The Narrows is one of the most popular hikes you can do at Zion National Park. Brian and I did it in late September and it’s an experience that we’ll not soon forget. (In a good way!)
What is the Narrows?
The Narrows is a slot canyon carved out by the Virgin river. It’s a wonderful hiking path whose difficulty level can be dialed up or down according to your hiking prowess. There are two ways you can hike it. Most people choose to go “bottom up,” which allows you to hike from Temple Sinawava (the last shuttle stop in the park) all the way to Big Springs inside the canyon, and then come back. This is about a 7 mile round trip hike. Since it is a there-and-back route, you can make the hike as long or as short as you want.
The second (and much more difficult) way to go, is from from the top down by starting at Chamberlain’s Ranch outside of the park and finishing at Temple Sinawava. This route is a whopping 16 miles. You don’t need a permit to hike bottom up, but you DO need one for the more strenuous top down hike.
Depending on weather and time of year that you go, either route can be dangerous mostly due to flash flooding. If you are a hiking novice like Brian and me, I recommend doing the bottom up hike in the fall. At that time, the river will be lower and the weather still relatively warm.
What to Know Before You Go
The cool thing about the bottom up route is that it’s a there-and-back hike so you can go as far as you’d like before deciding to turn around and come back. There is no need to stick it out all the way to Big Springs and in fact, most people don’t. Brian and I didn’t.
There is a section where another river meets with the Virgin river (although it’s more like a trickle). Beyond that is the start of “Wall Street” which is so called because the river is wall to wall. When you enter wall street the water can be deep enough that you need to swim it. We did not have proper gear for that possibility so we turned back at the river junction. It was still an awesome 4 hour, 5 mile hike for us. (As a runner, I feel somewhat ashamed to admit that pace. But moving upstream in water is quite a bit different than a jog on pavement!)
You Will Get Wet!
You will be walking in water most of the way. Parts of the path are along the riverbank, but there is zero chance that you can do this hike without getting wet. In fact, only about 50 yards in, you will be wading up to your waist or your chest, depending on how tall you are. Brian was in up to his waist and I was in all the way to my diaphragm. (I’m a shrimpy 5’2″, Brian is a giant 6’3″.)
You will need to cross the river several times back and forth but it’s usually no higher than your knees. Note that this was in September when it hadn’t rained in a while. If you go in spring the river will almost certainly be deeper and there will be a higher chance of flash flooding. The entrance to the park has a sign that tells you what the flash flooding danger is that day, so you can decide accordingly.
On the day that we went the chance of flash flooding was at its lowest. If it was any higher we may have changed our minds since we are no longer young with no sense of mortality. Realistically, I’d say we’ve solidly entered the “I-hurt-myself-sleeping” era of our lives.
Bowling Balls Await You
We read that walking on the banks or through the river is like walking on slippery bowling balls. In general, that was true. The rocks are big and it is slow and precarious. However, when we went, the rocks weren’t extremely slippery (except for some of the muddier paths over rocks on the banks). Even better, they were pretty stable. That made it relatively easy to step on them when crossing the river.
The Narrows Can Be Crowded
Be aware that the Narrows can be a crowded hike. We went in late September and it wasn’t overly crowded. There were definitely lots of hikers around us though. If you are imagining a pristine solo hike, that’s all it will be – imaginary! The further you go though, the less crowded it will be as people decide they’ve seen enough and start heading back. I actually liked the company of the other hikers. It was nice seeing other people enjoying the beauty of God’s creation.
If you really want to beat the crowds, getting there first thing in the morning will give you the best chance of being alone.
Gear You Need
There is an outfitter at the beginning of the park that rents out everything you need for this hike. We got canyoneering shoes made for wet hiking, along with neoprene socks to keep our feet warm, and a walking stick, which was extremely helpful for navigating river crossings. The shoes/stick kits cost a very reasonable $32 each.
You can also rent full waterproof bibs if you’re hiking in cooler weather. When we went the weather was cloudy with a high of 70 degrees and we were totally fine without the bibs. Some other hikers had opted for them and said they were nice to have. I actually did get a little cold at the end of the hike because the leggings I wore never dried out completely. I’d recommend wearing shorts if it’s warm enough because your bare legs will dry far more quickly than any material.
Note that at any time of the year the Narrows will be a cool hike. It is deep within a canyon that gets very little sunlight. Also, you’ll be wet!
Is Hiking the Narrows Worth It?
However, wet and cold, and bowling ball obstacles aside, experiencing the Narrows is 1 million percent worth it. The sheer beauty of walking through the canyon with the rocks rising above you on either side, the Virgin river gurgling around you (literally), and the wonder of nature permeating every breath you take, is something that can’t accurately be described but must be experienced. The pictures don’t do it justice.
If you have a chance to get to Zion National Park, go. If you possibly, maybe can – you should. I promise, you won’t regret it.