Backpacker Hikes The Narrows at Zion National Park
Here’s what you need to know.
** Republished from 2016 **
I have always longed to hike The Narrows in Utah. It is revered as one of the most diverse and dangerous trails in America. It took two trips to Zion National Park to find time and circumstance to hike it, but finally, I arrived at a time fit for hiking the trail.
It was late May of 2016, I was on family vacation — the first one we had had in years. My family and I had done several hikes on our first few days in the park. In the evenings, we would return to the city of Springdale (right outside of the park) where we had a nice, small cabin studio apartment with a hot tub to relax and recover.
It was my intention to hike The Narrows on this trip to Zion the entire time. We spent four days there, and on the fourth day, before leaving the park I would hike the Narrows.
About The Narrows. . .
The Narrows is a section of the canyon on the North Fork of the Virgin River. The Narrows gets its name, especially, from the 3.6-mile-long stretch where the river narrows and the canyon walls tower over you on each side between the Riverside Walk Trail and Big Spring. The trail became particularly popular starting in 1960. The picturesque trail was rated #5 in the National Geographic ranking of America’s Best 100 Adventures.
The trail can be dangerous. Flash flooding is watched religiously, but still, the rise and speed of the water can be unpredictable in terrain that tight. Regulations at Zion are strict. They absolutely will not let park visitors hike The Narrows if they do not feel as if the canyon will be absolutely safe. And it is tremendously important that you listen to Park Ranger’s warnings and follow the path of others.
People have died hiking The Narrows, and it’s actually not all that uncommon. Just a few months before I hiked The Narrows, eight experienced hikers went against Rangers’ recommendation attempted to hike a section of the canyon that was not safe. Seven of them died in a flash flood that swept one of the most dangerous sections of the trail.
It felt like trail lore as I heard many different versions and renditions of the tragedy as I asked more people close to the park about it throughout my stay. It’s a devastating story but served as a good reminder to everyone the power of the Virgin River.
It is best to be educated about the trail before you take it on. My parents, after hearing about the trail, decided it was too much for them to handle so they stayed home. However, my eighteen-year-old sister thought she could manage it, so she joined. To determine whether or not you should attempt to hike it, you must be honest with yourself.
If you want to do the full sixteen-mile long hike, you must obtain permits for overnight camping. These permits are rather hard and slow to obtain, so it is better if you apply for a permit ahead of time. Unfortunately, I did not know this, so I was forced to do as much of the trail as I could before the sunset and then return back.
The trail can be explored from the bottom up where most people find Orderville Canyon an adequate stopping destination. The winding canyon and sheer walls are excellent for exploring, however, prepare for a strenuous hike. As the trail follows the river (matter of fact, one-third of the hike the river stretches from canyon wall to canyon wall) you will spend most of your day wading the water.
How deep the water depends heavily on what time of year you go. The later in summer you go, the more dry the trail will be. In the earlier spring months, as the snow melts and comes down from the north, the water is deepest throughout the entire canyon. In late May, I waded in waist-high water about half of the time I was in the water. There were even a few points where I had to start swimming.
Being that more than half of your time will be shaded and in water, it is probably a good idea to bring waterproof gear. Don’t worry, if you don’t have waterproof gear, there are several outlets in the city of Springdale that rent all the gear you will need for the trail.
As a general rule of thumb for the late spring/ early summer months, hiking The Narrows requires extra gear you wouldn’t normally take on regular hikes. The water is generally murky and impossible to see on the river floor.
The Virgin River floor is covered by bowling ball-sized rocks that are usually slippery and rugged. To accommodate for this and the cool water, here is some must-have gear:
- 5mm Neoprene socks
- 5.10 Canyoneer Shoes
- Dry pants
- Walking Stick
- Dry Bag
That’s the only must-have special equipment for the trail. However, the 5.10 Canyoneering Shoes can easily be replaced by an old pair of sneakers you don’t mind throwing away after the hike. As I said, all of this can be rented from outlets in Zion.
Start early! The outlet I rented from was a first-come, first-serve type rental outlet. So go early! I was at the outlet getting my gear fit around seven o’clock in the morning on the day of my hike. Many people were there, however, very few start hiking directly after. They were only there to ensure they got the proper equipment before it was rented out.
