Shelley called the Park this morning and confirmed a rumor that the Bottom-Up Hiking limit for the Zion Narrows has been raised to 150 CFS. Woohoo! That’s a big deal! But what does that mean, exactly?
Until the early 2000s, The Narrows was ALWAYS open, making it a do-at-your-own-risk activity: You looked at the river, maybe you got some advice from the rangers, and then you decided to hike or not. About ten years ago, however, the Park’s lawyers decided the liability of this policy was too great, and ZNP should take measures to protect unwitting Narrows hikers. The Park implemented a system that uses Virgin River water volume (measured in cubic feet per second (CFS)) to determine whether the Zion Narrows is open to hiking or not. The Park set the Top-Down limit at 120 CFS, and the Bottom-Down limit at 140 CFS; if the current CFS is ABOVE the limit any time in the last 24 hours, the hikes are closed accordingly.
The upside of this closure system is very few people enter The Narrows when it is unsafe. The downside, however, is The Narrows is closed at levels where athletic hikers could have a lot of fun enjoying more challenging water levels. Also, when The Narrows is closed, it means all technical canyons flowing into The Narrows – Mystery, Imlay, Englestead, and Orderville – are also effectively closed to canyoneering descents.
Although most people can probably agree The Narrows should probably be closed at some level, there has been much debate and disagreement over years regarding whether 140 CFS is the *right* level. It’s great to see the Park display some flexibility here, raising the CFS bar to 150 after many years without high-water-related Narrows hiking incidents. Could the limit go up another 10 CFS in ten years, if incidents remain as low? Maybe, but for now we’ll just be thankful for the recent change. It literally means 100 – 5,000 people each year (depending on conditions) get to see The Narrows, which is a beautiful thing.
Virgin River volume sits at 107 CFS at this moment, but last night it spiked to around 140 CFS, and the river is on the rise as snow melts off the Markagunt Plateau, flowing into the Virgin River. If temperatures stay warm, snowmelt will likely close Narrows hiking this weekend, and the River will remain closed until snowmelt dissipates later this spring. Sometimes The Narrows is only closed for a few weeks, while other years it’s closed for months. It looks like a GOOD year this year, however, so watch the CFS levels and plan your Narrows hike accordingly this spring.