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Zion Narrows top-down routeThe Zion Narrows "Top-Down" route is a wonderful 18-mile backpacking adventure. Starting from Chamberlain's Ranch outside the northeastern corner of Zion National Park, the North Fork can be hiked top-down from the upper plateau. This is the longer and less popular way to hike the Zion Narrows, but it is quite a rewarding experience to see the more subtle beauty of the the lonely upper North Fork as it slowly transforms into the majestic and deep slot canyon that opens into the popular main canyon in Zion. This route is usually done as a two-day backpacking trip but can also be done as a long and strenuous day hike.

Note: If you are looking for the easier, more popular version of this hike, you want the Narrows Bottom-Up Day Hike.

Important Points Before You Continue:

A Zion wilderness permit is required for all Zion Narrows top-down hikes, even if you are doing the hike in a single day. If you are doing the backpacking option, you pick your campsite when you reserve or purchase the permit for your group. Do not squat at a campsite that you don't have a permit for. Note: The National Park Service will not issue any Narrows permits if water levels are too high (above 120cfs), either from recent rains or high spring runoff. Zion Narrows top-down route During the winter months, permits for the one-day top-down hike are also not issued as there is not enough daylight to complete the hike safely. Please see the Zion Permits website for more information.

You need to decide how you will get to the trailhead. If you intend to drive to the remote Chamberlain's Ranch Trailhead (the start of the hike), you must plan a way to retrieve your vehicle from the trailhead. Alternatively, you may hire a private shuttle service to drive you to the trailhead. Check with one of the outfitters in Springdale for times and rates. To drive to Chamberlain's Ranch from the east entrance of Zion National Park, drive 1.7 miles east on Route 9 and then turn left (north) on the North Fork Road. Roughly 17 miles up the winding and rough dirt road, you will reach the gate near Chamberlain's Ranch; you can drive further through to the small designated parking area, but remember to close any gates and do not drive past the parking area. (See map below.) Note: This road is usually passable by all vehicles, but it may be impossible right after a rain storm or during the winter months.

The start of the route crosses private land. Please obey any posted signs, stay on the dirt road as directed, close all cattle gates behind you, and travel through respectfully and quietly to guarantee access in the future.

You must practice your best "leave no trace" ethics. Do not litter, do not stack rocks, do not carve your name on the canyon walls. And you must also pack out your own solid human waste (poo). If you can't handle that, you don't deserve to do this hike. Keep this canyon as pristine as possible for the next people to enjoy!

Detailed Description:

The Zion Narrows top-down route is a strenuous 18-mile backpacking route. Alternatively, fast and fit hikers can do this route as a long day hike (10-13 hours to complete). Both options make for a good and strenuous adventure.

Starting at the Chamberlain's Ranch trailhead, follow the dirt road west as it loosely follows the small stream. This is private property, so be respectful and stay on the road/trail; do not hike in the water at this point. The subtle beauty of the upper plateau doesn't even hint at the spectacular canyon you will later be hiking through. Three easy miles into the hike, you will arrive at Bulloch's Cabin (the remains of an old cabin), and the trail soon enters the water and you are officially on your way. (Once you are in the shallow canyon, navigation is extremely easy, but a map is useful to keep track of your progress.)

Zion Narrows top-down routeThe next six miles of scenery in the upper section of the North Fork is more subtle than the lower famous section of narrows and it is notable how much smaller and calmer the water flow is than what most people are used to seeing in Zion Canyon. Many forested sections alternate with brief sections of narrows in the shallow canyon. You will be hiking mostly in the water, but there are several trails-of-use along the banks early in the hike. And As the miles go by, you will notice the walls get taller as the canyon gets deeper and more impressive.

One notable landmark at the 8.5 mile mark is the North Fork Falls -- a 15-foot tall boulder/log jam that can be bypassed by hiking through a little passage on the south side. Soon after the falls, the canyon starts to look like the Zion Narrows that everybody knows and loves. At mile 9 is the majestic confluence with Deep Creek, a canyon equally as impressive as the North Fork of the Virgin River. Here the water volume doubles and you enter a much more impressive section of canyon.

Over the next three miles, you will probably be noting the various campsites that are sprinkled throughout the canyon along with the confluences of Kolob Creek and Goose Creek (both worthy of a little exploration if you have the time and energy). If you are backpacking, keep an eye out for your campsite. While each campsite is marked by a yellow stake labeled with the campsite number, they are easy to miss if you are not paying attention. Also note that over the years, the campsites have changed locations several times. When you do find your campsite, take the time to really soak in the location and enjoy; this is a magical place to camp!

Zion Narrows top-down routeOn Day 2 (or the second half of your day hike) just after passing Campsite 12, you will arrive at one of the more spectacular landmarks at roughly 11.5 miles: Big Springs, a beautiful set of springs and small waterfalls with a hanging gardens on the west side of the canyon. The next section is more difficult as the canyon is littered with large boulders that block parts of the river. You may have to search around a bit to find the easiest way to scramble over and around the obstacles and avoid a few short deeper sections of water. No obstacles are insurmountable, so always look for alternatives.

