Zion National Park is a heavenly, green oasis, as befits its name, nestled among Utah’s endless red rocks. The Park boasts many spectacular day hikes, world class climbing and canyoneering, and abundant camping opportunities. But if you have time for only one adventure, hiking The Narrows is the obvious choice.
Hike is a loose term for your trip through The Narrows, named such because it is the narrowest part of Zion Canyon. There is no trail through the sheer walls of the gorge. Instead, you follow the Virgin River through the canyon, often times wading through or even swimming in the river depending on its water levels.
There are several ways to get your feet wet in the Virgin River. You can do the bottom-up hike, a 10-mile, up-and-back hike through The Narrows’ greatest hits that can be done in one day and requires no permit. Or, you can take on the 16-mile top-to-bottom through hike. If you have time, I would highly recommend you chose the latter.
The through hike is usually done over two days. It begins outside the park at Chamberlin’s Ranch and ends at the Temple of Sinawava, in the heart of the Park. A permit is necessary, and you will need camping gear. The 16 mile top-to-bottom hike can be done in one day (you will still need a permit), but if you have the time, camp overnight in the canyon. It’s an experience not to be missed.
Things to Know Before You Go
My boyfriend E, is a whitewater kayaker and has a plethora of things that keep him dry and warm in the water. I am more of a fair-weather water girl and had no dry-tops or dry-pants hiding in my closet, so I had to get outfitted in Springdale, Utah, which is just outside of the Park.
I chose the Zion Adventure Company. You can rent gear in packages or rent the items you need individually. Rentals run on the expensive side, but you absolutely cannot hike The Narrows when the river is cold without at least dry-pants (for the uninitiated, dry-pants are waterproof pants that are sealed with rubber gaskets at the waist and ankles) and a dry backpack. You may also want a dry-top or full one-piece dry-suit if the water levels are supposed to be high when you are hiking. Many people also rent shoes and neoprene socks. We wore just our hiking boots, and my feet were numb by the end of the second day.
The dry packs you can rent are tiny. This is because you really want to pack lightly. The hike is not overly arduous, but backpacks are cumbersome when you are moving through river, especially if you end up swimming.
E’s drypack was enormous, and we filled it with way too many things. Mine was significantly smaller, and I used only a fraction of the things in there. When you pack, give real thought to the items you need. We brought sleeping bags and sleeping mats (did we really need those mats?), but left behind out tent. I demanded that the fly-sheet come with us in case it rained. Realistically though, you should not be expecting rain when you are hiking down a canyon, which brings me to my next point.
Check the weather. You are responsible for your own safety, and flash flooding is a real concern in The Narrows. The park will close the Narrows if they believe there is a risk of flooding, but do your part as well. Keep track of weather patterns and be aware of the safety concerns before you find yourself chest deep in the river looking up at thousand foot walls.
Other things to be aware of—The Narrows is a pack-in pack-out hike. Make sure you swing by the Park’s main office to pick up your specially designed poop bags. You cannot bury your waste along the hike because you are too close to the water, and no one wants to walk through a river of shit.
You will also need to arrange transport to the trailhead. After you’ve crawled out of the river, you are not going to want to hike back to Chamberlin’s Ranch to get your own car. And the dirt access road was riddled with potholes, so unless your rental insurance was pretty comprehensive, I’d be wary of driving. There are a whole slew of transport shuttle companies who do not mind beating up their vehicles.
This looks like work. Do I really want to do it?
When you start the hike on day one, you may feel underwhelmed by the Virgin River, which looks more like a stream babbling down through the private ranch lands. About two hours in to your walk though, you will enter the Upper Narrows. Seemingly out of nowhere, canyon walls start to appear around you and the river swells. The Upper Narrows are not exceptionally narrow, but they are beautiful.
12 Foot Falls is the first major site you’ll see on the hike, and then the confluence with Deep Creek. From here, the river swells again and the campsites begin. I would suggest trying to secure a campsite further down the river to shorten your hiking time on day two.
We booked campsite seven. It was level, and just a little up and back from the river. After you’ve set up camp and made dinner, you’ll probably want to just curl up in your sleeping bag, but try to stay awake long enough to see the stars. There are few places in the United States where you will find as little light pollution and as marvelous stargazing.
Day Two is where you will see the crown jewels of The Narrows hike. Get an early start so you can see some of the sites before the deluge of day hikers reach the top of the out-and-back route. We hiked in October and were able to do some prime leaf peeping through this section of the hike. Once you are past Big Spring—a lush, natural spring at which you will want to stop—the Canyon walls close in around you.
You will now be in The Narrows proper. Expect to get very wet. You will swim around several large boulders and enter Wall Street, the narrowest part of The Narrows. It is truly spectacular. It is also the most dangerous part of the canyon—there is no high ground here, just sheer rock walls.
Once you pass Floating Rock, you will be through the most dramatic part of the canyon. From this point on it begins to open up again. You’ll find spots to stop for lunch and you’ll start seeing families and tourists who aren’t outfitted for a full hike through the water. Too soon, you’ll be at the Temple of Sinawava, where you will be diverted out of the river and back onto pavement.
Make sure you take photos. It really is magical.