Getting Wet in The Narrows at Zion National Park

After taking a break from the Utah blog posts for a few weeks, we’re back to finish writing about our road trip through the Beehive state. Is it just me or does anyone else find it difficult to get motivated to write during the holidays? I was rocking in November and then once the calendar hit December I just fell off the wagon! Must be all the holiday distraction, but I’m determined to write regularly in 2021 so we’re getting a jumpstart on that resolution. If you’re planning to hike The Narrows at Zion National Park do know that it is impossible to stay dry as this is a 9.4 mile hike up the Virgin River. The Narrows ranks as one of the most popular hikes at Zion National Park along with Angels Landing, which you can read all about in our blog post The Angels Landing Hike at Zion National Park is Awesome, but it’s not for Everyone, because we embarked on that nerve-wracking adventure the day before! I guess because we enjoy punishing our bodies?

What is The Narrows?

“The Narrows” is literally the most narrow section of the Zion Canyon, a gorge with walls 1,000 feet high that tower over your head and make you feel tiny. The Virgin River cuts through the canyon, at times only 20 feet wide from wall to wall. For the majority of the hike the water level was between our calves and knees but that varies from season to season and throughout the canyon. We came upon a section at 3.5 miles into the hike, actually where we decided to turnaround, that was about chest deep. You can see the beginning of The Narrows from the paved Riverside Walk, but if you really want to experience this majestic canyon you’ll need to get into the water. You can turn around at any point on this 9.4 mile out-and-back hike. In fact we noticed that most hikers turned around before reaching the end at Big Spring.

When to Hike The Narrows

We first heard about The Narrows three years prior when we visited Zion, but unfortunately the trail was closed because it was early spring and the risk for deadly flash floods was too high. For this reason you should always check the weather forecast and for flash flood potential before hiking into canyons like this one. Most people choose to hike The Narrows in the late spring and summer because the water is shallower and warmer. This is also when it’s very crowded at Zion. During the winter the water levels are high and temperature cold, and while fall may bring more stable weather the days begin to shorten and the water starts to get colder. Just like anything in life there’s probably no perfect time to hike The Narrows, so be sure to check the weather, flood risks and chat with the park staff before heading into the canyon. We felt that fall was an awesome time to complete this hike. Because much of the canyon is shaded be prepared for The Narrows to be much cooler than the rest of the park, like at least ten degrees colder. Even though the temperature in Springdale was around the mid-80s that day we were surprised to find just how much cooler it was in the canyon. We actually ended up keeping on our long sleeved shirts all day.

Preparing for The Narrows: What to Wear and Pack

I feel like a broken record, but always check the weather forecast to prepare appropriately for any adventure. In fact the first guideline listed in the Leave No Trace Seven Principles is to plan ahead and prepare when you’re recreating outdoors. Check out our post Practices for Enjoying the Outdoors Responsibly to learn more about the seven principles. Knowing we were going to get wet, and there’s a chance we could fall into the water, we made sure to stick with breathable, wicking and fast-drying materials that were easy to layer. Because we started hiking very early in the morning it was pretty chilly outside, so we made sure to layer light clothes that we could toss in our backpacks as it warmed up throughout the day. You’ll probably want to bring your cellphone along for photos of this epic hike, so if it’s not waterproof you may want to invest in a special bag to keep it dry. There are no snack shacks along the Virgin River so bring enough drinking water for yourself and snacks — it’s an exhausting hike and you’ll appreciate that little boost of energy throughout the day. We found plenty of dry spots along the way to chill and eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches.

