Hiking the Zion Narrows along the Virgin River

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The Zion Narrows on the Virgin River is the premier and most accessible slot canyon in the Southwest. On a blisteringly hot day, the cool waters of the Virgin River beckon, together with the hanging gardens, waterfalls, deep pools and cool shade of the Narrows canyon.

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The Zion Narrows Trailhead. Photo by Elisabeth Kwak

The Zion Narrows. Photo by Elisabeth Kwak

The tall walls of the canyon in Zion's Narrows. Photo by Elisabeth Kwak

Hiking the Zion Narrows along the Virgin River. Photo by Elisabeth Kwak

Visitors have several choices in how to approach the Narrows

Easy

Easiest of all is the choice of a short, refreshing hike upstream from the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop, along Riverside Walk and perhaps a mile or two up the riverbed. Kids and grandparents can easily handle the first hundred yards or so without special gear or preparation. No permits are required, but walking against the current on slippery rocks can become tiring before long. That’s why the number of visitors in the lower Narrows dwindles as you head further upstream.

Moderate

More challenging is to wade and even swim the entire five miles upstream to Big Springs — as far as you can go without a permit. This is where proper gear and planning become important. There are deep pools, so you’ll be swimming occasionally. A waterproof bag for valuable items and waterproof boots or neoprene river shoes become important.

Mystery Canyon Falls is at milepost 1.5, followed by the side-canyon Orderville Canyon at 2.5. Wall Street (3.5) has the canyon narrow to 22 feet, while the walls soar overhead 1,500 feet. Big Springs (5.0) is the stopping and turnaround and go back spot. It can take a full eight hours to get to Big Springs and back again to Sinawava. You’ll need at least five hours to reach the magnificent scenery of the Wall Street Narrows and get back again to Sinawava.

Challenging

The third option is for experienced hikers only. It requires a permit and means walking, wading and swimming the Narrows downstream from Chamberlain’s Ranch, on the east side of the park. The downstream hike is 16 miles that can be done in a long, hard, 12-hour day. On a more leisurely basis, take two days and camp overnight in one of 12 campsites deep in the Narrows. Only 80 permits a day are issued for this trip, and proper gear and planning are essential. Nylon shorts (they dry fast), a fleece jacket (for warmth), waterproof pack and ski-like walking sticks (for balance) are all necessary gear, above and beyond basic camping gear, food and water.

The top nine miles are easiest and quickest, but from Deep Creek on, water volume doubles, runs faster, is waist-deep or above and you can count on swimming. The reward is found in side canyons, springs and hanging gardens — a magical realm to beguile the senses. Just don’t ignore any warning signs of an impending flash flood.

In two miles, you’ll reach Big Water, and from there on you’ll be encountering more and more people who’ve ventured upstream from Sinawava. When you reach the bottom, you’ll have dropped 1,220 feet in 16 miles. All of which translates into tremendous cutting power for the rushing water of the Virgin River.

 

 

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