Zion National Park

Hiking the Narrows
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The Narrows, Zion National Park
The Narrows, Zion National Park (Nathan Borchelt)

Where the Virgin River enters Zion National Park, its waters have carved a chasm 2,000 feet deep into the Markagunt Plateau. The river meanders 16 miles through a water-sculpted gorge of sandstone arches, grottos, and soaring fluted walls. The route is the river; there is no maintained trail. River currents can be strong; once you have penetrated the canyon from its upper end it is not easy to turn back. Good planning, proper equipment, and physical conditioning are essential for a safe and successful trip.

People who hike the Zion Narrows assume a tremendous responsibility. Conditions can change rapidly; your safety depends on your own good judgment, constant attention, and adequate preparation. Your safety is your responsibility. Moderate to excellent physical conditioning is recommended.

Although the backcountry's colorful canyons, forested mesas, and captivating deserts appear rugged and resilient, many areas are actually quite fragile and easily damaged. The survival or destruction of these resources, as well as your personal safety, hinge on your own attitude and actions.

The Three Ways to Hike the Narrows

1. Day-Hike From the Bottom and Back
This is the easiest way to experience the Narrows. Park at the Temple of Sinawava, walk one mile to the end of the paved Riverside Walk, and begin wading up the river. Almost immediately the views are breathtaking, and each bend of the river brings new delights. There is no formal destination, and you return to the trailhead the same way you came. Many hikers try to reach Orderville Canyon, a tributary creek approximately two hours upstream from the end of the paved trail. In the vicinity of Orderville Canyon, the Narrows are at perhaps their most majestic. No permit is required for this day hike.

2. Day Hike From Top to Bottom
Walking the entire length of the Narrows can be a rewarding—and grueling—experience. Under favorable conditions, the 16-mile route from Chamberlain's Ranch to the Temple of Sinawava takes an average of 12 hours to complete. Even for well-conditioned hikers, this makes for a long and strenuous day. Because Chamberlain's Ranch is a 1-1/2-hour drive from the Temple of Sinawava, either two vehicles or a shuttle is required. A backcountry permit is also necessary. Permits may be obtained at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center the day before the hike.

3. Overnight Hike From Top to Bottom
To enjoy the Narrows at a more leisurely pace, some visitors choose to spend a night in the gorge. There are 12 numbered campsites, each located above the high water mark at a different spot along the route. Only one-night stays are allowed, and overnight hikers must start from Chamberlain's Ranch; overnight trips originating from the Temple of Sinawava are not permitted. Campsites are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis upon completion of a backcountry permit. Permits may be obtained at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center until noon on the day the hike begins. There is a fee for the permit. Campsite capacity is limited, and only two sites can accommodate groups larger than six.

Practicalities

Transportation: If you are hiking the Narrows from top to bottom, there are several ways you can arrange your transportation:

Zion Lodge operates a shuttle service to Chamberlain's Ranch. Visit or call the Transportation Desk at Zion Lodge (801-772-3213) to find out about departure times and to make reservations.

If you have two vehicles, you can shuttle yourself by parking one vehicle at Chamberlain's Ranch and the other at the end of the hike. If you have one vehicle, you can arrange with other Narrows hikers to shuttle each other. The Zion Canyon Visitor Center maintains a Backcountry Shuttle Board where contacts can be made.

Chamberlain's Ranch is a 1-1/2-hour drive from Zion Canyon along paved and dirt roads. The dirt roads are passable for normal cars only when dry. When wet, they may be impassable even for four-wheel-drive vehicles. Snow closes the road in winter.

From the park's East Entrance station, drive 2.7 miles east on Route 9. Turn left on a paved road and continue 18 miles to a bridge that crosses the North Fork of the Virgin River. Turn left beyond the bridge, and drive 1/4 mile to the gate of Chamberlain's Ranch. Please close the gate behind you. Drive 1/2 mile farther and park just before the road crosses the river. To begin your hike, cross the river and follow the road for approximately three miles. Enter the river at the end of the road.

Note: Chamberlain's Ranch is a private ranch outside of Zion National Park. Camping is prohibited, but hikers may leave vehicles parked overnight.

Season: The best times to hike the Narrows are in late June, early July, and late September; the National Park Service usually opens the Narrows to through-trip hikes in early June. Thunderstorms from mid-July through early September can cause dangerous flash floods. In September the short days make overnight trips safer than day hikes through the length of the canyon. No permits for single-day trips will be issued after September 30th. After October, trips though the entire Narrows require wet suits and special preparation.

