The Narrows in Zion National Park are the Venice, Italy of backcountry hikes. And it’s not just the water flowing in tight spaces that draws this parallel. Because if you visit any world-class city, you’ll find something that makes it special: Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Rome has the Colosseum, Sydney has the Opera House. But no matter where you go, each city is going to have roads and cars. What makes Venice so unique isn’t a single view or monument; the experience comes from moving through the city.
Similarly, hike any trail in the world, and chances are, you’ll be climbing through forests and meadows, possibly with a summit as your goal. But with the Narrows, there are no scenic vistas, no spired peaks looming in the distance, and it’s entirely downhill. There’s no trail upkeep because the majority of the path is the Virgin River. That means you’re not just hiking; you’re wading, sloshing, and – in a couple areas – floating.
Like most other trails, this one is well marked. But not by signs or stacks of rocks. With the Narrows, you simply follow the river. The sandstone walls of the canyon are 500 to 1,500 feet up, so wandering off the trail would require climbing gear, or possibly a jet pack. Generally speaking, there’s one way in, and one way out.
The southern (and most visited) entrance to the Narrows can be accessed by anyone who rides the park’s tram to the Temple of Sinawava and hikes north against into the shallow Virgin River. Most of these tourists make it a half mile or so upstream before turning back, trying the whole time to keep their shoes dry by hopping from rock to rock.
But to truly experience the Narrows, you need a backpack, an overnight permit, a good walking stick, and a pair of strong ankles. You’ll spend a lot of time in the river, and although it’s mostly shallow hiking over loose and slippery boulders is a very different journey than one made over dirt or gravel.
Wilderness permits can be obtained up to three months in advance and range from $10-$20 depending on the size of your group. Walk-in permits and last-minute drawings are also available, but unless you want to slog through the rules and particulars on The Narrows Permit site, it’s worth it to schedule your trip a couple months in advance. Otherwise, you risk driving all the way to southern Utah just to have the ranger tell you the last backcountry permits were given to a family of four who might return to hike if their breakfast at the Denny’s in St. George doesn’t delay them.
There are a couple of optimal times to make the hike, so pull out your calendar and plan carefully. The greatest danger in the Narrows isn’t wildlife or falling rocks, but flash floods, which are most likely during July, August, and September. Surprisingly (or not), that’s when foot traffic is at its peak, and when the river’s temperature is warmest (in the low 60s). Shoot for a May/June or September/October hike, and keep one eye on the weather report as your day approaches.
In addition to reserving your wilderness permit, you’ll also want to schedule a shuttle to drive you from the park to the trailhead at Chamberlain Ranch. Since the trail begins outside the park boundaries, the National Park Service doesn’t provide any transportation. But a cursory Google search will lead you to a small army of shuttle services that will pick you up in the park and carry you the 90 minutes to the trailhead for about $35 a head. (Most of these are 15-passenger vans driven by dudes who’ll spend the afternoon rock climbing and playing hacky sack, so I recommend sitting in the front and talking to them on your ride up. You’ll come home with more stories that way.)
The trailhead at Chamberlain Ranch looks nothing like a slot canyon, and you’ll wonder why your driver dropped you off in the middle of a herd of cows. The first half hour is a dirt road through a pine-lined pasture. There aren’t many photo ops here outside of wandering cows, and Bulloch’s Cabin, a warped frame of an old homesteader that was built in the 1890s. But as the trail continues to descend, the banks of the river begin to grow a little steeper, edging hikers closer and closer to the Virgin. Without realizing it, the meadows disappear and you’ll find yourself in a small gorge with cliffs on either side that are 20 feet up. Then 50. Then 100. Five miles along the trail, you’ve reentered Zion National Park, and you’re enclosed by sandstone walls about 500 feet high.
The Virgin flows west for about eight miles until it converges with Deep Creek and takes a 90-degree turn south. This is where most of the campgrounds will begin to appear. The entire length of the Narrows can be covered in a single day, and several day hikers make the attempt. But it’s worth reserving a campground to experience Zion at night; the canyon walls frame the sky in black, and a cloudless night will register as a strip of stars ripped into the fabric of the sky.
The highlights of the second day will include Big Springs, an oasis in sandstone, with two small cascades framed in ferns that seem to flow out of the rock. Downstream from this, you’ll enter Wall Street, the quintessential section of the Narrows with giant water- and wind-sculpted cliffs standing about 20 feet apart from each other, and dwarfing hikers. Unless you’ve got a panorama feature on your camera, don’t plan on getting the entire scene in a single frame.
From this point, the Virgin River flows from canyon wall to canyon wall. And depending on the time of year, there will be spots – holes really – where the river depth is greater than six feet, and hikers simply need to jump in, float a few meters, and be glad they Ziplocked their cameras and lined their backpacks with Hefty bags.
Just past Orderville Canyon, a huge gap snaking off to the east (and another photogenic secret worthy of its own escapade), the foot traffic of tourists trekking north from the south entrance picks up significantly. Families and couples unburdened by backpacks and even walking sticks increases, as quarter-day hikers wade upstream from the Temple of Sinawava parking lot.
There’s a certain pride, maybe even smugness in passing them, knowing they’ll turn back long before they reach Big Springs or even Wall Street. You’ll know you’ve got better pictures and better stories, because you made the effort to start from the top and own the hike. Viewing only the southern end of the Narrows is a little like visiting Tijuana and saying you’ve been to Mexico; technically, you’ve been there. But you haven’t, really.
Almost everyone you come across on the last mile of the hike will stare wide-eyed at your backpack as you approach and ask, “Did you actually sleep in the Narrows?”
And as waterlogged as you may be, it’s a bit of a rush to tell them, “Yep.”