A Hike to Zion's Belly; When a sign indicates flash flood warnings, DO NOT attempt this hike!

A Hike to Zion’s Belly

When a sign indicates flash flood warnings, DO NOT attempt this hike!

We had come to Zion in order to photograph the scenery. For a while, we drove to the various tourist spots, and took in the “Kodak Moments” that were marked so the casual visitor could stand on the footprints, click the shutter, and be sure of getting an image similar to the postcards sold in the local gift shops. This quickly becomes boring.

Rather than go back to the tent and sleep, we chose to park near a sign that said Zion Narrows Trail Head. Underneath it was a sign with an arrow that gave the likelihood of flash floods in that area. Being the first week in July, monsoon season in the Southwest, the sign was placed in the high range (one notch down from extreme). Not knowing any better (blame it on my east coast upbringing and a sense of adventure that borders on lunacy), I tried to talk my wife and sons into taking a hike to the Narrows.

We started out taking the concrete sidewalk that leads to the Virgin river. Since this was designed to be accessible to the handicapped, the place had more people than I care to be near. I encouraged my clan to hike further. A dirt path led upstream and another warning sign at this point said:

Flash Flood Warning

Due to the possibility of Flash Flooding along the Virgin River
It is recommended that no one venture beyond this point!

I saw clouds far to the north near the horizon, I thought they were too far away to have any impact upon the area I was in. Since the sign was clearly being ignored by others and I needed to get away from the mass of tourists, I chose to venture forth. My wife and sons followed, and we showed each other interesting things we found, lizards, butterflies, flowers and such.

About a mile into the canyon, the trail seemed to vanish. I waded into the river, the water only came to mid calf, and headed further upstream. The boy’s chose not to go with me, they had just spotted something else to investigate. My wife stayed with them and told me to let her know if they could proceed.

I found a trail about 100 yards upstream on the opposite bank. I went back and informed her of what I found and all of us hiked until that trail petered out. At this point we parted. The force of the water was increasing as we went upstream and she didn’t want to keep wading. I went on.

I took photographs of the cliff faces and some of the plants and animals I came across as I hiked. The trail meandered from bank to bank and frequent crossings of the river were necessary. Gradually the canyons sides started to approach each other. I noticed the water was getting a bit deeper, but I attributed that to the narrowing of the canyon. I pressed on and found Zion’s Belly, a rock formation that I found particularly amusing (and my first published work).

As I hiked toward the center of the canyon, I encountered several hikers moving swiftly downstream. They told me I should join them, but not knowing any better, I pressed on.

The trail was now only in the river, and the water that had been mid calf at Zion’s Belly, was now up to my knees. The canyon walls got so close that I could touch both sides at the same time and the water was now mid thigh. I stood there for about 2 minutes and noticed the water was rising visibly. Time to make a retreat.

The water rose quickly and silently as I headed downstream. I had to move my camera bag from its fanny pack location, or risk losing it. I could feel rocks moving along the bottom, and several times felt some of them crash into the back of my legs. Before I had gone a 1/4 mile downstream, the water was waste deep.

It now was hard work to resist the force of the water, but I had to keep on my feet. To fall would cost me my camera equipment and possibly my life. I turned to face upstream and walked backwards in order to try and avoid debris. I used my tripod as a cane so that I could have a bit more stability. I remembered the sign, and now had an idea of what was meant.

Over the next half hour, the water level slowly started to recede. I had been lucky. The storm that had dumped its water into the head waters was short lived and far upstream. Most of the heavier sediments had dropped out before the water hit Zion. The rise had been modest. I also had acted foolishly. I hiked out in relative peace. One man further upstream was injured and nearly drowned during the flash flood I had experienced. He was rescued 2 after spending 2 days stuck on a ledge.

This year, people that ignored flash flood warnings have DIED in several of the canyons in the southwest. You can never out run the water and swimming with the debris can be fatal. Storms 50 miles away can cause floods in the canyons (where rock walls constrict the outward expansion of the water).

In the wider expanse where my wife and sons were, the water rose only about half a foot. One of my boys lost his glasses after falling in the current. By the time I returned, everybody was ready to go back to camp and rest.

I plan to return to Zion and hike through the narrows once more. But I’ll wait for the monsoon season to be over, this time.

A Hike to Zion's Belly; When a sign indicates flash flood warnings, DO NOT attempt this hike!


Mesa, United States

  • Artist
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