National Geographic : 1954 Jan
Amid the Mighty Walls of Zion Explorer-Vacationists Penetrate the River, Heart of Zion National Fantastic Narrows of Utah's Virgin Park's Many-hued Wonderland BY LEWIS F. CLARK 'ET'S GO through the Narrows of the SVirgin River this summer," wrote my brother Nate. He enclosed photo graphs which he had made on a brief scouting trip earlier in the year. His letter breathed enthusiasm. We had long dreamed of such a trip into the wilds of southwestern Utah's Zion Na tional Park.* Here the North Fork of the Virgin River has been chief actor in one of those geological dramas which were respon sible for so many of our country's miracles in-stone. Nature's Wall Street 2,000 Feet Deep Eons ago, when the land started to rise from the sea, a stream meandered gently southward. As the land rose, the stream cut slowly but inevitably into the underlying rocks. Like an endless belt of sandpaper, grit-bearing water scoured its way through layer after layer of sandstone until it dug a fantastic, sheer-walled canyon. Today, with a fall 10 times that of the Colo rado in Grand Canyon National Park, the Virgin River tumbles along a channel that reaches a depth of 2,000 feet; at the bottom it is little wider than many a city street. We knew that the canyon of the Virgin River Narrows, like the colorful gorges of the Colorado River, is spectacular and awe-inspir ing. How impressive it really is we were to learn by splashing along its gravelly bed and stopping repeatedly to look at the walls tower ing higher and higher above us. The chasms carved by the Virgin River are probably unrivaled for their dramatic combination of depth and narrowness (page 48). Visitors to 148-square-mile Zion National Park, which cradles the Virgin River for part of its course, number in the hundreds of thou sands each year, yet only a few are known to have penetrated all the way through the Narrows. Perhaps the earliest was Grove Karl Gil bert, surveyor, map maker, and Trustee of the National Geographic Society from 1890 to 1905. In 1872 he traversed the North Fork from a point near its head to its junction with the East Fork. Mukuntuweap and Parunu- weap, the Indians called these branches of the river. The miles of canyon floor, in places only twenty feet wide between sheer walls sunk almost a half mile into the sandstone, he named the Narrows. He described the en tire course of the North Fork as "the most wonderful defile it has been my fortune to behold." We believed a trip through the Narrows would take the better part of two long days. Summer would give more hours for travel and the best light for photography. Dry weather would simplify our camping gear. Zion National Park has two dry periods, early summer and late fall. Between them comes a thunderstorm season, with occasional wild flash floods. We hoped that the first week in July would still be in the so-called dry period, and chose the long July 4th week end for our adventure. Our equipment had to be lightweight, and waterproof in case we had to swim. Single thickness wool blankets sewed into mummy case bags, food for two days in the gorge, movie and still cameras and film, all were fitted into waterproof plastic bags. In Zion, as in many other national parks, those who would go climbing or exploring beyond the trails are required to register at park headquarters. Rangers can then advise parties regarding safety precautions, and may dissuade leaders from unwise trips. They also know where to start looking if visitors fail to return as planned. Rangers at First Said No The first reaction of Zion's chief ranger was that we should not make the trip. From early July through August, he told us, travel in the Narrows is inadvisable because of the threat of flash floods. The thunderstorm sea son was imminent. His views, admittedly reasonable, were an abrupt setback to us. Yet we were optimistic that the dry spell would continue. We talked for an hour and a half, going over the perils * See "Utah, Carved by Winds and Waters," by Leo A. Borah, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, May, 1936.