Hiking the Virgin River through Zion Narrows
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 Zion Narrows canyon. National park visitors have several choices in how to approach hiking the Narrows.
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.
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.
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.
What do I need to take to hike the Narrows?
Obtain weather and flash flood forecasts before starting your trip.
Other necessary equipment:
- Wear sturdy boots or shoes with ankle support.
- Take a walking stick. Do not cut tree branches for sticks.
- Small children should not hike in the river due to strong currents and deep pools.
- Carry out all trash: food wrappers, apple cores, fruit peels, toilet paper – everything you carry in.
- Carry one gallon of drinking water per person for a full-day hike, food, sunglasses, sunscreen, and first aid kit.
- Take a sweater or windbreaker. The Narrows is much cooler than Zion Canyon.
- Pack gear in waterproof bags.
- Use the restroom at the Riverside Trailhead before hiking. There are no toilets in the Narrows.
What do I need to know before entering the Narrows?
All narrow canyons are potentially hazardous. Flash floods, cold water, and strong currents present real dangers that can be life-threatening. Your safety depends on your own good judgement, adequate preparation, and constant attention.
Watch for these indications of a possible flash flood:
- Any deterioration in weather conditions
- Build up of clouds or sounds of thunder
- Sudden changes in water clarity from clear to muddy
- Floating debris
- Rising water levels or stronger currents
- Increasing roar of water up canyon
If you observe any of these signs, seek higher ground immediately. Even climbing a few feet may save your life. Remain on high ground until conditions improve. Water levels usually drop within 24 hours. Flash floods do occur in the park during periods of low flash flood potential. A moderate or higher flash flood potential should be a serious cause for concern.
Want more exhilarating Zion challenges? Hiking the Zion Narrows is part of our 5-Day Adventure Itinerary.
Need a map? Download an official Zion National Park map for basic road and attraction locations. Want a detailed topographical map of trails in the park? Buy the NatGeo Trails Illustrated Map for Zion National Park at REI.com. The map includes trails, trailheads, points of interest, campgrounds, lakes and much more. Or get the complete Utah National Parks Map Pack with five topographic maps. All of the NatGeo maps are printed on waterproof, tear-resistant material.
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