Winter in The Zion Narrows

10:10 a.m. on December 17, 2013 (EST)
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Winter, in my opinion, is the best time to visit Zion National Park for 4 reasons.

  1. It’s not 114 degrees
  2. There is plenty of parking
  3.  It’s the only time of year you can get a true wilderness experience.
  4.  Every 100 years or so a freak storm leaves a blanket of snow across the landscape enhancing the red rock backdrop.


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Since the first of December I have hiked The Narrows twice and have seen a total of 7 people in the canyon.  You normally have to get up at 5 in the morning to get that kind of solitude. Don’t get me wrong.  I think it’s great that people come from all over the world to visit the park and enjoy one of the greatest sceneries in the world. It’s just nice to occasionally enjoy the park without over 1,000 different people. I am the type of person who enjoys nature, I love listening to rivers and wildlife. I crave solitude and adventure. I love being the first person to break tracks in freshly fallen snow. On a normal year Zion will get about 2-3 inches of snow. Usually the majority of the snow is gone in a couple hours. I thought the reason most people move to the desert is for the warm weather and the lack of snow.

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This year, in one 24 hour storm Zion received, depending on the source, between 14 and 16 inches of snow. I was one of the lucky 4 people to be inside The Narrows when half of that snow dropped. When I tried to convince some of friends to come hike with me they thought I was crazy and many of the responses I received were “isn’t it supposed to snow? “  “Of course it is, that’s why I’m going” I would reply.

How many people can say they were in The Narrows in a snow storm? How many people can say they have been to Zion while snow was on the ground?  I would assume that besides a few locals that the answer is not very many.

When this trip was planned the weather station had reported that there would be 2-3 inches of snow. I figured this would be a good day to hike The Narrows and get a few winter pictures to use as ads for the shop. My train of thought was we’ll get into the canyon a little snow will fall, we’ll get some awesome pictures and then we’ll go home. I figured it would take a couple hours. That was not the case.

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When we first got to the park we were able to get a few photos of the turkeys and a snowy Angels Landing. Along the RiversideWalk we saw a few deer and icicles.  It was fairly warm out and ice was beginning to fall around the hanging gardens. Side note: This is a very hazardous spot to be, Ice falling off those cliffs could do some serious damage to a person. I caution any person attempting to hike in Zion during the winter to take all environmental risks into account. Ice is not the only thing that can fall. With all the freezing and melting in the park it does not take a lot for a slab of sandstone to come off the canyon walls.

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With those words of caution I’ll dive back into my story. The first ¼ mile of the hike was quite pleasant and we were able to snap some fairly decent photos, but the snow did not stop. The 3 inches we were supposed to get quickly turned into 6. Snow was accumulating so fast that every time we made a noise or tried to take a photo a mini “avalanche” would come off the canyon walls and create a hazy cloud of awesomeness. This made it very hard to photograph the canyon.

For some reason camera lenses condense and freeze up in these types of conditions. Lucky for us we were in full body Kokatat dry suits and had 10mm of neoprene covering our feet and some awesome Adidas Hydro Pro’s; otherwise we probably would have condensed and froze like our cameras. Another side note and shameless plug for Adidas Outdoor:  If it had not been for these fantastic boots we may have lost some toes, I honestly think if we had been wearing any koka.jpg?w=225&h=300other brand of canyoneering boot this trip would not have been as successful. I would like to thank them for making such a great boot. I’d throw in a rant about how great Kokatat is as well, but after making dry suits for over 40 years everyone knows their suits are awesome. Hydro Pros are a newer product and if rumors are true this wonderful boot is set to be discontinued. If anyone form adidas reads this I beg you please keep making these boots. Ok enough of me whining and advertising, let’s return to the trip.

We were able to make it Orderville Canyon and had some lunch before being turned back by more and more of the mini avalanches. We figured at some point the quick accumulation of snow on the walls would eventually bring rocks or other debris with it. Upon our return a couple of us enjoyed the buoyancy of the dry suits and floated down the river on purpose.  One more point of caution if any of you reading this attempt a similar trip. Take neoprene gloves with you!!  I had not originally intended to float and my hands froze up pretty quickly. My friend, who is a bit more adventurous than myself, had planned to float and so he brought the proper gloves. This obviously led to him being slightly more comfortable than myself.

Once we reached Mystery Canyon we were stopped for a brief moment by a slightly larger “mini avalanche” that came down right dscf9213.jpg?w=300&h=225on top of us. Luckily there was no debris just lite, fluffy snow. When the haze cleared we noticed the 3 point buck walking up the river towards us. We moved to a deeper section of the water to allow his passage. We did this just as a sheet of snow come barreling down on to him. He shook the snow off and continued his trek up The Narrows. We stood in amazement and tried to get photos with our frozen lenses as bambi’s father walked no more than 10 feet away from us.

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We met a few people on the Riverside Walk and a few more in the parking lot whom looked really confused as they saw 4 guys in dry suits coming walking out of The Narrows with frozen hiking sticks and icicles in their beard. The truck was buried in roughly 10 inches of snow and the roads had not been plowed, which actually just added to our adventure. On the way out a snow plow was coming up the road with a ranger close behind. As we neared the lodge the gate had been closed to deter people from driving up canyon. I can only assume that the ranger was heading up canyon to let folks know they were closing the road. Three days after the storm I received my first phone call for the winter season. Lucky me, I was returning to The Narrows for another fabulous winter adventure.- 

10:58 a.m. on December 17, 2013 (EST)
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Very cool! I looked hard at a late november trip there wondering about how to deal with the water in colder temps. I don't own a wetsuit (and would have no other use for one most likely) but that's a really neat idea.

 

Thanks for sharing this!