Once through the "boulder field of broken hearts", you enter the tallest and narrowest sections of the Zion Narrows, popularly known as "Wall Street." This is the deepest and most photogenic section of canyon and it ominously has no safe high ground in the event of a flash flood. It is here where you will start to bump into the majority of the "day hikers" coming upstream. At roughly 13.5 miles is the confluence with the tall and mysterious Orderville Canyon coming in from the east. (If you have enough time and energy, exploring up Orderville Canyon even for just a little bit is a lovely diversion. This narrower canyon is equally compelling.)

Soon after Orderville Canyon, the canyon opens up ever so slightly and it is only another mile and a half of winding canyon until you reach dry land. Just half a mile from the end is beautiful Mystery Falls which flows down the slick walls on the east side. And within moments, you will exit the water and join up with the crowds of tourists at the Riverside Walk. Hike the paved trail one more mile to the Temple of Sinawava where the free shuttle will pick you up.

Zion Narrows topo map North Fork Road Driving Map.
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Zion Narrows topo map Zion Narrows Top-Down Map 1:
Chamberlain's Ranch to North Fork Falls

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Zion Narrows topo map Zion Narrows Top-Down Map 2:
North Fork Falls to Big Springs

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Zion Narrows topo map Zion Narrows Top-Down Map 3:
Big Springs to Temple of Sinawava

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Backpacking Information:

Camping in the Zion Narrows is permitted only in the 12 designated campsites and a wilderness permit is required. Choose your campsite when you reserve or pick up your permit at the Zion Wilderness Desk or at the Kolob Visitor Center. (See the Zion Backpacking page for more details.) Do not squat at any campsite that you don't have a permit for, and please pack out all of your trash, including your solid human waste and TP.

Campsite Descriptions:

Names and descriptions below are from the Zion Wilderness Desk. Only some campsites are available for advance online reservation.Zion Narrows top-down route

Flash Flood Warning:

No description of the Narrows would be complete without a stern warning about the danger of flash foods. Many tourists are caulous about taking the weather seriously, but please do not do this hike if the forecast calls for rain. A strong enough rain storm can quickly turn a calm and shallow stream into a deadly wall of rushing water and debris. Please check the weather forecast and the Wilderness Desk for current conditions and for any advisories. Remember that it doesn't have to be raining directly above you for a flash-flood threat to be possible.

Seasons, Water Levels, and Difficulty:

The hiking season for the Zion Narrows is typically summer and autumn, but the start of the season is controlled by the spring runoff and water levels. The Zion Narrows is typically closed to hiking between mid-March and late May, depending on how much snow fell on the high country in winter. In record snowfall years like 2005 and 2011, hiking in the Narrows didn't open until mid-July. To see the current and median water levels as well as track the melting of the snowpack in spring, please see the Current Conditions page.

Note that it is possible to hike the Narrows in fall and winter, provided you are adequately prepared for the cold water; farmer-john wetsuit bottoms or even drysuits may be called for, depending on the temperatures. If you want to do the top-down Narrows in the winter, keep in mind that the NPS Service will not issue a one-day top-down permit because there is not enough daylight to complete the hike safely. Snowfall or heavy rains may also make the dirt road to Chamberlain's Ranch impassible.

The difficulty of hiking the Zion Narrows is greatly affected by water flow. A flow below 50cfs indicates relatively easy hiking conditions while flow above 100cfs can be difficult and dangerous. The Wilderness Desk will not issue a permit for the Zion Narrows if waterflow is above 120cfs. Zion Narrows top-down route Also note that hiking is much more difficult when the water is murky (like chocolate milk) several days after flash floods. Not being able to see rocks under the water's surface can really slow you down.

Equipment Recommendations:

Good footwear that covers your toes are must, as are hiking poles (or a hiking stick) and a fleece. Since you will be hiking in water most of the time, you will want to keep all of your electronics and overnight gear in drybags. Please see the Zion Narrows Overview page and the Hiking and Backpacking Gear list for specific recommendations.

Filtering Water:

The National Park Service recommends that you filter water only after reaching the confluence with Deep Creek due to the higher level of ranching contamination in the upper North Fork. Once in the deeper sections of the Narrows, you will also come across several small springs coming out of the canyon walls that make excellent water sources.

Dealing with Human Waste:

If you need to pee, it is actually best to go right in the river rather than on a shore or bank. But if you need to do more, you must pack out your solid waste. This may seem gross, but it's actually quite easy and safe to do. Solid waste bags like the Restop 2 and the Cleanwaste GO Anywhere Toilet Kit Waste Bags contain waste bags and odor neutralizers to help you carry everything out as pleasantly as possible. The Wilderness Desk typically hands out a "Restop 2" kit when you pick up your permit. Ziplock bags and used Mountain House pouches can also get the job done. Practicing the highest level of "leave no trace" ethics in the Narrows keeps the canyon pristine and pleasant for the next people to enjoy! Let's talk about wag bags!

Joe's Spin:

Backpacking the Zion Narrows is a very strenuous hike, but it is worth every bit of energy. From the more subtle beauty of the forested shallow sections of the upper North Fork to the imposing walls of the deepest section of the Narrows, this hike has it all. It may be difficult to get a permit and work out all of the logistics, but if you are lucky enough to make it work, it is totally worth it! Please practice your best "leave no trace" ethics.

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