Maybe you can tell by the generous use of exclamation points and ALL CAPS in the title, I loved every minute of hiking the Narrows. I can’t say it enough, this is one of the coolest, most beautiful, jaw-dropping adventures I have ever experienced. I am not sure how to really do justice to a hike where you are trekking 98% of the time up a river, in a canyon only 20-30 feet across in places, and all the while surrounded by blazing red and black, vertical rock walls 1000 feet and higher. I hope I can capture the magnificence of this canyon, and the hiking experience, because I can’t urge you enough to make sure you add this adventure to your Life Bus list – if you haven’t already.
Todd, my 16 year old nephew, and I all set out for a Memorial Day weekend adventure to Zion National Park last spring. I was so excited I couldn’t stand it. The Narrows has been on my life list of must-do adventures forever. We hiked the Narrows on the second day the hike had been open. The water flows were very high, so high that they almost didn’t open the hike. I will say at this water level, I would think twice about taking little ones, or anyone else with balance or strength issues on this trek. We are mountain bikers, hikers, and runners with pretty strong legs and we still had to really muscle our way through sometimes. The water flows were very powerful. Even though if you were to slip and fall you wouldn’t shoot off of into the oblivion, you could definitely find yourself being taken by the current for a bit in very chilly water.
We got to Zion Outfitter at 8 AM on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. I would highly recommend renting the special neoprene canyoneering socks and booties, as well as the big, wooden hiking stick. I originally poo-pooed the idea of renting the stick because we have awesome trekking poles. I am so thankful that we rented the sticks. I don’t think it would’ve been doable with trekking poles. The water flow was so powerful that our sticks would’ve most certainly been snapped into bits The wooden trekking poles are so sturdy when you jab them into the rocks and, they give you a great, stable point from which to push off when moving upstream against the flow. The water was quite chilly when we were there as it was spring snow melt. I was borderline on renting a wet suit but I’m glad we didn’t. The weather outside was perfect and nicely warm so the water, once you got used to it, was actually quite refreshing. I would say if it is not a really sunny, warm day, I would recommend more clothing options because the canyon walls definitely make the temperature in the canyon considerably cooler. Hypothermia could easily become an issue at this early time of year with a combination of cold water and cloudy, cool air temperatures – just something of which to be mindful. I would also recommend having some kind of lanyard and clear pouch for your camera. You are definitely going to want to take pics!!! Really, you need to put everything in your daypack into some kind of water proof pouch in case you fall into the water or just get your stuff splashed on.
We stopped at the awesome one-stop pitstop in Springdale, Hoodoo’s Market, for some picnic provisions – including delicious sandwiches, bakery treats, and chips. Then we were off and running – or so we thought. The one downer moment of this experience is indeed the CROWDS. Good news is that once you go at least a mile up river, you wind up losing most of the crowds. Just be mindful that you can not drive into the park. Everyone has to line up at a shuttle stop to get on the shuttle that takes you throughout the park and to the Narrows trailhead. The shuttle stop looked like we might have taken a wrong turn somewhere and arrived in Disneyland instead. There were hundreds of people lined up to get on the shuttles. The GOOD NEWS is that the shuttle moved very quickly and we were then really on our way.
The hike up the Virgin River starts at the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop. You start on a paved trail which goes for about a mile The pathway ends on a small beach area where you gain access to the river. The first portion of the hike up the Virgin River has quite a few people as well. Don’t fret, as I mentioned earlier, keep on keeping on and you will leave the crowds behind. The water gets higher and more dramatic the farther you go, at least at the time of year we went. One tip I would recommend, purchase your gear and provisions the day before if at all possible. This way you can go directly to the shuttle station in the National Park and get on the shuttles about an hour earlier than it takes to get your gear and food and then go to the shuttle stop.
Did I mention that my 16 year old nephew is 6’8″ and weighs 220 lbs? He came in quite handy as we navigated our way upstream. There were several places where we couldn’t quite tell how deep the water was. We used my nephew as the human dip-stick and sent him ahead. If the water came up to his shoulders or lower I figured I could go that route. There were a few times where the water was up to his nose. One time I forgot what I was doing and followed him. I found myself immediately submerged in some very chilly water. (I’m 5’10” for reference.) After a moment where it took my breath away, the water actually became rather enjoyable. I would, however, gauge your own level of enjoying chilly water and please always remember that hypothermia could easily become a problem here.
We continued on and enjoyed a picnic lunch along the way on some boulders on a nice sandy beach. We wanted to make it to the Big Springs turnaround point which is about 5 miles upstream. I would say you should at least shoot for the Wall Street portion at the very least. This is where the walls of the canyon become the narrowest.
We made it about 4 to 4.5 miles but a couple of factors lead to a delayed start and a longer day on the river than expected: purchasing gear and provisions took longer, the shuttle stop took much longer than anticipated, working our way up 4 miles against powerful water, and taking photos and picnicking made our upstream trek take longer then we had planned. We turned around just to be sure we would make it back before it got late / dark. Even as the light begins to go down it gets much cooler in the canyon. My clothes were damp and I started to get chilled towards the end of our day. In all we hiked about 8-9 miles which took us around 6 hours to do. We are endurance athletes but, given the water flow, it was definitely slow going. We also stopped for lunch and photos so keep that in mind when estimating your time.
To finish off the perfect day, we had an amazing meal at the Whiptail Grill in Springdale. To say we were hungry is a true understatement. The three of us inhaled some delicious tacos, burritos, and some of the best ribs I’ve ever had.
I hope I’ve intrigued you about this hike. It is one you will never forget or regret!!
A quick checklist of some things to definitely consider before hiking the Narrows:
- Remember to use the loo before if at all possible. There are no port-a-potties at all on this trek.
- Remember to keep everything in waterproof pouches. We used our regular day bags and just put the waterproof bagged items inside the daypack.
- Highly recommend renting the neoprene socks, booties, and wooden walking stick. The wet or dry suits are up to your own preference as well as water / air temperature.
- We hiked from the bottom up route. No special permits are required for hiking in this direction. Hiking beyond Big Springs is prohibited when hiking in this direction. You can hike top down but this direction requires a permit. Check out the ZNP website for specifics on that hike.
- I would seriously heed any recommendations about flash flood warnings when considering this hike.
- Get to the park entrance / shuttle stop ASAP in the morning to avoid as much of the potential for crowds / delays as possible.
- Savor every moment of this beach-taking trek!
- Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions at all about this adventure.
Hope your Life Bus takes you up this river sometime 🙂