The out-and-back river hike through canyons and narrow gorges in Zion is super famous—and it’s one of the best summer adventures you can find in Zion—or anywhere. Summers are best to visit since the cool water you’re hiking through will be refreshing rather than chilly. All hikers need to be prepared with closed-toed shoes that can get wet (you’re hiking through a river, after all). Also, be sure to check in advance for flash flood warnings and don’t head out if there are any! You can hike up through the Narrows for just a few miles, all the way to Big Spring (a 10-mile round trip adventure) or complete the entire 16-mile through-hike.
For experienced backpackers, doing the Zion Narrows hike in its entirety makes for a very nice one-night backpack trip. Most times of year, you won’t even need a tent! Since you are staying overnight in the canyon, the weather forecast must be stable, with no chance of storms/flooding. Overnight permits can be hard to get on holiday and summer weekends, so act early. Car spot or shuttle required to Chamberlains Ranch.
One-Day Through-Hike from the Top
16 miles of difficult hiking in one day? Feels like 26 miles. For the athletic, this is a reasonable option and makes for a fine adventure and a great introduction to Zion. If possible, however, take another day to enjoy this memorable hike, giving you time for taking photos, exploring side-canyons, romping in swimming holes, and lounging in camp. Car spot or shuttle required to Chamberlains Ranch.
Day Hike from the Bottom
The most popular option, due to its simplicity and moderate physical commitment. Hike up the river as far as Big Springs, then turn around and return the way you came. Visit Orderville Canyon too, if you have the time. Makes a wonderful half-day or full-day hike with easy logistics. Good in the winter, when a through-hike is not practical. Day hiking from the bottom does not require a permit.
What is The Narrows?
The Narrows is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon. This gorge, with walls a thousand feet tall and the river sometimes just twenty to thirty feet wide, is one of the most popular areas in Zion National Park. You can see The Narrows by hiking along the paved, wheelchair accessible Riverside Walk for one mile from the Temple of Sinawava. If you wish to see more, you will be walking in the Virgin River. This can involve wading upstream for just a few minutes or it can be an all day hike.
How can I hike The Narrows?
A hike through The Narrows requires hiking in the Virgin River. You must get your feet wet since there is no trail. Most people choose to start their hike from the Temple of Sinawava via the Riverside Walk and then walk upstream before turning around and hiking back down to the Temple of Sinawava.
Hiking in The Narrows upstream as far as Big Spring does not require a permit. Doing the hike this way allows you to see some of the most spectacular and narrowest parts of the canyon. You can hike in the river for an hour and have a great experience, or you can hike as far as Big Spring, a strenuous, ten-mile round trip, all-day adventure.
16-Mile Through-Hike from Chamberlain’s Ranch (Wilderness Permit required)
Permits are required for this 16-mile through-hike of the Virgin River Narrows from Chamberlain’s Ranch to the Temple of Sinawava. Those who choose this option must arrange their own transportation to the Chamberlain’s Ranch trailhead.
When should I hike The Narrows at Hiking the Narrows at Zion National Park
Summer and early fall
Most people hike The Narrows in the summer and early fall when the water tends to be at its warmest and the water level drops. However, life-threatening flash floods are possible at any time and are common during the monsoon season.
Winter and early spring
Winter and early spring commonly means cold water and high water levels. The Narrows can be closed during the spring when snowmelt raises the river over 150 CFS. Fall brings more stable weather, but days get shorter and the water temperature drops.
How high is the water in Hiking the Narrows at Zion National Park?
Water level fluctuates greatly from year to year and day to day depending on many factors such as rainfall and snowmelt. When the river is running below 70 cubic feet per second (CFS), walking is moderately difficult, with knee deep crossings on the slippery and uneven river bottom with frequent pools up to waist deep.
When the current goes above 70 CFS, walking against the current becomes challenging and crossings of mid-thigh deep are frequent with pools that can be chest deep. If the flow goes to over 150 CFS, The Narrows will be closed to all travel. The Narrows also closes when a Flash Flood Warning is issued by the National Weather Service, and remains closed for two hours after the warning is lifted.
What about flash floods?
The Narrows are susceptible to flash flooding because much of the surrounding area is bare rock that does not absorb water. During storms, runoff is funneled rapidly into the Narrows. During a flash flood the water level rises almost instantly–within seconds or minutes. Flash floods are common in Zion and hikers have been stranded, injured, and even killed by venturing into narrow, flood prone canyons.
