Zion's Grand Loop: The Narrows and Orderville Gulch
Zion National Park, with nearly 2.5 million yearly visitors, is one of the most heavily-visited parks in the National Park System. The large crowds along with the resultant shuttle and backcountry permit systems devised to lessen the impact of said crowds, had always turned me off to exploring much of the park.
I eventually realized that these things are really not nuisances at all (the shuttle buses are actually way more convenient than negotiating the narrow roads and limited parking areas with your car). And despite the crowded conditions at many of the main attractions off of the Scenic Drive, there is vast acreage elsewhere in the park that will satisfy the staunchest of solitude seekers.
Once past these unfounded hang-ups, I decided I had to do the crown jewel of Zion - the infamous Narrows of the North Fork of the Virgin River. But is it truly the best hike Zion has to offer? After some research I discovered that many Zion regulars declare Orderville Gulch, a large tributary to the North Fork, as one of the "must-do" hikes in Zion. So which hike was I to do? I decided to try and do both, and not only that, but both in one day.
The Zion Narrows is typically done in two days with a camp midway through the canyon. Orderville Gulch is a bit shorter but still described as a long day hike. Could it be done? After a few hours of research I came up with my plan: leave a mountain bike at the top of Orderville Gulch in the evening, camp at the upper North Fork trailhead, start out down the Narrows at 5 am and hopefully get to the confluence with Orderville Gulch with enough daylight to hike up Orderville Gulch to my bike and cruise back to my car at the North Fork trailhead.
Above: with my bike in place, a good night's rest, and plenty of energy to burn, I was off before sun-up as planned.
The first few miles give little indication of the huge chasm that you soon enter. Here, the North Fork meanders through broad grass-covered meadows - perfect for grazing cattle which were plentiful.
Above: the old Bulloch cabin on the edge of a mountain meadow near the North Fork.
Before you know it, sheer walls of Navajo Sandstone tower overhead and you're forced to walk right in the cold river.
Above: the confluence with Deep Creek. Here, the flow of the river is nearly doubles.
Above: a short "subway" section.
I knew I had to move fast if I was going to complete the loop before dark. I was able to run on the more stable sand and gravel bars. But it was slow-going when the river is wall-to-wall, covering slippery unseen boulders. A trekking or old ski pole (or two) is a must to maintain balance.
By 9:30 I had started to catch up to hikers that had started the day before; so far, so good - ahead of schedule.
Above: refilling the Camelbak at the luxuriant Big Springs.
Above: yellow and red Columbine line the canyon wall in one of the deepest parts of the Narrows.
Below: Even with stopping to take quite a few photos, I flew through the Narrows to the mouth of Orderville Gulch in about 6 hours and I was feeling pretty confident at this point. But it didn't take long for my plans to unravel.
The first mile or so of Orderville is spectacular. Lots of wading and scrambling over small waterfalls, and even a couple of short swims. Unfortunately, my adventure came to a premature end when I got to a relatively short chokestone and waterfall that I could not pass. I believe in the past that this could be climbed, but recent floods had deeply scoured out the plunge pool (the water was well over my head) and I couldn't reach any hand holds, no boulders to chimney, no nothing - I was toast. There was no way I was going to backtrack against the current all the way back to my car.
Defeated, with my tail between my legs, I had to bail out back to the North Fork and down to the Temple of Sinawava where I caught a shuttle to the Visitor Center and begrudgingly called Sue (I hate having to get bailed out by my wife!) for a ride.
Not all was lost. I was able to check the Zion Narrows off my need-to-do list, and I got to see a good chunk of the equally exciting Orderville Gulch. I'm determined to see the rest of the Gulch, but I think I'll try it from the top.