Hiking The Narrows, a 16-mile slot canyon carved out by the North Fork of the Virgin River, in Zion National Park, is perhaps the greatest single overnight hike in the world. It is certainly one of those experiences I will never forget. There are few places in the world where humans can venture 1,300′ into the depths of the planet on a path naturally cut out by a river. Need a little help figuring out the details? Then you’ve come to the right place.
Which way do I hike The Narrows?
First off, there are two ways you can go about hiking The Narrows. There is the bottom-up approach and then the top-down approach. This will be primarily a description of the top-down way and it either requires a very long day hike (12+ hours) or an overnight commitment.
For those who just want to get into The Narrows for a few hours, you can do the bottom-up and don’t really need a guide to do so. Go to the end of the road in Zion National Park and head upstream. You can get to the area by taking the Zion Shuttle to the Temple of Sinawava stop. There is really only one way in and out of The Narrows from this side so it is pretty hard to get lost, although it can still be dangerous so you may want to keep reading. With the bottom-up approach, you will not get to see nearly what those who go about it from the top-down, but you should still have an awesome time. Head upstream till you are half-way to dark and then turn around.
Unless you are just one of those people wanting the challenge of hiking 16 miles in a creek as proof of endurance and speed (and I know you are out there) then I suggest planning on a night of camping inside The Narrows. Keep in mind that slogging along a creek bed with loose boulders hidden underneath the water should be taken at a much slower pace than traipsing about on dry land. My wife and I took two solid days to complete the 16-mile traverse. If I could have taken longer I would have. Also, keep in mind that cell phones don’t work so well in a slot canyon so take it slow and stay safe.
For the top-down approach, the first thing you have to do is get a wilderness permit to camp inside The Narrows. This can be a crap shoot as they do shut down the hike if the river is at a level that is deemed dangerous or if the weather forecast is such that a flash flood is probable. So if you have a permit for a day when it gets shut down then you are just out of luck.
How to get a permit for hiking The Narrows
The permit process is a first-come, first-served system. They become available for reservations on the 5th day of every month, 3 months prior to the reservation month. For example; if you wanted to hike in June you would want to get on the website on the 5th day of April right at 10:00 AM (MST) to have the best possible chance of getting a permit at the site you choose on the day you request it.
To make things more confusing, about half of the permits (known as walk-ins) are held until the day before and those are given out in person on a first-come, first served basis as well. Those are available at the Zion Wilderness Reservation Desk inside the Visitor Center. The hours of operation vary, but it appears to open at 7:00 AM during the busy summer months.
Picking Up the Permit
The Wilderness Desk inside the Zion Visitor Center where all permits are picked up. So, if you are able to get a reservation through the online system, you must pick up your permit the day of or the day before departing. The park will not issue permits any earlier than the day before because of potential flash flood concerns.
Useful Links for hiking The Narrows
Getting to the Trailhead
Permits acquired, you are now ready to go. But, where do you start? You have to figure out how to get to the start of the trail at Chamberlain’s Ranch. This is about an hour and a half drive along a mostly gravel road from the Zion Visitor Center. So if you have a friend you can leave one vehicle parked near a Zion shuttle stop. Take the other to Chamberlain’s Ranch and leave it there to be picked up after the hike. Another option is to hire a group shuttle service to drop you off at Chamberlain’s Ranch and then take the Zion shuttle system back to wherever you left your vehicle. Click here to arrange a shuttle.
Hiking The Narrows -Day 1
As for the trail itself, it is pretty simple. Once you arrive at the parking area at Chamberlain’s Ranch you will have your last normal bathroom possibility at the outhouse located in the parking lot. You then head west down the old dirt road. It will almost immediately pass through the Virgin River and go up a hillside where it continues for about 3 miles through private property. Stay on the trail/road… not the river… yet. This is private land so be respectful so that future hikers can enjoy this privilege as well.
At the end of the road, you will arrive at Bulloch’s Cabin (an old cabin) and then finally head into the river. From here you will follow the flow of the water for the remaining 13 miles until you reach the Temple of Sinawava.
Keep a Good Pace
The first 5 miles in the river gives you a glimpse of the greatness that is yet to come. It can be hard to gauge distance as landmarks are hard to come by so be cognitive of the few landmarks you can gauge distance by to know if you are making good time to reach your campsite by dark. One such landmark is the North Fork Falls at about 8.5-miles in. It is a 10′ waterfall created by a log jam in a narrow passage.
