To enter is to welcome a world of light. To get there is to welcome a world of pain.
We woke before dawn.
Already battered from the first day’s fight with Angel’s Landing, our crew readied for 10-plus miles of trudging through the Virgin River. This is the only way in and the only way out of Zion’s famous Narrows, a section of the fast-flowing waterway that’s still cutting its way through thousand-foot sandstone cliffs. Flash floods are a weekly occurrence here. At times, the water-bound trail is only 30 feet wide.
People die here.
But, if you’ve got the gear and the guts, and a little help from the weather, you can venture into the heart of the Narrows. What you’ll find there is unlike any place I’ve seen on Earth.
We hit one of the first shuttles of the morning, sometime around 6 a.m. 45 minutes later, it dropped us at the Narrows trailhead, which winds along the riverbank for a mile before dropping you into the water itself. The Virgin is a cold river—especially in early Fall—but dry pants and neoprene socks help counter the chill.
For two more miles, we waded in and out of the river, as the trail criss-crossed its rapids and swells inside the narrowing canyon. Several hours passed.
“It’s incredible,” Shah said. He was right.
The Narrows is a world of gold and brown, black and blue, green and grey. It’s the kind of place where buried treasure seems hidden at every corner. At times, the walls close in overhead, obscuring sunlight from the trail. At other times, the sun bursts in through brilliant shafts; you’ll swear heaven is just around the bend.
The view is indescribable. The price of admission? Battered knees and a constant, upstream fight with the current. A walking stick is required equipment here: especially if you want to leave with a dry camera bag.
I spent most of the day on an unending diet of peanut butter sandwiches, wasabi nuts and Advil.
Even in the cold, I made time to rest under a waterfall.
I’m not sure how much time we spent in the Narrows. I know that by the time we began to make our way back out, none of us wanted to leave. We’d come so far—up the Virgin, past the canyon fork, down the length of Wall Street, where the path is at its smallest margin. So, with one last, great breathe of adventure, we ponied up and took on Orderville Canyon.
I ponied up and took another Advil.
Technically, Orderville is a part of the Narrows. Several miles into the hike, we’d spotted the fork that takes you there, but we opted to carry on to Wall Street. On the way back, we discovered something entirely new; and, it was a place widely different from the deep, glowing canyons near its mouth.
The road less traveled
Orderville Canyon is not the covergirl for Zion. It doesn’t get the hype of Angel’s Landing or Wall STreet. Most of the famed photos and stories of the Narrows look and sound like the images you’ve already seen here. But for our group, Orderville made this trip.
It doesn’t look like much, at first. The Virgin flows wild through Wall Street, and the smaller slot running off towards Orderville barely holds a trickle of water near the fork. But a few hundreds yard in—on around a bend—a deep pool guards the gate to something special. Accessing the canyon means climbing a waterfall at the top of the pool, and it’s no easy feat in rubberized pants.
The buddy system gets us through. And, just barely, our bags, too.
What we found past that fall, then another, then another, was a masterpiece.
For several minutes, I was awestruck. It must be the feeling a miner gets when he sees a great vein of gold buried deep in the Earth. I couldn’t see that the great walls were not made of gold, that it was only an illusion caused by water, algae and light. Right there, my jaw rested in the stream on the canyon floor. Somewhere in my memory, it’s still drowning.
Here at the end of our journey, Orderville Canyon became our great playground. We swam through its pools, climbing steeper and higher waterfalls, testing our balance on fallen logs and playing rounds of makeshift golf with walking sticks and pine cones. Barely a soul bothered us.
It sounds ridiculous, but it was awesome.
It was awesome to wander so far from home, in such a spectacular place. It was awesome for five grown adults with marriages and divorces and responsibility and wanderlust to become kids again.
For me, Orderville will always be a time machine: proof that adventure is forever worth adversity, that no matter your age, your spirit never wrinkles or grows grey.
This piece dedicated to adventure, to the road less traveled and to:
Editor’s notes: The road heads home now, in earnest. The first part is already taking me along I-40. Eventually, the same road will deposit me just a mile from home on the eastern banks of the Mississippi River. It was good to spend the grand finale with friends.