Always check the weather forecast and flash flood potential before you start any trip in a canyon (this includes the Narrows). Even if the forecast indicates flash flooding is unlikely, flooding is possible at any time. Floods have occurred on days they were not expected.
What should I wear and bring?
Close-toed shoes and a hiking stick are recommended for hiking on the slick, uneven rocks in The Narrows. High canyon walls and water create cooler conditions than anywhere else in Zion Canyon, so wear and bring seasonally appropriate synthetic layers.
What else should I know?
There are many recommendations and park regulations that apply to your trip in The Narrows. Please follow these guidelines to help protect the park and keep yourself safe while visiting.
HIGH SUMMER: MAY 15 – SEPTEMBER 15
High summer is the best time to through-hike the Narrows. Zion National Park can be downright sweltering in the summer months, so escaping into the deep, twisty and cool river gorge makes for a delightful escape from the heat. Water levels are generally low, and only a spot or two of deep wading or swimming is required. First of June, the water is cold, but as the summer progresses the water becomes warmer and warmer.
High summer is, however, thunderstorm season in the desert southwest. The Monsoon pattern can set up anytime during high summer, making the Zion Narrows hike dodgy at best. This is a good time to explore the Narrows from the bottom up, starting early in the morning, and keeping a careful eye on the sky. The weather forecast and flashflood warning level is posted early each morning at the Visitor Center – be sure to check it before heading out.
Even without the Monsoon, the Narrows should be hiked with a keen eye on the sky to the north. Thunderstorms occur largely in the late afternoon, so get up early and put those miles in before mid-afternoon, so you will be in a safe place during those critical hours 3:00 PM to 10:00 PM. The North Fork watershed comprises 400 square miles of terrain mostly north of The Narrows. Hard rain in any part of this watershed can cause flooding, sometimes with several hours of delay.
The top half of the Zion Narrows hike can be hot and sunny, especially in July and August. Get an early start, be prepared for heat, and bring sunscreen.
AUTUMN: SEPTEMBER 15 – NOVEMBER 1
Fall is lovely in Zion, and The Narrows is at its most spectacular. The slanting light can be amazing, and the colorful leaves complement the colorful walls. Fabulous.
The water level tends to be very low, and hiking in the river is at its easiest. Air and water temperatures are lower and care must be taken to be properly attired to avoid a chill. The days are shorter, early starts more difficult.
WINTER: NOVEMBER 1 – MARCH 15
Winter is a great time to visit the Zion Narrows, though specialized equipment is required to stay warm. With few visitors in the lower reaches, hiking up from the bottom has a wilderness feel to it lost in the summer crowds. A dry suit and thick neoprene socks can make hiking a very reasonable proposition – equipment can be rented in Springdale.
A through-hike in the winter is difficult. The road to Chamberlain ranch is often closed in the winter, even to 4WD vehicles. The water is frigid, requiring dry suits and thick neoprene socks from the start. If the sun is out and snow is melting in the high country, the river level can rise rapidly. Ice falling off the walls can also be a hazard.
SPRING: MARCH 15 – MAY 15
Spring is a great time to visit Zion, but not The Narrows. The Virgin River is high and cold, fed by melting snow in the headwaters to the north. River levels are unpredictable – a lot depends on the upper level snowpack, and when and where the sun comes out. March and April are also the rainiest months in Utah. Toward the end of May, Zion changes over to summer conditions. Though the water is chilly, if the snow has melted out, the river gets down to a reasonable level and the hike is great.
Permits are required for all through-hikes, including overnight trips, of The Narrows. Zion National Park visitors may obtain Zion Narrows hike permits at the Visitor Center near Springdale, or the Kolob Canyons VC near Cedar City. The 80-person per day limit is often reached on holiday weekends in the summer. Campsites are assigned for overnight visitors, and there are a limited number of sites.
Hiking from the bottom and then camping is not permitted. Hikers from the bottom are not supposed to go above Big Springs – and really, there is no real good reason to do so, as extra time is better spent enjoying Orderville Canyon.
Permits for the Zion Narrows hike are only issued the day before the start of your hike. Reservations most likely can be made – check the backcountry info at www.nps.gov/zion or call the Backcountry Desk for the current procedure.
