Although Utah offers many adventurous hiking opportunities for children and young teens, a Zion Narrows day trip may be one trek that stands above all the rest, a truly extraordinary experience.
For one thing, kids love water - and this is primarily a walk in water, the "trail" defined by the stone walls channeling the Virgin River.I took my two boys, Roger, then 11, and Steven, 8, on a hike up the Narrows last September. Both were wide-eyed at the scenery in the narrow chasms and would readi-ly go there again.
This is not a simple stroll, however. Such an excursion requires advance planning and cooperative weather. It is also best attempted in late summer or early fall, when water levels have dropped and the skies have dried up a bit.
And it is not a hike for younger children. The National Park Service recommends they be 56 inches or taller for any Narrows hike, which the two boys were. It's simply unwise to take shorter and younger kids along because it will likely not be a fun experience for them and your travel distance up the Narrows will be greatly limited.
That said, babes in arms have been spotted a considerable distance up the river.
If there's no monsoon weather pattern around, late August and September are the best months for kids to hike the narrows, according to Zion public information officer Denny Davies.
The first part of the Zion Narrows hike is a gentle one-mile trek along the paved Riverside trail. The park's most popular path, it is enjoyed by visitors of all ages.
Beyond the pavement, the trek is almost entirely a walk in the stream.
Both Roger and Steven wanted a walking stick - there is a pile of them at the entrance into the river - and these helped them keep their balance. Davies said such props are a good idea, for they offer extra balance with a kind of third leg.
The boys generally loved the hike, though a tumble into the water by my 8-year-old did make him want to end it right there.
Davies said odds are that at least one person in a Narrows hiking party will make such a splash during a hike. He recommends watertight protection for cameras and valuables.
A permit is not needed for a Virgin River day hike, but Davies stressed that the Narrows can be a dangerous area and have probably been the location of more fatalities in southern Utah the past four decades than any other single site.
No one should hike the Narrows - even for a short day hike - if rain is expected. Hikers should set a date for the water trip and hope the weather cooperates.
Have a backup hike in Zion planned just in case. (Hiking the Emerald Pools is another good trail for kids.)
Davies said Zion officials are now urging Narrows hikers to exercise more individual responsibility. They should check weather forecasts themselves, instead of relying on park rangers.
Good footwear is also a necessity. In this case, that doesn't mean hiking shoes but rather aqua-shoes or sandals. Old tennis shoes may work but are also more likely to cause blisters. Davies said algae growing on rocks in the river make for slippery conditions, so good traction is preferable.
The many rocks in the river make barefoot travel painful for most people.
For those going beyond the pavement, a little preparation can make it a more pleasurable experience.
For instance, one family member can carry a daypack containing water-suitable footwear for everyone, to be put on just before entering the water. Likewise, after the hike, dry socks and shoes in the daypack will make the mile walk back to the parking area more comfortable.
Remember, too, that parking at the Riverway trailhead is limited. Arrive early to avoid having to wait for a space. After 10 a.m., the Narrows begin to fill up with water hikers. Beginning the hike at daybreak is the best way to avoid crowds - at least on your way up the river. There's no way to avoid the crowds coming back.
The river water is cold, some 55 degrees at best. However, after the initial shock, most young hikers seem to get used to it.
Taking a jacket along is also wise, since the temperature in the Narrows is never hot. Since you're almost always wet, a jacket feels good - even in summer.
"People need to be aware that even on the hottest summer days, we have treated people for hypothermia" in the river, Davies said.
He recommends wearing synthetic clothing, not cotton.
How far you hike up the Narrows depends on the depth of the river and the interest level of the kids. It's probably wise to set a time limit, say between 30 minutes and two hours of travel up the water.
Both Steven and Roger decided one hour and 15 minutes up was a long enough hike up the water. The only sad thing was we were pretty close to Orderville Canyon - a side trip they would have greatly enjoyed. Also, Orderville marks the start of the narrowest of the Narrows.
Coming downstream is slightly faster, but not as swift as an ordinary downhill hike.
For our just less than three-hour-round trip hike (counting the paved trail), drinking water was simply not needed. (This is the only hike I've taken my kids on where they haven't begged for water.)
Still, Davies said taking drinking water is recommended. In fact, those hiking long distances up the Narrows should ask themselves if they're prepared enough to spend the night there, in case of an emergency or flash flood.
By crossing at the swifter river areas and avoiding the deeper pockets of water, neither of my boys ever got in water deeper than groin level.
Steven liked the little waterfall we passed early in our hike the most. Roger especially enjoyed the fact that without a big uphill effort, the hike was easy.
"I never got tired," he said. "And I stayed cool."
What would I change if we do the hike again? I'd hope we reach Orderville Canyon and probably try having my boys wear swimsuits instead of shorts - to make them feel more comfortable about getting wet.
Admission to Zion National Park is $10 per car and visitors should expect large crowds of other visitors in all but the three winter months - December, January and February.
More information about the Narrows and each day's weather forecast is available daily from the Zion Visitor's Center.