Now that we’ve done this hike I think it’s safe to say that the MOST valuable gear is a walking stick and your footwear, both of which can be rented right outside the main entrance to Zion or at several retailers in town. Please, we’re begging you, PLEASE spend the extra money to rent the stick, canyoneering shoes and neoprene socks for your hike of The Narrows — you will thank us when you’re done! It’s only around $25 to rent this gear for the whole day. I will fully admit we did not do ALL the proper research before we did this hike. We knew about the walking stick, as a gentleman who’d done the hike before told us how imperative the stick is for balance on the slippery river rocks. But it wasn’t until the night before that someone Bob knows asked if we were going to rent the gear — “Uh, what gear you say?” That’s when we learned about the canyoneering shoes and neoprene socks that are also recommended for this hike. However, since one of us had water shoes and the other had water hiking sandals, we did not heed this advice and assumed we had all the proper gear we needed. I should have seen the next reg flag when I rented the sticks that morning and the worker asked, “are you sure you just want the sticks?” As we stood in line waiting for the shuttle I couldn’t help but look around at everyone else’s gear who was holding a stick, a telltale sign they were heading to The Narrows too, and boy it sure seemed like everyone else rented the shoes and socks! It was quickly becoming apparent that we missed the memo, but we didn’t come all this way and jump through so many hoops to NOT give the hike a try at this point. I think we both went into the day knowing there was a good chance we wouldn’t complete all 9.4 miles of The Narrows, but I am proud to say that even with improper footwear we finished seven miles! I will spare you the photos of our battered and blistered feet, that only partially dictated the decision to turnaround early.

How to get to The Narrows

The Narrows is a long hike at 9.4 miles roundtrip for the Bottom Up route, and because it’s mostly in the water this distance takes considerably longer than a hike on dry land. We stepped foot into the water around 9:30 a.m. and exited the river at 3:30 p.m. It took six hours with a few breaks to complete nearly seven miles of the hike, and this doesn’t factor in the time spent on the Riverwalk to and from the point where you enter the water, the shuttle ride to and from the Temple of Sinawava from Springdale, or any of the time spent waiting to board shuttle buses — this truly is an all day excursion. Our day began waking up at 5:45 a.m., as we camped 40 minutes away from Zion at Quail Creek State Park we needed to ensure we had enough time to pack up camp, stop for coffee, and rent our gear outside the park entrance in time to board the 8:00 a.m. shuttle. Fortunately for early birds the parking lots inside Zion still had available parking. If you arrive to Zion after noon I can almost assure that you’ll need to park in town and take the Springdale shuttle into the park. Parking inside the gates probably saved us at least 20 minutes, so depending on the time of day you plan to arrive at Zion keep that in mind if you’re on a tight schedule. From the main entrance to the last shuttle stop, Temple of Sinawava where you access The Narrows, the ride can take as long as 40 minutes. When we visited Zion quite a few shuttle stops were closed, making our rides to and from the Temple of Sinawava only about 20 minutes long, although we probably waited at least the same amount of time to also board the shuttle bus. We were chasing the daylight hours so we could make the 60 minute drive from Zion to set up our camp outside Kanab before sunset. By the time we exited the Virgin River and made it back down to the parking lot at the main entrance in Springdale it was already 5:00 p.m. We reached Coral Pink Sands State Park with just enough time to get the tent up in the daylight, which is considerably more difficult when you’re broken from two days of intense hiking. We were so sore and beat we almost didn’t have enough energy to shower! When hiking The Narrows stay aware of the time so you’re not hiking out of The Narrows in the dark and you don’t miss the last shuttle out of the Zion Canyon, unless you have another way to get out or else you’re walking. Our friends who we met 3.5 miles up in The Narrows gorge actually rented electric bikes for just this reason a few days later so they could check out Angels Landing at sunset. (#goals) Our recommendation is to arrive at The Narrows as early as possible so you have plenty of time to enjoy the canyon and not feel rushed.

The other option to hike into The Narrows is the 16-mile Top Down hike from Chamberlin’s Ranch that requires a permit. It’s our understanding that the Top Down route requires some actual canyoneering, at least that’s what we were told by a guide from Kanab. This guide also said that the Subway hike at Zion is “the best fucking hike” he’s ever done in his whole life, and that’s saying something coming from a guide who’s seen the most obscure and amazing trails in Utah! You can rest assured that the Subway, another hike requiring a permit, is now on our bucket list too.

