Visitors driving or riding the shuttle through Zion Canyon can only get so far before the road runs out. From there, you can take the Riverside Walk a bit deeper into the canyon, before that too comes to an abrupt halt.
Here, Zion Canyon begins to narrow. The river that carved the canyon, the Virgin River, takes over, covering any dry land completely. Hundreds of thousands of visitors peer up the river at the end of the Riverside Walk, perhaps imagining what the canyon looks like further on or wondering how far it really goes. More adventurous visitors continue on to see for themselves.
Hiking The Narrows
This “trail” is the only one devoid of dirt in Zion. But it’s still considered a trail and is one of the most popular hikes in all of the park.
Aptly named “The Narrows,” the trail runs through the Virgin River. If you want to hike the entire 16-mile trail, you’ll need to arrange transportation to Chamberlain’s Ranch, where you’ll first enter the river. From there, you’ll hike downstream before departing the river at the Temple of Sinawava, at the end of the Riverside Walk. To take on the entire hike, you’ll need a permit, as well as a full day or even two to hike the entire thing.
Easier Hiking Options
Many visitors opt for a shorter version of this hike. They enter the Virgin River at the Temple of Sinawava and hike to Big Spring, about 5-miles upstream, before turning around and hiking back. The hike is still strenuous, but it does not require a permit or additional transportation.
You can always hike up The Narrows for an hour or so, before turning around and heading back. This is a great chance to still see the canyon narrow and experience this iconic hike but in an easier version.
Staying Safe on the Trail
When most people think of potentially dangerous trails in Zion, they think of the steep hike to Angels Landing. But without proper precaution and the right equipment, The Narrows can be just as dangerous. You won’t need to worry about tumbling from a steep cliff face. What you will need to worry about are flash floods and hypothermia.
Staying Safe from Flash Floods
Southern Utah and the surrounding states, as well as many other desert landscapes, are prone to flash flooding. Because the dry desert dirt and sand don’t soak up water very quickly, heavy rain rushes down into the canyon rather than seeping into the ground. In a hilly landscape like Zion, the water is funneled to the base of the canyon, causing the Virgin River to swell very quickly.
This isn’t just an issue within the park either. Heavy rainfall far upriver can also cause the river to flood and can push a wall of water down into the park before the rainstorm even arrives there.
In the lower canyon, there is usually time and space to get to higher ground when a flash flood occurs. But in The Narrows, as well as in other slot canyons in the region, there is often nowhere to go. This can make a flash flood incredibly dangerous.
While flash floods are by definition unpredictable, you can help keep yourself safe by watching the weather and checking in with rangers before starting your hike. You’ll not only want to check the weather in and around Zion but to the north as well.
It’s also important to check the river’s flow rate before starting your hike. At less than 70 cubic feet per second, the river is easy or perhaps moderately difficult to hike in. But above that level, it becomes much more difficult. Normally shallow pools may become chest-deep. While the trail does remain open at this rate, all hikers should practice caution, and only enter if they are physically capable of this type of hiking. At 150 cubic feet per second, The Narrows closes. It also closes whenever the National Weather Service issues a Flash Flood Warning.
During the hot summer months in Zion, the water temperature in the Virgin River may reach as high as 65 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that it’s comfortable enough to hike in shorts with a pair of heavy-duty water shoes.
But other times of the year, the temperature drops much lower. By December, the water temperature may drop to 40 degrees or lower. When this happens, it is still possible to hike The Narrows. However, additional gear is necessary to stay safe and warm on the hike.
Waterproof waders or a dry suit, as well as insulating layers, can help you keep your body temperature up during your hike. These can be rented from several outfitters in Springdale.
Adding The Narrows to Your Trip Itinerary
With a little planning and preparation, The Narrows can be a great addition to any visit to Zion National Park.
Not up for a trek through the freezing waters of the Virgin River this winter? Check out these other ideas for exploring Southern Utah when temperatures drop.