HIKING THE ZION NARROWS: Overview of Routes, