High runoff leaves the Narrows at Zion National Park closed indefinitely

Popular hike up the Virgin River is off-limits for visitors

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hikers in the Narrows, Zion National Park, Wednesday May 6, 2015.

The window for hiking the Narrows in Zion National Park this year is likely to be, well, narrow.

The Virgin River serves as the trail for this wet and popular hike up Zion Canyon. Those willing to pull on their gaiters or invest in waterproof boots, all with the expectation their feet will still get wet, are rewarded with 100-foot waterfalls and 1,500-foot-tall rock walls that light up like gold when the sun hits them.

The hike often becomes off-limits in the spring, though, when runoff raises the river to levels that are too dangerous to hike. This year, after a record amount of snow fell in Utah’s mountains, the flow of the Virgin River through the Narrows has gone far beyond safe. The National Park Service closed the area to hiking and canyoneering on April 8. No one knows how long the closure will last.

“That’s hard to predict,” acknowledged Zion spokesperson Jonathan Shafer.

“We close the Narrows anytime that flow exceeds 150 cubic feet per second,” he said. “We’ve not seen flows below about 600 cubic feet a second since the middle of the month. Sometimes during the day, several thousand cubic feet per second are flowing downstream.”

On Friday afternoon, a United States Geological Survey meter recorded the Virgin River running at 821 cfs, or about 88% above average. That is more than five times what is considered safe to hike. Yet it was still markedly lower than earlier this week, when flows peaked at more than 3,000 cfs. Those are surges, however. The highest daily average this year was 782 cfs, recorded on April 12.

Yet with snowpack still at 125% of median in terms of water content in some areas, there’s more where that water came from.

River levels will likely remain relatively high into June, according to the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. If they do, one of Zion’s two most popular hikes will be closed during one of its busiest months for only the second time in the past 10 years. In 2019, when the state saw one of its rainiest springs in history, the Narrows was closed from April 6 to June 22. That 77-day stretch also marks the longest the trail has been continuously closed since at least 2012.

The problem for Narrows hikers is that the late spring runoff closures are now on a collision course with closures caused by monsoons. Though monsoon season generally spans July through September, storms can start moving through in June. Those rains can cause their own surges that make hiking through rivers, especially ones cutting through slot canyons, dangerous.

In March, two men died while hiking through the Buckskin Gulch slot canyon east of Zion when a monsoon hit. Last August, multiple hikers in the Narrows were swept up and one woman died following a monsoon-related flash flood.

Search and rescue workers took advantage of the rapid river conditions in late April to work on their swift-water rescues to prepare for just such a scenario. In the midst of that training, however, a 25-year-old Canadian woman was swept into the river near the Grotto — about four miles downstream from the mouth of the Narrows. Rescuers pulled her from the water near Birch Creek, another five miles downstream.

The woman was unresponsive and did not have a pulse when she was pulled from the water. Her pulse returned after paramedics administered CPR, though, and she was flown by helicopter to a hospital.

After the Narrows reopens, park management urges visitors to take precautions. Just because the river is below the 150 cfs threshold, that doesn’t mean the hike will be safe or easy.

“When the current goes above 70 CFS,” it is noted on Zion’s official Narrows page, “walking against the current becomes challenging and crossings of mid-thigh deep are frequent with pools that can be chest deep.”

The website ZionGuro.com, meanwhile, warned that attempting to hike the Narrows when the flow is above 90 cfs would be unwise and perhaps impossible for children and anyone shorter than 4 feet, 6 inches and weighing less than 80 pounds. For those larger than that, a hike in those conditions would be “athletic” or “challenging.”

Even though the Narrows is closed, the River Walk Trail that leads between it and the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop remains open.

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