Iconic Hikes Vol. 5: The Narrows
Follow Zion National Park's Virgin River through a slot canyon where the water itself is your trail.
This edition of Iconic Hikes features another hike within Zion National Park. While the trail to Angels Landing tops out in the heart of the canyon, the Narrows follows the Virgin River on its journey through the canyon's depths. You will step off the trail and into the waters that have carved the landscape around you.
There are two ways to hike the Narrows, known as top down, or bottom up. Most day hikes are bottom up, starting in Zion Canyon and wading against the current before turning around and retracing your steps (going only as far as desired). Top down hikes follow the river from the canyon's far end, tracing its curves 16 miles downstream, and require the entire length of the Narrows to be tackled (with a possible overnight).
Regardless of which direction you hike, be prepared to get wet. There is no formal trail in the Narrows. Hikers instead wade through the river itself, tracing its winding route through the slender canyon. The water flows over slick river stones, sandwiched between towering walls of rock, over a thousand feet high on either side. Carved from the flowing river, the canyon twists and turns, sometimes narrowing to a mere 30 feet wide. Smaller creeks feed into the Virgin River from their own narrow canyons, combining their waters and offering additional opportunities to explore this unique environment.
Water levels can vary depending on the time of year and from day to day, ranging from ankle deep to chest high. Flash floods are a particular danger, and an official Flash Flood Warning will cause the Narrows to close. If rain is in the forecast, especially in areas upriver from Zion Canyon, one should avoid making the trip. Check the visitor center for current conditions.
Given the unique nature of hiking the Narrows, some extra preparation is required. Even during the height of summer, the Narrows can be a chilly hike, due to the shade of the canyon and temperature of the water. Pack extra layers for warmth. During colder seasons, wetsuits are necessary. Hiking poles are recommended for stability on the loose rocks and boulders that make up most of the river bed. Stick to the river as much as possible, and avoid trampling the fragile vegetation that grows within the canyon on the small amount of dry land.
Distance: 16 miles total for top down hikes. Bottom up hikes can be as long or short as you want. Big Spring is a good turn around point, making for a 10 mile round trip hike.
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous, depending on desired route and distance. Most of the hike is in the river over slick stones which require careful walking.
Route: The Virgin River is your trail. Follow it upstream for bottom up hikes (out and back) and downstream (the whole length) for top down hikes. Orderville Canyon is a popular side trip, located two miles from Temple of Sinawava.
Trailhead: Botton up hikes leave from the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop, Top down hikes start outside the park (1.5 hour drive) from Chamberlain's Ranch.
Permits: Required for top down hikes, with or without an overnight.
Overnight Possible: Yes, on top down hikes. One night only, at twelve dedicated sites.
Best Time To Go: Summer is most popular, with lower water levels and warmer temperatures, though winter and fall hikes are possible with proper preparation. Spring generally has conditions that make the hike impossible. The Narrows is closed whenever a Flash Flood Warning is in effect or water levels rise too high. Do not attempt the hike during those times. Avoid crowds by getting an early start.
Where to Poop: Dry land is infrequent and often times nonexistent throughout most of the canyon. If nature calls and you can find some land, be sure to pack out everything. Check out my post on how to poop in the woods for more info on best practices.