my favorite features of the Haven is the option to enjoy unobstructed views of the sky while I drift off to sleep, knowing I can quickly reconfigure and add the Haven Tarp if monsoons roll in. Coming in at a tiny 34 ounces, this sleeping system adds little to my standard base weight. As rangers, we are required to carry a lot of extra gear in case of emergency, so any weight I can shed is a welcome relief. The rest of the night is filled with stories of close calls and bad jokes between my coworker and me. As the skies turn black, we lay in the dirt and stare at the sky, recounting any constellations we see above us. Before long, I retire to my tent, grateful for whatever decisions I have made that have landed me in this exact spot.

Morning arrives. Coffee. Dinosaur egg oatmeal. Electrolytes. We breakdown camp and put our uniforms back on. Mornings are cool in The Narrows. A small part of me dreads getting in the river, while another part of me is excited to see what the day brings. We make it to Big Springs not too long after we begin. Big Springs happens to be one of my favorite places on Earth. Water coming from this spring has been slowly making its way through the sandstone for hundreds of years, eventually coming to a less permeable rock layer, where it flows out as a picturesque waterfall covered in moss and ferns. It also marks the ending point of the bottom-up hike for those that choose to complete the 10-mile round trip hike up from the Temple of Sinawava. We chat with a few other backpackers that are enjoying the last bit of solitude before reaching the hordes of day hikers that lie below. My coworker and I have a snack and wait for the sun to finally stretch its rays into the canyon. To me, Big Spring is heaven on Earth. I could spend hours there, listening to the birds sing and the river whisper all around me. But alas, we must continue on our hike. We do our due diligence and have a look in the nooks and crannies that we know people go to hide from other hikers. Without fail, we find trash, toilet paper, and the gross stuff often accompanying toilet paper. All we can do is make some jokes, pick it up, and continue on our way.

two creeks merging

Just around the bend from Big Spring, we stumbled upon a sleeping bag and pillow that had been shoved into a small corner of the canyon. We exchange some frustrated words, rock, paper, scissors over who takes what, and do our best to shove the discarded items into our packs. Did I mention that having a lightweight tent to save weight and space is really, really nice? If it weren’t for the fact that my sleeping system took up so little space, packing all this junk out would be a lot more of a pain. After a few more choice words, we forge on.

The rest of the afternoon is filled with day hikers, more trash, and a few mandatory swims due to high water. The frustrating truth is that most day hikers do not anticipate having to, ahem… go #2… while in The Narrows. This means a big part of our patrols in said Narrows is picking up after those people. Not all that glitters is gold, people! I love my job. I really do!  But with all the Leave No Trace outreach done by the National Park Service, it baffles me how much waste we carry out. I don’t want to harp on this too hard because I understand how gross it is, but next time you see a park ranger and think they have the dreamiest job on the planet, remember this blog post. At the end of each Narrows patrol, we measure the waste we carry out in pounds. Anway, I digress.

camp for the night with the Haven net tent

As we go, we chat with day hikers, answer questions, and stumble our way back to the trailhead. 16 miles in a river is a lot. My coworker and I confirm with each other that the hike is, in fact, in “hard mode” due to the aforementioned high-water levels. We stroll the one-mile paved Riverside Walk back to the trailhead, hop on the shuttle, and make our final journey back to Headquarters.

Being a Wilderness Ranger at Zion can be a very hot and cold experience, both literally and figuratively. The desert is a place of extremes, and maybe that’s why I have such a strong appreciation for it. Even Park Rangers are visitors to these magical areas, simply moving through the ever-changing landscapes of America’s most treasured places.

a spring flowing into the river

Reading next

The Wonderland Trail - An Impromptu Adventure Around Mt. Rainier by Heather Hoechst
3 Day Beginner Backpackers Pack List By Joe Kellam

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