My sister and I, however, wanted to go as far as we could in one day of hiking; so we started early. That was our best choice of the day as the early birds are treated to the best weather, the calmest canyon, and the most interaction with other hikers.
Getting to the trail was immensely better this early in the morning. Zion Valley is car-free, and so in order to access any of the trails — including The Narrows — you must take the environmentally friendly park shuttle system. Usually, these buses are crowded and at the most popular times of the day, you must wait several loads of buses before you finally get your turn to enter the Valley. At this time, you experience no such wait and ride the shuttle virtually alone.
The walk to the beginning of the trail is calm at this time. It’s a bit of a walk, but I was so excited that I hardly noticed the distance. Additionally, the entire walk to the trailhead is along the Virgin River with beautiful sights and sounds. In the springtime, especially, wildflowers and plants are in full bloom and the birds sing to you. It’s quite a relaxing trail in the wee hours of springtime mornings.
Heading out into the Virgin River for the first time was a slow process. Cold, we had to test to see if all of our gear was fitting properly before we submerged ourselves in the freezing water. It’d be disastrous to rent our dry gear only to spend the rest of the day in water-soaked clothes underneath.
Slowly, but surely, we submerged ourselves into the water at the beginning of the trail and at the end of the Riverside Walk Trail. It was fun to do this as a small group who braved the early morning together. Every step into the murky water was a mystery. Would we sink to our chest or would we keep walking at chest level? The small group my sister and I had joined had never hiked the canyon either so everybody was jointly clueless on what to expect next.
Which path should we take across the river to reach the other riverbank? Which side of the river was deepest? What was around the next corner of the towering, winding canyon walls? The mystery of the hike was the fun of it at the beginning.
After a few hours of hiking, I became more comfortable with every step. My early attention and concerns for my younger sister had shifted; she was kicking my ass on the trail! I learned to be lighter and more agile on my feet while walking on rocks that I couldn’t see with strong river currents trying to pull me off of each slippery rock. I learned to use my walking stick as a guide as well as a force to power me through the water. The techniques were becoming second nature.
As this was happening, the canyon was getting narrower and the river bank shores less frequent. The river was stretching from wall to wall in most places. Water was up to my chest in most places and my poor sister had resorted to walking on tiptoes most of the way.
Finally came a time when I’d have to put my swimming abilities to the test as we had to swim a few dozen meters upriver. The current, luckily, wasn’t too forceful in this spot and I was able to enjoy the refreshing swim.
We were approaching noon by this point and the trailhead behind us several miles was surely crowded with new hikers. However, because we started early, you’d never be able to tell. It was still as quiet as ever.
By now, our initial group had become pretty distant from us. We had stopped for lunch in different spots (oh yeah, pack a lunch!) and numerous breaks for rest and pictures had us alone as we approached the coolest part of the canyon.
My sister and I had lunch all alone in Orderville Canyon. It was a nice change of pace from the main canyon and we enjoyed the time alone exploring new crevices and bouldering larger rocks blocking our path. We may have spent too much time there as when we finally ventured back to the trail, it was well past my intended time of reaching Big Springs; which is where I initially intended being our final destination.
I knew the walk back would be quicker going with the river than it was going up against the river, so my sister and I decided we’d make a quick push to get to Big Springs and then hurry back to Zion Valley before the darkness crept into the canyon walls.
However, we quickly realized that our detour exploring Orderville Canyon allowed for the gobs of tourists who started the trail later to catch up to us. The canyon had a completely different feel and it didn’t feel as much like an exploration as it did a guided tour. We made it halfway to Big Springs but decided we had had enough of all the people and made a turn for home.
What took about seven hours to hike to took about three hours to return to the Riverside Walk Trail. In total, we were in the canyon for around ten hours and made it back to Springdale around eight o’clock in the evening.
The hike lived up to all expectations and I was only disappointed I couldn’t make it further. If you have any questions related to hiking The Narrows or about Zion National Park in general, don’t hesitate to reach out.
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** This article was originally published at www.adamcheshier.com **
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