As the Virgin River meanders through the spectacular Zion Canyon, it tapers to its narrowest point at a section that is aptly called The Narrows.
There, the luminous blue-green water of the river — a Wild and Scenic waterway — is bracketed by 1,000-foot-high rock walls. Hiking The Narrows is an enchanting experience. Around one bend, you might encounter a waterfall cascading down the cliff walls. At another point, you’ll find entrances to dimly lit slot canyons. Visitors from around the world flock to this hike.
“This is the most famous backcountry area of Zion, and for good reason,” says the state’s tourism website. “Stunning thousand-foot walls of Navajo sandstone rise on both sides, and centuries of erosion have sculpted the rocks into surreal fluted and whorled forms.”
The descriptions and the otherworldly photos of The Narrows had me yearning to try the Zion National Park hike for years before I finally got there on a recent trip. The Narrows hike was at the top of my must-do list on that trip, and it did not disappoint.
If Zion’s other bucket-list-worthy hike, Angels Landing, is among the most thrilling hikes out there, The Narrows is surely the coolest.
When To Go
The best time of year to attempt The Narrows hike is in late spring or summer, when the water is at its warmest and the water level is at its lowest. However, this is also the time when rainstorms can cause flash floods, so hikers need to be careful. Remember that the rainy monsoon season throughout the Southwest typically starts in early July and can continue through mid-September.
The weather is more stable in the fall, but the days are shorter, and the water cools down. I completed the hike in early October and found the water to be a bit chilly but still comfortable.
As for the best time of day, most people recommend getting out on the hike as early as possible. That means getting on the park’s first shuttle in the morning — usually at about 6 or 7 a.m.
How To Get There
My group chose to hike The Narrows from the bottom up — a day hike that does not require a permit. The hike begins at Zion’s Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop. From the trailhead, the easy Riverside Trail follows the bank of the river for about a mile. After that, continuing on will require walking in the water.
You can choose to complete the entire 4.7-mile trip (9.4 miles round trip) up the river to Big Spring, or you can turn back at any point for a shorter hike. The estimated hiking time is anywhere from 1 to 8 hours.
Regardless how far you go, it will be a hike to remember. Here are nine things you need to know before you go.
1. Keep A Close Eye On The Weather
The most important advice during any time of the year at The Narrows is to keep an eye out for rainstorms, which can lead to flash flooding. The Narrows is especially susceptible to flash flooding because much of the surrounding terrain is bare rock that does not absorb runoff water.
Water levels can rise almost instantly during a rainstorm, and hikers have been stranded and even killed by venturing into the narrow canyon during rainy weather. The hike is not recommended if there is a chance of rain in the forecast, so be sure to check the National Weather Service’s website for flash flood information before you head out.
2. Waterproof Your Phone/Camera
While you probably won’t be completely submerged in water on The Narrows hike, you definitely will run the risk of getting your electronic gear wet. I chose not to take my good camera on the hike, but I did take my cell phone. To protect it, I bought a waterproof phone holder that I could wear around my neck. It allowed me to take photos without removing the phone, and it kept the phone out of the water. Even better would have been a waterproof action camera like a GoPro.
3. The Water Depth Will Vary
Although some of The Narrows hike will be through calf-high water that will be easy to navigate, other sections may have thigh-high or waist-high water. The national park’s website notes that the water depth can vary from season to season and from day to day, depending on rainfall and snowfall.
Expect to navigate a variety of water depths — anywhere from 1 to 3 feet deep — and remember that the deeper the water, the more effort it will take to deal with the current. The deeper water will also make it harder to see the rocks that line the bottom of the riverbed.
4. Bring Closed-Toed Water Shoes With Grips
The proper footgear can make a big difference on The Narrows hike, and most experts recommend wearing closed-toed shoes that have a good grip. With open-toed hiking sandals, you run the risk of stubbing your toes on the rough rocks in the riverbed.
Although many people opt for lightweight athletic shoes for the hike, I chose a sturdy pair of closed-toed water shoes, and I think they provided more flexibility and traction than sneakers.
5. Rent Neoprene Socks And A Walking Stick
For added protection from the chilly water, I decided to rent a pair of neoprene socks from one of the many outfitters in the nearby town of Springdale that provide equipment for The Narrows hike. The thick, tight socks added another layer of protection from the river’s rough rocks.
I also recommend renting a wooden walking stick if you don’t already have one. A stick is a great aid in determining the depth of the water before you step in and for finding rocky areas. For 50+ hikers, a walking stick can also offer a bit of stability while navigating the swift current.
There are many outfitters to choose from in Springdale, including Zion Outfitter. During cold-weather hiking, dry suits and boots are also recommended.
6. Wear Quick-Dry Clothes, Preferably Shorts
You will get wet on The Narrows hike, and it’s best if your clothing can dry quickly. During hot weather, I recommend wearing shorts made of a quick-drying fabric. In chilly weather, dry pants are recommended.
7. It’s Flat But Tiring
Most of The Narrows hike takes place in the riverbed, so the route is relatively flat. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. The national park website notes that about 60 percent of the hike is spent wading, walking, and sometimes swimming in the river.
Along the way, you will be treading over a rough and slippery river bottom and lifting your feet through fast-flowing water. Although I didn’t find The Narrows as strenuous as hikes over steep terrain, walking in the water did get tiring after a few miles.
Remember to pack water and snacks and stop for a break before beginning your hike back.
8. Save Energy For The Return Trip
As with any out-and-back hike, it’s important to remember that you will have to return the way you came on The Narrows hike. It is best to decide beforehand how far you’re comfortable going on the hike.
A popular choice is to hike about 3 miles in — to the stunning Wall Street section, the narrowest part of The Narrows, where the walls soar to about 1,500 feet and the river width is at just 22 feet or so.
Not far from the Wall Street area, you’ll find Orderville Canyon, a slot-canyon tributary to the Virgin River. Even narrower than The Narrows, the walls of the slot canyon give off a softly glowing light.
Upstream hiking is not allowed in Orderville Canyon after a quarter mile. My group didn’t venture far into the slot canyon, but what we saw was amazing. Hikers wishing to experience more of the slot canyon can get a canyoneering permit and try the top-down hike.
My advice is to pace yourself and remember to turn around at your agreed-upon halfway point. But if you’re comfortable with a 6-mile round-trip hike, Wall Street and Orderville Canyon are definitely worth the effort.
9. There Is More Than One Way To Do It
Although the bottom-up option is the most popular — and the easiest — option for hiking The Narrows, there is also the top-down version, which involves a 16-mile downstream hike from Chamberlain’s Ranch to the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop.
Obviously, this option requires more planning than the bottom-up route, and it also requires a permit. The national park website says that the top-down hike takes 10 to 14 hours and can be done over two days, with an overnight stay at a designated campsite along the way. For a day hike, a canyoneering permit is needed, and for an overnight hike, a backpacker permit is required. There are only 12 campsites available, so only 12 permits are issued each day.
Pro Tip: Because you will be in a narrow riverbed for the entire hike after you leave the Riverside Trail, there are virtually no spots for a privacy break along The Narrows route. So plan ahead and be sure to use the restroom at the Temple of Sinawava trailhead before you start out.