Location: Zion National Park, Utah
Distance: 25 km
Guidebook: Zion National Park trails map
The Virgin Narrows in Utah, often simply called ‘The Narrows’, is one of the most famous and photogenic hikes in the United States. Here, along a 25 kilometre stretch of the Virgin river, hikers follow the water as it winds its way through Zion National Park, surrounded on both sides by cliffs that can reach 500 feet. Many times the river is the trail, requiring hikers to paddle, wade, and even swim through sections as they make their way down stream.
There are three principle ways to hike the Virgin Narrows:
Day hike from bottom: This involves starting at the Temple of Sinawava, hiking up stream as far as desired, and then turning around and retracing your steps. There may be a limit on how far you are allowed to go when doing the hike this way.
Day hike from top: Alternatively, the entire length of the Narrows section can be hiked from Chamberlain Ranch, down stream all the way to the Temple of Sinawava. This hike requires a permit, booked online on the NPS website.
Overnight hike from top: This is the same trail as above, but involves camping at one of the designated campsites alongside the river. This also requires a permit, which can be obtained online.
We chose the second option, the day hike from Chamberlain Ranch, because we wanted to experience the full section of the Narrows, but we did not want to carry additional food and overnight gear (and have the hassle of keeping it dry). With hindsight, we are glad we went for this option. There are other ways to explore the Narrows too, but these are typically more specialised options which involve canyoneering, entering via some of the side canyons.
It is important to read the safety information and the weather reports before attempting the Narrows – the nature of the river and the surrounding landscape means flash floods are a real possibility. Companies such as Zion Adventure Company typically display weather reports and flow rates, and these should be carefully studied. In fact, the day after we completed the hike a storm up stream caused the Virgin river’s flow rate to triple, and the Narrows were closed to hikers. The situation really can change that quickly.
Depending on the time of year and the hike, additional clothing and equipment may also be required for the Narrows hike. Canyoneering shoes are generally recommended as they provide excellent traction on the wet rocks below the river’s surface, and a wooden pole is very useful for support. Walking the Narrows in April, we also found it useful to wear dry pants for insulation. We rented all of our equipment from the Zion Adventure Company (ZAC), a very professional and knowledgeable company which I cannot recommend enough. Although they deal with hundreds of people with the same questions each day, the staff were professional and enthusiastic, and very informative. The equipment was also very high quality and available in a wide range of sizes. We also used ZAC for a canyoneering trip near Zion and were extremely happy with both experiences.
Dropped off at Chamberlain Ranch, we started the hike with minimum of messing around, aware that the only other couple in the vehicle with us were overnighting in the canyon, but that we had to make it to the Temple of Sinawava before the last shuttle bus left. If we missed it, it would mean an extra 15 kilometre hike back along the road to the Zion campground, and there would be no chance of hitching a lift as the park roads are closed to private vehicles.
For the first 45 minutes or so we followed a clear, wide track across open ground, making good speed in the cold morning air. About 5 kilometres into the hike we came across Bulloch’s Cabin, an old wooden hut in a small meadow, and then the path crossed the river. Whilst we could have crossed and stayed dry – the water was relatively shallow – we decided to don our dry pants and canyoneering shoes at this point. This made our progress much quicker as we were less concerned about getting cold and wet.
The next few miles of the narrows section was still quite wide open and the path crossed and re-crossed the river several times. Although not as dramatic as the iconic images of the lower Narrows, this section was nevertheless subtly beautiful and we were still surrounded by high, red cliffs. At around the 8 mile mark we hit a dramatic stop at a section known as the North Fork Falls, where the river took a 10 feet plunge into a pool below. Luckily there is no need to go over the falls yourself (people do jump it, but I wouldn’t recommend it). Instead, there is a narrow passage to the left of the falls that leads safely down. The falls mark the point where the canyon walls start to get narrower and the water flow also picks up at Deep Creek joins the main canyon, and where the NPS campsites start, squeezed into spaces on the sandy river banks.
The whole Narrows is really a magical experience and despite having a map with us, we quickly lost track of the names of the places we saw and the order in which we saw them. Instead we were taken in by the sheer variety of landscape and waterscape around every corner. Some sections would be fast-flowing and waist deep, almost pushing us over at times; others were much wider and calmer, the water even forming beautiful green pools that appeared not to move at all. Finding the right walking line was essential as the difference between knee-height and shoulder-height water could be just a few steps.
We took a quick lunch break at the confluence where Kolob Creek joins the Virgin river, taking a chance to bask in the sunlight which hadn’t yet reached us on the narrow canyon floor.
Perhaps the most famous section of the Narrows is ‘Wall Street’, where the canyon walls are almost 500 feet high and the sunlight brings out a rainbow of colours in the rock surface. Wall Street marks the furthest point that day hikers from the Temple of Sinawava tend to reach. We saw our first hiker of the day – a lone photographer – then another, then a couple of families, and finally small crowds of people as we reached the end of this section. Trying to determine if we would get to the shuttle bus in time, I asked one woman how long she had been walking. “Forever”, she replied.
Luckily it didn’t take forever, and as the final section opened up and the path gradually moved back onto solid land, we were able to make good time, splashing through rivers in our dry pants where the tourists were carefully picking their way across stones. Back and on the penultimate shuttle bus, people seemed surprised that we had walked the entire Narrows in a day. It was quite a special experience as we spoke to these people, thinking about how far we had come that day, and knowing of the empty, peaceful canyons we had seen higher up.
Overall, hiking the Narrows from top to bottom in one day was a very strenuous hike – we did not have much left in us at the end – but well worth it. If we had walked up from the bottom and turned around again, I think we would have been disappointed. While camping in the Narrows must be an awesome experience, the extra hassle of carrying camping gear, sleeping bags, and food – and keeping all of it dry – would have probably caused us more frustration than enjoyment. The mental challenge was also as great as the physical: for large sections of the hike you must be aware of every footstep, to avoid stepping into deeper sections or – worse – slipping on a rock and breaking an ankle. There were sections that were so difficult under foot – the river bed was literally covered in bowling-ball sized boulders – that our progress crawled to a halt. Despite this, we only fell over twice, and never ended up fully submerged! Water levels and flash floods are always a concern on a hike like this (more so if you are overnighting as you have two days of conditions to be aware of). In general the water was no greater than waist height, but there was one section we were forced to swim – a very cold experience, even though it was only a few metres.
In many ways the Narrows hike is so varied that it is hard to take everything in on a single visit. With one spectacular view continuously replacing another,it is definitely a place that needs visiting again!