Getting around the North Fork Falls
As you approach the falls you will need to look for the crevice on the left (south) side of the river. It is a small channel that leads around the falls and the trail comes out about 25′ downstream. If you want, you can backtrack to get a better view of the falls.
The North Fork and Deep Creek Confluence
At mile 9 the confluence of the North Fork merges with that of Deep Creek. The water volume in The Narrows doubles and the swiftness of the water increases on its way through the canyon. The Deep Creek Canyon deserves exploration as well. We went only a short way upstream but got to see a few deer. It is bizarre to see large mammals milling about in a deep slot canyon.
The Narrows Campsites
After this, hikers will begin to see the labeled campsites on each side of the river. They have yellow stakes with the campsite number. Make sure you set up your campsite in the designated area only. Once set up, settle in and make sure to enjoy the quiet solitude of this place and try not to think too much about your impending doom should a flash flood come crashing through unexpectedly. 🙂
Compared to the adventures and grander that backpackers find inside The Narrows on Day 2, Day 1 is a walk in the park. Day 2 is filled with many boulder obstacles, but amazing rock walls and stunning waterfalls. Keep in mind that the water makes its way through so there is always a way for hikers to make it through. Depending on the water level, in most cases, you can stay dry from the waist up.
Big Springs Waterfall
At about 11.5 miles you will see a waterfall on your right known as Big Springs. The water seems to come gushing out of the wall from nowhere. This is where we came across our first bottom-up day hikers and this is extremely far in for most. It was another hour or so before we really started to see the massive crowds that come in from the bottom-up.
Wall Street inside The Narrows
Shortly after the falls, hikers enter into the deepest part of the canyon known as Wall Street. This is an impressive corridor with towering sheer walls rising up out of the Virgin River. This is a space that would make Shaq feel small.
At about 13-miles in hikers will pass the even narrower Orderville Canyon coming in on the left (east) side. I really wanted to explore this canyon a bit, but we had taken too much time in other areas so we only made it about 50′ in before returning to the Virgin River.
At about 14.5 miles you will see the Mystery Falls sliding down the wall on your left. This section can be rather deep. The water was up to my waist and the only path ahead is through.
Temple of Sinawava
In another half mile, the Virgin River will arrive at a concrete walkway that will take hikers the final mile to the bus stop at the Temple of Sinawava. While the hike is no longer in the Vigin River the scenery of the surrounding wider canyon is still very beautiful.
When to Hike The Narrows
June may be the best time to go. This is when we went and the air was warm, but the water was cool. Stay away from March, April, and early May as The Narrows is often closed due to the spring runoff (snowmelt). Late July thru mid-September is considered the rainy season and the possibility of flash floods are higher. October would probably be nice. November thru March could be nice but bring a wet suit as it will be cold.
Must Have Gear for Hiking the Narrows
- Comfortable shoes. No Gortex! they hold in the water.
- Neoprene socks. If you wear cotton socks your foot will be one giant, pruney blister after 12+ hours of slogging through the Virgin River.
- Hiking poles. This is another must in my opinion. I think if we had not had ours I would have ended up face down in the water with a broken ankle at some point. In fact, we saw someone being pulled out by the park service emergency crew because he had broken his ankle… must have been a long painful wait for someone to go for help and then return. Take it slow and be safe!
- Dry bags. You’re going to have to get into some deep water so keep your stuff dry by carrying a dry bag pack or packing your stuff inside of dry bags inside your pack. We did the latter as we own overnight packs that are comfortable to carry.
- Headlamp. Always travel with a headlamp if there is even a slight chance of being out after dark on a hike. Especially on this hike as there isn’t any light that makes it into this deep slot canyon after dark.
Other Stuff to Consider when Hiking the Narrows
- Proper clothing. Moister wicking is a must, but also keep in mind that you are in a deep slot canyon that receives little sunlight. We went in June and I would say the weather and water temperature were near perfect, but any sooner and it might have been frigid. If you go in the winter months, I would think wet suits are the dress code.
- Food and camping gear, obviously, if you are doing the overnight. You need food and shelter.
- Plan to park. To avoid parking issues you’ll need to arrive early or park in the town of Springdale and ride the free town shuttle into the park.
- Be mentally prepared to poop in a bag. The Narrows is a pack-out EVERYTHING trail. As you are hiking in a river inside a slot canyon there is no place to bury your excrement that won’t eventually be underwater. You get to do it in a bag, which the park is nice enough to provide you with… part of your permit fee.