Our Experience Hiking The Narrows

When we first stepped our feet into the Virgin River I literally felt like I was going to cry. All I could imagine was that for the next nine miles my poor feet were going to feel that horrible submerged in freezing cold water and I was wondering right then if we should just quit. I physically did not think I could do it. I raced to the dry shoreline as quickly as I could manage with my frozen toes! Fortunately when I reentered the water my feet had already acclimated to the chilly river and from there on out the feetsies were totally fine — well, used to the temperature anyway. For the rest of the hike we joked that it felt like we were competing on the World’s Toughest Race: Eco Challenge, Bear Grylls’ new Amazon series about a team expedition race through rugged Fijian terrain for eleven days. One of the challenges is a hike in a freezing cold river which looked miserable and appeared to be one of the toughest challenges for the teams. After watching Eco Challenge we were definitely questioning why we too decided to hike The Narrows! I figured if I even made it to the river section on Eco Challenge that’s probably the challenge that would take me out, but after hiking The Narrows I just might have the confidence to tackle it!

Quitting was not an option for many reasons, but also because we had a date! Bob’s buddy from college was in Utah at the same time and had boarded the 7:00 a.m. shuttle bus to Temple of Sinawava to hike The Narrows too. They were somewhere ahead of us which kept us on watch the whole hike — there’s only one way up and out, so there was no way they could get past us without being seen. It was cool to see so many of the same people we’d met on Angels Landing the day before; shout out to the mother-daughter team we summited with and the ORANGES family! More people actually recognized Bob because of his big red beard and bright colored clothes. It was fun seeing our new friends throughout the day, but it was even more rad to meet Gareth and Tyler 3.5 miles up the canyon where we found them sitting on a big rock in the middle of the river. I’d never met Gareth in person and definitely not his buddy Tyler, but when I spotted two young dudes ahead on that rock I just had a feeling it was them. Conveniently they were parked right at the narrowest part of the canyon we had encountered yet. We watched group after group, much fewer at this point in the canyon (I think Big Spring, the end, was only a little over a mile ahead) wade through the chest-deep water, holding their bags overhead. To the right of the river was a sketchy looking hiking path you could take to avoid the water, but at this point all four of us had seen all the slot canyon we needed for one day. Plus we had to chase that daylight and I figured it was taking us about one hour to hike one mile. At that rate we wouldn’t have exited the canyon until 5:30-6:00 p.m. if we had hiked all the way to the end.

Walking on slippery river rocks all day is quite a workout and it slows down your hiking pace, which also gives you plenty of time to take in the breathtaking views surrounding you. One of my favorite things about The Narrows is how the sun shines on the canyon walls, giving them a soft golden glow. The light just keeps changing throughout the day as it moves, bouncing off different walls and makes for some pretty stunning photos. It was also very exciting to encounter a little waterfall shortly into the hike! It streamed down one of the walls and appeared to be coming out of nowhere. The light blue water of the Virgin River is unlike anything I’ve seen before, almost comparable to bright blue Caribbean waters but something all its own entirely — “Zion Narrows” blue. This has to rank as one of the most unique hikes on the planet; where else can you hike in a river amongst towering walls 1,000 feet above your head? We also found a smaller little canyon that split off the main canyon. Not sure how far up it went and not wanting to miss Gareth and Tyler, we didn’t venture too far up the small canyon, but if we ever make it back to The Narrows it’d be fun to explore. As amazing and one-of-a-kind as this hike is though, I’m not itching to do it again anytime soon! In all seriousness if you get the opportunity to hike The Narrows you absolutely should; this hike should be on everyone’s travel bucket list! As the say the juice was worth the squeeze in this case.

Top Three Recommendations from The Inspired Travelers

  • Start hiking The Narrows in the morning, as early as possible if you plan to do the entire hike.
  • RENT THE GEAR! The stick, closed-toed canyoneering shoes, and neoprene socks. The stick is helpful for balancing because you’ll be hiking on slippery river rocks all day. All this movement could give you blisters in the wrong footwear.
  • Dress appropriately for hiking in the water, like DO NOT wear cotton. Choose clothing that dries quickly and is light because if you take anything off you’ll need to carry it all day. We wore light clothes that we could layer as the temperature warmed throughout the day.

Thanks for reading this post! If you have any questions or are planning a trip to Utah and/or Zion National Park feel free to reach out to us for ideas. If you’ve hiked The Narrows we’d love to hear about your experience and any helpful information for others planning the hike!

Check out Gareth’s Travel Deeper website and his Instagram account @traveldeeper for awesome travel inspiration. Tyler is a super talented photographer and you should check out his IG account too @tylermcave

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