"We're hiking in the river?" I think to myself as our crew of travellers begins suiting up at the entrance to Zion National Park. I knew I signed up for an active trip – a multi-day tour through some of Utah's national parks – but I wrongfully assumed the adventure would stick to dry trails.
The gravity of the situation dawns on me as we strap on our rented hiking gear: waterproof bib suits with water-tight plastic cuffs, neoprene booties tucked inside those cuffs and water boots with extra-grippy soles.
The right fit is integral to help keep me warm and prevent the river water, which is a chilly 3°C on this early December day, from leaking into my getup. I check in repeatedly with the outfitter staff to make sure my laces are tied tightly enough and my straps adjusted just right.
Once my outfit is complete, I'm handed an armpit-high wooden pole to help with stability and balance during the hike, along with a dry bag for my belongings. As I'm suiting up, I notice a chalkboard in the gear shop that displays the day's current hiking conditions as a 'green light' of sorts for the day's hikers, advising us that flood risk for the day is low.
With barely any vegetation to absorb rainfall, flash floods are common in the park so it's imperative that hikers check in before embarking on their journey.
We take a short drive through the indescribably scenic Zion National Park with its glowing red-rock facades and cliff faces that compel me to take cheesy tourist photos through the shuttle van's windows at every turn.
We find ourselves at the entrance to the Narrows. What was a flat basin 240 million years ago has been slowly transformed into a deep and narrow slot canyon, thanks to the fast-moving, mineral-rich waters of the Virgin River, which have cut through the rock over millennia.
Sandstone cliffs soar almost 800 metres above a narrow canyon opening where a river slowly flows through
It is a geological wonder of epic proportions, unlike anything I've seen before, and certainly not like the flat Ontario landscapes I'm used to. Sandstone cliffs soar almost 800 metres above a narrow opening where a river slowly flows through. A brisk, 20-minute walk to our entry point helps get my blood flowing but also has me wondering how I'll manage as I'm already feeling cold despite all the hiking gear on top of multiple layers of zip-ups and thermals.
The moment arrives for us to take our first steps into the water, which is ankle-deep and as wide as two lanes of traffic. I breathe deeply and follow my leader who has already crossed the river onto a flat stretch of land across the shallow stream. My heart sinks as I begin to feel ice-cold water seep into the shoes, through the neoprene socks and in between my toes. Despite all the checks and precautions, I must have omitted something – a missed tuck of sock-under-cuff, or an incorrect final lacing of my boots.
Just a few steps later, I meet our group leader on dry land. "Everyone feeling squishy down there?" she asks. I embarrassingly reveal my supposed hiking wardrobe malfunction, which she responds to with a laugh. Apparently, the shoes were never meant to be waterproof, but more so to give you the grip and traction you needed to traverse slippery rock and wade through the shallow river. I should only be concerned if I feel water going up past my ankles, she says, as the bib's plastic cuffs are meant to seal out water. But otherwise, "just keep moving," she advises. "It'll keep you warm."
Her words bear out as I soon discover that wading upstream through the river, which is increasing in depth up to my calves and knees, is no easy feat. Like dialling up the traction on a stationary bike, the sheer force of water makes it feel like I'm dragging an extra few pounds of dead weight with me at every step. My trusty wooden pole becomes handy as a fifth limb of sorts to help me traverse the uneven ground and maintain a somewhat solid footing.
The temperature is so cold today that, in shallower areas, small puddles of water have iced over, cracking under foot
I quickly learn that the pole serves another important purpose. Sections of the river can be thigh-deep – or even deeper – so I use the pole as a simple tool to measure the depth of water in front of me and ensure I don't end up swimming instead of hiking. In deep spots, the sediment-rich waters of the Virgin River pool go from translucent to opaque shades of emerald green. That inspires my cheeky Narrows mantra: "green means do not go."
The temperature outside is so cold today that, in shallower areas, small puddles of water have iced over, cracking under the weight of my foot as I trek along. Yet somehow, about half an hour into the hike, I'm taking breaks to remove layers and wipe the sweat off the bridge of my nose.
True to my guide's wise words, the adrenaline pumping through my veins and the jaw-dropping scenery have combined to make me forget all about the frigid waters that my lower body is wading through.
The breaks also let me snap images on my camera (which I have sealed into not one, but two Ziploc freezer baggies). Not unlike the drive in, I feel compelled to take my camera out at every turn of the river. Picturesque pebbled streams lead to stunning red rock overhangs and striations that serve as their own tellings of time, revealing countless layers of colourful sediment from eons past.
I snap the very best images my amateur photographer self is able to capture, yet none of them seem to do the scene justice. I don't think there's a panorama lens or photo-stitching function that would.
The feeling of being sandwiched in between soaring high cliffs that are nearly one-and-a-half times the height of the CN Tower is indescribable by words or photographs. But I do my absolute best.
It was easy to capture photographs without other hikers in the background (although I do snap a few on purpose, just for scale), but I'm told this is a rarity during peak season in spring and fall. I have to take my hiking leader's word for it, as it's my first time in the Narrows, but the cold temperatures make our early winter hike a peaceful, crowd-free experience. During some points of the trek, I feel as though I have this meandering river all to myself.
It's a similar feeling the next day when we leave Zion's epic cliff faces for Bryce Canyon, via Utah's Scenic Byway 12, which fully lives up to its name. We drive under rugged archways sandblasted through the rock and along winding switchbacks worthy of a luxury-car commercial, as we slowly summit and descend from an elevation. Around us are endless stretches of flat-topped red rock structures among vegetation-free stretches.
I snap a photo on my phone to send to my family. "Looks like something out of Westworld," my brother-in-law texts back. Sure enough, we're just a few hours away from Castle Valley, Utah, where the sci-fi TV series is filmed.
It's nearly sunset by the time we reach the lookout point for our first glimpse of Bryce Canyon. The panorama here contrasts to that of Zion in so many ways, but is no less impressive. Instead of standing at the foot of cliffs, I'm now at the edge of one overlooking a giant amphitheatre filled with thousands upon thousands of hoodoos.
The sun is setting quickly with just enough time for a few quick snaps. But, thankfully, we return to Bryce Canyon the next morning to get a closer look at the geological wonders that have become icons for this national park. Also called a tent rock or earth pyramid, a hoodoo gets its unusual shape thanks to the multiple layers of rock that form it. Striations of harder rock higher up the hoodoo are more difficult to erode than the softer layers below, creating these mysteriously shaped spires.
Much like our visit to Zion, once the sunrise passes and the requisite photo-takers retreat back to the warmth of their vehicles, it feels like this massive canyon is ours alone to discover. Taking careful steps, this time on snow instead of slippery river rocks, we explore the edges of the canyon on a short hike around the perimeter, admiring how a dusting of snow seems to give these rock spires a magical quality.
I'm not a snow-seeker and I won't deny that there were times on this trip when I couldn't feel my pinky toes. But they were vastly outnumbered by the moments of awe I experienced, being surrounded by Utah's natural wonders without peak-season travellers in the way. For me, the quiet, cold calm trumps the crowds any day.