Hiking the Narrows–Zion Revisited

The Narrows is a slot canyon hike at Zion National Park, mostly walking through the Virgin River. National Geographic ranks hiking the Narrows as one of the top ten adventures in the National Parks. The Narrows is one of the best known slot canyon hikes in the world and ranks as the top attraction for Zion National Park on TripAdvisor.

Yesterday I sampled the Narrows hike for about an hour. The full hike can be a 6 to 12 hour adventure.

What a difference one week makes. The Riverside Walk is a one mile paved trail at the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop, the last shuttle stop for the park that takes visitors the farthest up in Zion Canyon. This is the spot where I was caught in a spring hail storm last week. Within five minutes the temperature dropped from 75 to 55 and dozens of park visitors around me were covered in ice. Most people did not have appropriate weather gear for the conditions and many had to take the next couple of shuttles for the 40 minute ride back to the parking lot and their cars for dry clothing.

Yesterday the temperature was in the upper 80s at about 3pm when I arrived at the visitor center of Zion National Park. I packed 3 liters of water, my camera, binoculars and water shoes and caught the shuttle into Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Over 20 years ago I bought a pair of shoes specifically for river hiking and they live in the deep recesses of my car trunk. It was about time they saw the light of day again.

The final shuttle stop, deepest upriver in Zion Canyon, is the Temple of Sinawava stop.


Temple of Sinawava shuttle bus stop in Zion National Park.

Riverside Walk is a paved trail extending one mile into the canyon past the end of the paved road. There is work currently in progress to repair part of the paved trail and a couple hundred yards in the middle section are through sand making the section far more difficult for disabled access.


Riverside Walk detour off paved path.

Last week the squirrels were smart enough to be hidden from the elements when it dumped rain and hail. This time the little buggers were kind of scary following tourists around begging for food. These were the most aggressively panhandling squirrels I’ve encountered since Washington D.C. There are posters all around Zion National Park showing a human hand with a stitched wound from a squirrel bite.

Signs also state a $100 fine for feeding wildlife.


What you looking at?

Thanks to the commenters yesterday for pointing out that my photo of a pronghorn was misidentified as a mule deer.

On the Riverside Walk there was a mule deer feeding.


Mule deer beside Riverside Walk path, Zion National Park.

The paved section of path had plenty of visitors on the clear sky, dry day. I am amazed at the number of French speaking people I encountered on my hikes through Utah’s National Parks.


Riverside Walk, Zion National Park.

There were some totally wet hikers coming down the Riverside Trail. I had not planned on full water immersion. I  carry a waterproof bag in the trunk of my car. Once again I was not totally prepared for Zion’s elements since the sensible thing would have been to pack my camera and wallet in the waterproof bag and place that inside my backpack. Practice makes perfect and I have been too long away from the outdoors life I used to frequent. Hotel life has spoiled me.


Virgin River seen from Riverside Walk.

At the end of the Riverside Walk there were around 50 people and dozens more hiking out of the river. There were still a handful of people hiking in so I changed my shoes, packed my camera in my backpack and fortunately found a walking stick some other hiker had left behind.

Walking sticks

I noticed about one-third of the hikers did not have a walking stick. This is an essential tool for the Narrows in my opinion. I used the stick to gauge water depth and feel for rocks and sand. The water was not deep in most sections I hiked, however, at one point I was in water up to my knees and a woman ten feet away was wading in water four feet deep. Without the stick I would have fallen at least once. Most injuries in Zion National Park occur in the Narrows. It is very easy to twist an ankle or slip in the water and hit your knee on a rock.


Crossing the Virgin River heading up the Narrows.


The end of the Riverside Walk is a gathering place for hikers and spectators.

On the sandy shore, as soon as I crossed over from the launching point for the Narrows, was a wild turkey common to Zion National Park.


Wild turkey.


There are many places where the Virgin River flows wall to wall in the slot canyon. Most hikers I saw were going on their own. There are adventure guides to lead groups into the Narrows and I saw several guided groups departing as I was hiking upstream. At the time I was hiking in the afternoon, I estimate over 95% of the hikers were coming out of the Narrows.