Permits: Backcountry permits are required for both through-day and overnight hikes through the entire length of the Narrows grits tributary canyons. If the weather forecast and river levels indicate good hiking conditions for the following day, permits will be issued starting at 5 p.m. at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center on a first-come, first-served basis. For overnight trips, campers will be assigned to one of 12 designated campsites in the Narrows based on the size and needs of their particular group. For day hikes a maximum of 80 people will be permitted to hike through the Narrows on any given day.

Group Size Limit (12): Large groups produce unacceptable impacts on the backcountry. Group size is limited to a maximum of 12 people sharing the same affiliation (school, club, scout troop, family, friends, etc.) in the same drainage, route, or backcountry trail on the same day. The park strictly enforces this group size restriction. Violators will be cited.

Starting Point for Hikes Requiring a Permit: The starting point is reached via Chamberlain's Ranch, private property outside Zion National Park. The road is accessible by passenger car only when dry and in good condition; during rainstorms and snow it is impassable even to four-wheel drive vehicles. Snow closes the access road from October through May. From the park's East Entrance station, drive east 2.5 miles on Utah Route 9. Turn left (North) on the paved road and continue 18 miles to a bridge that crosses the North Fork of the Virgin River. Turn left just beyond the bridge; you will reach the gate of Chamberlain's Ranch in about one-half mile. (From Zion Canyon, allow 1 1/2 hours to drive to this point.) You may drive about 1/2 mile farther, to where the dirt road crosses the river. Please respect the private land you cross, and close all gates. Camping is prohibited at Chamberlain's Ranch. Overnight parking is prohibited at the Temple of Sinawava, so overnight hikers must park their "bottom" vehicles at paved sites down-canyon from the Temple parking area.

Safety: Choose crossing and wading spots carefully. Seek shallow areas in slow moving water: level stretches with several channels or wide places with small ripples all the way across. Be alert to dangers downstream. Do not cross directly above cascades or rough, rocky areas with swift-moving water. Look for alternatives; you can avoid most obstacles and deep spots. Angle downstream; never fight the current. Use a walking stick as a stable "third leg." Walking sticks are vitally important in maintaining balance; hiking the Narrows without a walking stick increases your chances of injury and fatigue. Please respect both the park and private lands by not cutting any trees or bushes to make walking sticks.

Chest-deep holes may occur even when water levels are low. Wet, sodden backpacks become a liability—pack your belongings in sealed plastic bags for protection and flotation. Unfasten the waist strap while wading; a tightly-fastened pack cannot be shed quickly and is dangerous if the current sweeps you off your feet. Keep track of your progress by recognizing side canyons. Big Springs pours clear water through luxuriant plant growth into the river; it marks the entrance to a three-mile stretch of narrows where sheer sandstone cliffs limit escape from flash floods. Night-time travel below Big Springs is difficult with a flashlight; impossible without one.

Flashfloods: During a flash flood the water level rises almost instantly—within minutes or seconds. The Narrows are susceptible to flash flooding because much of the surrounding land is bare rock that does not readily absorb water. During storms, runoff water is funneled rapidly into the Narrows. Watch for these signs of possible flash flooding:

  • Sudden changes in water clarity from clear to muddy (may be accompanied by floating debris)
  • Rising water levels or stronger currents
  • Build-up of clouds or sounds of thunder
  • An increasing roar of water up-canyon

Any deterioration (increasing clouds, thunder, etc.) in weather conditions

If you observe any of these signs, seek higher ground immediately. Do not try to beat a flash flood out of the canyon. Remain on high ground until conditions improve; water levels usually drop within 24 hours. If caught by flooding in an area with no high ground, try to take shelter behind a jutting rock that can break the initial mass of water and debris. It may be possible to wedge yourself into a crack above water level. Even climbing a few feet may save your life.

Hypothermia: Immersion in cold water can cool the body to dangerous levels. Hypothermia may occur quickly without the victim's awareness. Avoid cotton clothing and eat high-energy food, especially sugars and starches before you are chilled. Watch for these signs of hypothermia:

  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Disorientation
  • Stumbling and poor coordination
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Confusion or slurred speech

If you recognize any signs of hypothermia, stop hiking and immediately replace wet clothing. Warm the victim with your own body and a hot drink. A pre-warmed sleeping bag and shelter from breezes will help prevent further heat loss.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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