5:13 p.m. on December 17, 2013 (EST)
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Nice report and pictures.  Great job!!

5:46 p.m. on December 17, 2013 (EST)
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Nice trip report. I live in Orderville about 20 miles northeast of Zion over on north highway 89. I work at the Thunderbird Best Western at Mt Carmel Jct where state road 9 from Zion meets 89. We get a few tour buses in winter of people from around the world still wanting to see Zion and Bryce in winter.

Of the original 14 inches of snow we got that first week of December about 2 are left and its back up into the 50-60's now. I just bicycled home in shorts and a tshirt the 6 miles from work. Its so unlike it was this time last week Tuesday.

I spent twenty year from 1983-03 hiking in the Grand Canyon from October to April every year. Dec/Jan were my favorite months in the canyon because while the south rim had a few feet of snow and 10-20 degree days and minus degree nights, the inner canyon was 50-70 during the day and 30-40 at night and there were so few backpackers I could easily get the backcountry to myself away from the main corridor trails. And I could hike in shorts and a tshirt while in the canyon only having to have winter clothes for when I returned to the rim for supplies and new permits.

The latest I have hiked the narrows is mid November. 

5:08 p.m. on December 18, 2013 (EST)
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Patman,

There are a few outfitters in town that rent out dry and wet suits for fall and winter travel. I am lucky enough to work for one of them. Don't let cold water stop your trip. The off season is a great time to get away from the crowds.

Thanks Jason

Gary,

I normally don't go into the Narrows during tourist season. This was my first time in December.  Usually November and March are the latest/earliest I go. We planned it so we could be there during this storm, but we only expected 2-3 inches. That weather man was way off. Cedar was suppose to get the big storm, but when I got home we only had 1 new inch....crazy!!

9:38 a.m. on December 19, 2013 (EST)
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James,

Here in Orderville the weather reports are never right. Its been warming up everyday since the storm in early December. Days when it was only supposed to be in the late 40's it has been in the upper 60's. I lived/worked in Jackson Hole WY for 32 summers and the weather reports were never right there either.

I worked in Zion from mid April to mid August the summer of 2007 and used to hike the narrows on almost all my days of because in summer it gets so hot in Zion. I would start at the Temple of Sinawava and walk up along the river bank crossing back and forth until I got to the end of the River Walk trail. Then I would walk up the opposite side from the tourist route where they walked through the shallowest parts of the stream. Often times walking or swimming through the water where it was deep and swift. I wore light shorts and a T-shirt and sandals. People would see me in the deep water, especially when it was over my head against the opposite wall from them and ask if the water was not cold. And I would say yes, but that to me was the reason to go through the deep water. Plus I always had the deep sides to myself, no line hiking with all the others. 

I have only been just above Big Springs a ways past Orderville Canyon. I once did the narrows in mid November when the water while still thawed was very cold and I still waded through the deepest areas. On one trip in 2005 the only place the sun shown down into the canyon was one brief section where Mystery Canyon came in and it lasted only about 12 minutes while I stood in the sun and warmed up after being in the water for 5 hours up and back.

I have never used a wet/dry suit. Just Teva sandals,running shorts and T-shirts and a hat. I usually find a walking stick at the River Walk end for stabilization. 

I rarely get to Zion except in the off season as I work at the Thunderbird Lodge over here at Mt Carmel Jct and I only have a bicycle which are not allowed through the tunnel. I usually hike over here in the Barracks/Parunuweap, East Zion canyons, all the slot canyons in the White Cliffs east of highway 89 between Kanab and Glendale and the plateau/benches like Glendale and Skutumpah and up Muddy Creek, down Mineral and Meadow,Miners Gulch, Monument and Poverty Wash. Being in Zion I don't know if you get over here to the east side but if you ever want to see some other places with narrows,slots and fine beautiful side canyons look me up either at the Thunderbird or my place up here in Orderville, send me an email or message me here at Trailspace. There are many fine slots like Upper and Lower Red Cave,Spring Calf Pasture and Red Hollow, Red Canyon (between MT Carmel and Kanab) the Barracks/Parunuweap and all its side canyons with many narrow slots and all the high country.

In the last 37 years I spent an average of 276 days/nights a year either backpacking or bicycle touring from Labor Day to Memorial Day every year, working just the 90's days of summer June,July and August since 1982. I hiked the Grand Canyon for 20 years anytime from October to April. 

1:00 p.m. on December 20, 2013 (EST)
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WOW!!!!! This is sooooooo cooooool! Thanks so much for sharing!

7:26 p.m. on December 20, 2013 (EST)
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Love the pictures! Thanks for sharing, James.

3:40 a.m. on December 21, 2013 (EST)
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Very refreshing! Winter canyoneering, hmm. I guess if you were to go steeper, wetter, colder you'd be talking dry suits, ice axes, and crampons. Could get interesting...

7:24 p.m. on December 22, 2013 (EST)
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Gary,

I get over to your side occasionally, I'm actually in the process of getting a key to some private property that access's the red cave area (not Del Tait's property) I used to guide a little in Diana's Throne and the Parunaweap (Rock Canyon). I would love to get into some more exploration over there. I'll definitely get a hold of you this spring/summer if I get some free time.

5:57 p.m. on December 23, 2013 (EST)
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What is the water depth like in the winter?

 

Does the floatation from a wet or dry suit make it difficult to keep on your feet?

 

10:03 p.m. on December 24, 2013 (EST)
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The water depth normally is about knee deep or less. There are pockets of water occasionally that can reach waist to chest high. During spring runoff the levels are a lot higher.

A dry suit this time of year is not a problem, you normally don't become bouyant until it starts getting over your waist.  It is fun in some of the areas to just lay down and float on your back. Floating in a dry suit is a great way to view The Narrows

December 21, 2014
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