The Narrows river walk.

Reports I read stated the water was cold just two weeks ago. Adventure outfitters offer wetsuits for the hike. The water temperature was not uncomfortable at all to me. Nothing like when I put my feet into Eagle River while staying in Beaver Creek in the Rocky Mountains the other day.


On the shuttle bus I heard the audio tour state that water levels in the Virgin River can change from 50 cfs to 3,000 cfs in a matter of minutes during summer storms when a flash flood hits the slot canyon. The Narrows is closed when the water volume exceeds 120 to 150 cfs. Yesterday the volume was 67 cfs which is slightly below average for this time of year. Visitors can check this USGS website for water flow data.

Photography is difficult in the Narrows with high canyon walls creating dark light and the higher cliff faces creating vibrant contrasting lighted areas.


Looking up from the Narrows.

Several curious tourists asked me about the experience when I came out again at the end of the Riverside Walk path.

I simply said the walk is a rite of passage. And I am telling you now that if you are in Zion National Park, the weather is favorable and you are physically capable of walking through a shallow river, then you need to hike the Narrows. There is no need to do the full hike, although I met several people who had hiked six hours or more deep into the canyon. I saw hikers in their late 60s and children as young as five years old hiking the Narrows.


The Narrows, Zion National Park.

This was the perfect end to my road trip through the five National Parks of Utah.

About Ric Garrido

Ric Garrido of Monterey, California started Loyalty Traveler in 2006 for traveler education on hotel and air travel, primarily using frequent flyer and frequent guest loyalty programs for bargain travel. Loyalty Traveler joined in 2008.

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  1. I’ve done the hike you’ve done many times, going up to “wall street”, where the two sides of the gorge are just meters apart. One of my favorites.

    Also once had a private bus transport my friend and I to the top of the narrows and then hiked down the 20 or so miles to teh bus stop. It was an overnighter. Talk about blisters on the feet!

  2. I haven’t done the narrows yet, but did the hike up to Angel’s Landing a couple of years back and it was just beautiful and amazing. Zion is a really special park, one I plan to visit as often as possible.

  3. when water level rises a little, you can ride tire-tube back down the river flow.

  4. “Thanks to the commenters yesterday for pointing out that my photo of a pronghorn was misidentified as a mule deer.”

    I was going to say, that guy didn’t look like he could shoot a cigarette out of a rubber chicken’s beak using a guitar string.

  5. My friends and I were going to hike the Narrows, but all the spots were taken. Thankfully so, because there was a flash flood and some hikes, unfortunately, were stuck there for the night. No one was hurt. Instead, we took the Subway, which was also a very nice hike!

  6. We just came back from hiking in Zion one month ago, including the upper reaches of Kolob Canyon. Have you done Angel’s Landing? It was as scary now as it was in 2000 when I hiked it last time. I literally was shaking for the rest of the day from just thinking over it again.

  7. @Yana K – I overheard a couple on the shuttle bus talking about the Angel’s Landing hike. They said it was intense in some locations.

    I spent too much of my day driving scenic roads and walking through meadows at 10,000 feet in the mountains above Cedar City and arrived in Zion in afternoon. The Narrows was my only hike in Zion.

  8. Ric – Characterizing Angel’s Landing as intense is an understatement. The trail has two parts: for the first half it is steep, snaking switch back trail – sweaty but doable. Second half – it is extreme, narrow, hair raising while walking/crawling along the cliff and holding onto the steel cables for your dear life trail. You can’t even look down because you are so high up and losing concentration might mean death. Literally. There is a sign on the trail advising that 6 people perished on this trail since 2007. Next time in Zion, I’d rather brave elements and rising water on Narrows than this.

  9. My wife and I did the top-down hike recently to empty some of our bucket-list. Some advice. It takes 12 hours at a good clip, so leave early to avoid sunset. We spent most of our day trying just to finish in time. If you can pull off and overnight in the canyon, do so. I think we missed much of the wonder and photographic opportunities. It is an amazing, beautiful, hard hike. We are in our 50s, and pasted some 20 somethings struggling on the way down to give you a reference. The bottom up is a good alternative. My 2 cents.

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