On a stormy September afternoon, at 2:22 pm local time, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood alert for Zion National Park. The conditions were ripe for strong and sudden thunderstorms. Within an hour, the Park Service had officially closed all of Zion’s numerous serpentine slot canyons to the public, and at approximately 4:30 pm, the storm that the NWS had anticipated began to unleash.
What followed was one of the most intense, and ultimately deadly, storm systems in the history of southern Utah. At 5:15 pm, the USGS recorded a flow rate of 56 cubic feet per second (cfs) on the Virgin River near Springdale, Utah at the downstream end of the park. By 5:30 the river has risen to 2,630 cfs. By the time the skies cleared that evening, nineteen people had been killed by flashfloods. Twelve of the victims had been in two vehicles just outside the nearby town of Hildale, Utah, 15 miles away. Another seven while exploring Keyhole Canyon within the park’s borders. The incident was one of the darkest days in the history of Zion and underscored the menacing side behind its veil of sandstone majesty.
Just three weeks after that now-infamous day, I found myself standing at the entrance of the famous Zion Narrows as the sky darkened overhead.
It is hard not to be awestruck by the stark beauty of Zion National Park. Vertical sandstone bastions of orange, crimson and carmine soar so impossibly tall they seem a figment of your waking imagination. The canyon floor, on the other hand, is surprisingly lush. Shaded by the thousand-foot walls, many ambrosial aquatic features dominate the landscape: Emerald Falls, the Hanging Gardens, the Subway and—the main artery for it all—the Virgin River.
My wife, Ella, and I had been planning a getaway to Zion for months. Only eight hours from our hometown of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, it seemed a terrible oversight that we had not yet undertaken a pilgrimage to this cathedral of the American Southwest. During our week in the park we explored some of the classic hikes: the impressive heights of Observation Point, the spine-like exposure of Angel’s Landing, the elegant beauty of the Emerald Pools, and the quieter, less trodden intrigue of the Subway. But for me the heart of the park was here in the Narrows.
Standing at the canyon mouth, the yawning fissure seemed eager to swallow our minuscule forms. We took a moment to select the best walking stick from the many lining the stone wall at the end of the pedestrian trail, rolled up our pants and stepped into the cold water of the Virgin River.
Almost immediately, the unique nature of the Narrows was apparent. Massive vertical walls leaped up from both sides of the water to neck-bending heights. There was no trail and navigating upstream required careful diligence to locate the shallowest and least obstructed channels. We were in the water more often than not. The intense beauty was humbling, and every corner so new and breathtaking that each could have been its own masterful work of art.
|The Subway in Zion National Park
The sliver of sky far above had cleared to a beautiful sapphire blue and the threat of rain and flooding seemed far away. But given the recent tragedy, it was impossible not to ponder the potential of such an event occurring here. The possible sequence of events was terrible to visualize: a sudden rainstorm, an echoing grumble of rising water, the appearance of a coffee-black mass of water and debris rounding the corner upstream. Where would you go? What would you do? Glancing from wall to vertical wall, it was clear that in many parts of the Narrows (and other canyons in Zion) there was no safe haven from the abrupt onslaught of a flashflood. The tunnels of Zion, though some of the most beautiful places in the American desert, hold their dark secret.
Nowhere in the canyon was the foreboding claustrophobia more apparent than in the section known as Wall Street, where the walls closed in tight against the Virgin River on both sides and the few saving spits of land where at least some higher ground might be found disappeared altogether. Here the beauty and danger reached a dramatic crescendo. Ella and I moved cautiously ahead, probing the turbid currents for deep runnels and slippery boulders. A few days earlier just after completing our hike of Observation Point, we had been overrun by a short but strong thunderstorm. Huge cascades spilled hundreds of feet down normally dry rock faces. Excited like children we’d braved the rain to take stunning photographs of colossal, fleeting waterfalls. But in Wall Street the memory was enough to make me shudder in fear. That storm had moved in very quickly, the sky going from blue to gray in little more than half an hour. Here, trapped and exposed to the heart of just such a threat, it was easy to see how quickly things could turn tragic.
But each new bend was a new world, and we were drawn deeper and deeper into the canyon. Before long the just-one-more-corners had turned into four miles. Finally, in a sunnier, relatively open stretch of the canyon, we found a massive rock to sunbathe on and reflect on our experience of the Narrows. There were many more miles of canyon to see, but without an overnight permit this was the end of the road.
“This is amazing!” Ella proclaimed as the sun cascaded onto her cheeks and shoulders. “We have to come back and do the full canyon.”
I thought about the dark skies, the debris-choked flood waters and the ill-fated seven whose lives came to an abrupt end in a place not terribly dissimilar from the one where we now rested.
“Absolutely,” I replied. But quickly I added, “As long as the weather looks good.” Yes, the tunnels of Zion have a dark side. But I had fallen in love with them anyway.
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