Just because you have a permit, it does not mean it’s safe to hike the Zion Narrows. Zion National Park rangers will close the through-hike when conditions are obviously unsafe, but there is a lot of gray area.During spring snowmelt, when the river is high, The Narrows will be closed – usually for not more than 30 days in April and May, but in big snow years sometimes as late as July 15th. In the summer, a National Weather Service Flash Flood Warning will close The Narrows when thunderstorms are dumping rain into The Narrows, or into the headwaters 20 miles north of the park… but, the Park does not “gate” The Narrows closed. During cold weather in the winter, obtaining a permit may require quite a bit of assurance on your part that you are well-equipped and know what you are doing. Being issued a Zion Narrows permit does not mean the Zion Narrows hike is safe. The Park Service is not responsible for your safety – You are.
Clothing & Equipment
A hiking staff or hiking poles are invaluable for maintaining balance while hiking in the river. Downhill ski poles work fine, but they take a beating and sometimes snap.
Imagine walking through knee-deep murky water with a bunch of roughed-up bowling balls hidden in the murk. This is what hiking The Narrows is like, and sandals, even Tevas or Keenes, do not provide protection for the feet. Specialized water shoes such as Five.Ten Canyoneers and La Sportiva Exum Rivers are by far the best, but any sturdy sneaker or light hiking boot that is made from 100% synthetic materials will work fine. Neoprene socks or synthetic hiking socks work well.Neoprene socks provide warmth and padding, AND keep fine sand away from your feet. Canyoneers and Exum Rivers can be rented in Springdale.
Long pants are never in fashion in The Narrows. Zion shops offer myriad options for quick-drying, synthetic hiking shorts; get some and you will be happy. Any trip through The Narrows is likely to include wading to at least waist deep and your shorts will get wet.
Shirts and Sweaters
Some people find the classic cotton t-shirt works well in the middle of the summer, but most times of the year, hikers will enjoy a quick-drying, lightweight synthetic top such as those made from Patagonia’s Capilene. All hikers should bring a synthetic sweater to ward off the chill. Even in the hottest weather, it is cool and damp the Zion Narrows hike and a bit of warmth can be very welcome. Through hikers will want to carry a warm hat.
Keeping Stuff Dry
Anything valuable – wallet, camera, car keys – ought to be fully protected from immersion, as even the most nimble hiker can trip and fall into the river at any time. Those with a river-running background will have drybags or Dry Kegs to use, or these can be purchased for about $25.00 at many outdoor stores, including those in Springdale. The frugal hiker can make do with large plastic bags – use the thicker, trash-compactor bags – double sealed. When using plastic bags, it is important to get everything INSIDE the pack – plastic bags on the outside quickly spring leaks.
For all Narrows trips, keep the pack as light as possible. The rugged terrain and in-stream hiking exact a toll on the over-burdened. A tent is not necessary, nor is excess camping gear like camp chairs. There are a few campsites that have a few mosquitoes – bring a bit of repellant, rather than a tent. A pair of cheap flip-flops are nice for loafing around camp and letting your shoes dry out.
In winter, a dry suit and thick neoprene socks are a necessity. These can be rented in Springdale, but call ahead as outfitters may not keep regular hours in the off-season.
The Narrows is a heavily-used camping area, and thus has a fecal impact problem. The river corridor is narrow and after the first two miles, provides no ecologically sound place to leave your crap. The Backcountry Desk will supply you with a “Restop” system for capturing and carrying out your poop, and these work surprisingly well. A gel inside the bag absorbs all moisture, and chemicals significantly reduce the odor. These work great – use them!
Whenever possible, pee directly into the flowing water of the river. The smell of your urine, on land, will persist for months.
At the very least, carry a ziplock bag to pack out your toilet paper.
There is reasonable water for drinking almost every step of The Narrows – literally. However, the water in the North Fork is often silty and clogs filters rapidly. North Fork water itself is contaminated from cows grazing above, and from the less-socially-conscious hikers that preceded you. From place to place, there are better places to get water including: Deep Creek, Goose Creek and Big Springs. Below Big Springs, there are many small springs to the side that provide silt-free water. All water should be filtered or treated before drinking. Use a coffee pre-filter to keep your pump from clogging. Watch out for poison ivy at Big Springs.