What to Know Before You Go
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. Need a little help figuring out the details? Then you’ve come to the right place.
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 a proof of endurance and speed (and I know you are out there) than 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 in 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.
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 Mountain Time 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 1/3 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. These hours of operation vary, but it appears to open at 7:00 AM during the busy summer months. This desk is also where you will pick up your permits if you are one of those who are able to get a reservation through the online system. You must pick up your permit the day of or before as they will not issue permits any earlier than the day before because of potential flash flooding concerns.
Here is a link to the permit site: https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/backpackingpermits.htm. You can also request other permits for additional overnight hikes within the park on this site.
Here is a link to a map with Zion National Park’s backcountry campsites, complete with capacity for each and if it can be reserved online: https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/upload/WildernessMap.pdf.
Here is a link to another map that has descriptions of each of The Narrows campsites: https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/upload/Narrows%20campsite%20map.pdf.
Getting to the Start:
So you have your permits and you are 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. Here is a link to such a shuttle service: http://zionadventures.com/zionshuttles/zion-eastern-region-trailheads.html.
Hiking The Narrows:
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.
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.
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′ down stream. If you want, you can back track to get a better view of the falls.
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 ways upstream, but got to see a few deer… I know, it is bizarre to see large mammals milling about in a deep slot canyon.
After this you will start to see the labeled campsites on each side of the river. They have yellow stakes with the campsite number. Make sure you setup site in the designated area only. Once setup, 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 you will get to experience 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 you to get through. Depending on the water level, in most cases you can stay dry from the waist up.
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 no where. 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.
Shortly after the falls you will enter into the deepest part of the canyon known as Wall Street. At about 13 miles in you will pass the even narrower Ordiville 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. In another half mile you will arrive at the concrete walkway that will take you the final mile to the bus stop at the Temple of Sinawava.
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 May as The Narrows is often closed due to the spring runoff (snow melt).
- Late July thru mid-September is considered the rainy season and the possibility of flash floods is higher.
- October would probably be nice.
- November thru March could be nice, but bring a wet suit.
Tips for Hiking the Narrows:
- Comfortable shoes. No Gortex! they hold in the water… and it will get in.
Neoprene socks. This is perhaps the most important thing. 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.
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.
- Headlamp…. Always. Always take a headlamp if there is even a 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.
- 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 reservation fee.