The Zion Narrows in Winter

The Narrows of the Virgin River in Zion National Park is one of the ten best "hikes" in any park.  The hike is wading the in the Virgin River in the very narrow and deep canyon.  The canyon is  over 1000' (300m) deep and in places less than 20 feet (6m) wide.  The river twists and turns at it moves deeper into the Narrows.  

You wade in water than could be ankle deep or in pools you have to swim.  However I find most of it is around knee deep with only a few sections going to waist deep in the main part of the canyon (Temple of Sinewava to Wall Street).

Wading in from the Temple of Sinewava (the last stop on the shuttle bus in Zion Canyon) does not require a permit.  If you want to do the longer 16 mile top down hike (usually done overnight) does require a permit.  The water also needs to be low with no chance of flash flood.  One thing to always, always, always be aware of in canyon country is the possibility of ANY rain as it can easily mean a life threatening flash flood.  Always be safe.

I have waded the river several times in fall and in winter.  However on several trips we were unable to wade the Narrows as the water was too high and it was closed by the park.

Now as a photography you want clear sky to get you reflected light.  You also get the best reflected light in the 10am to 3pm time frame when the sun is high in the sky.  So that makes wading the Narrows very different than traditional landscape photography done at sunrise and sunset.

This last Feburary I had the opportunity to spend three nights in Zion.  It was very much winter with snow on the ground and ice in many places.  To wade the Narrows can be done in cold weather, you just need the right gear.  There are several adventure outfitters in Springdale that will rent gear for about $45/day.  You get canyon booties, neoprene socks, dry pants and a walking stick.  Add in some warm gear like base layers, jacket and the like and you can have a cold weather adventure wading the Narrows!

I rented the gear and was ready to go with one substitution, I brought my own set of trekking poles to use instead of a single hiking stick.  I like the added balance.

Now with the rented gear your feet are wet but reasonably warm and your legs and upper body are dry.  

What I wore:
-Canyon boots, neoprene socks
-Midweight base layer bottoms and dry pants (actually dry bibs)
-T-Neck base layer top, fleece T-Neck, lightweight down sweater
-hat, gloves

When I was moving in the water I was warm.  Yes, even with wet feet.  Your legs and upper body are dry (dont fall in).  When I stopped to take images, I put on my heavier down parka to keep warm while taking images.

Me in Orderville Canyon where it meets the Narrows
I carried my backpack with camera gear, tripod water/snacks and the down parka.  When moving in the river everything in packed and I use my two trekking poles to assist.  When I have a photo location, I look for a sand bar or rock to set my gear and then set up my tripod and camera.  I can sometimes be at a location for 30 minutes so the down parka helps keep me warm.

The day I went into the Narrows the air temp was 27F (-2C) and the water temp was 40F (3c).  The was ice hanging on the walls and there was snow on the rocks.  It is a true winter experience.

I started up the canyon by 0800 and did not stop until I reached the area known as Wall Street which is about a 45 minute trek for me (most people would need 75 minutes+).  One thing I learned on early treks is to go all the way up the canyon you want to go to start and then photograph back down.  Otherwise, you tend to stop too much and not reach the best sections.

It was still early and there was no reflected light.  I set up my camera and put on the down jacket to keep warm.  When the light started to reflect down into the canyon, I started making images.  After getting several nice images, I packed up and moved a few hundred meters back downstrema.  Jacket on, camera set up, images made.  Pack up.  Move.  Repeat.  And repeat.  And repeat.

You may think it is tedious to always repack everything, but when you wade it could be easy to slip, or trip or fall and drop an expensive camera in the river.  Plus by having all gear packed I have two hands free to work the trekking poles.  This helps me keep balance and move efficiently in the river.

Many places have ice or snow.  One of the big rocks is covered in snow.  There is a section where watefalls have frozen solid.  Seeing this in winter is epic.

I am using my small Gitzo 1541T travel tripod.  I am standing in moving water and I am still abel to get sharp images.  This is a good tripod despite the small size.  I am using my Sony A7R camera and switching out between two lenses:  the 15mm Voigtlander and Loxia 21mm.  Both are very sharp.  I occasionally add a 6 stop solid ND filter to get a longer exposure (some as long as 30 seconds).  I am standing in the water for every image I make.   See the image below for the tripod set up in action.

The down parka comes in very handy at keeping warm.  

My camera set up.  sony A7R on Gitzo 1541T
Having been in the canyon before, I have an idea of several good compositions but, as always, find several more during the day.

I stopped by several good areas eventually getitng back to Orderville Canyon.  This is a side canyyon that people can do top down with a permit.  I stop here to set up a selfie.

Even in winter there are people in the Narrows.  It is not as crowded as summer but I occasionally wait out people to make an image.

After several hours in the canyon I make my way out about 4:00pm.  The day is getting late.  I am exhausted and exhilirated from the day.  I make my way back to town, return the rented gear and head over to Oscar's Cafe for the best food in Springdale.  There I sit on the patio and eat tamales.  What a way to end an incredible day.


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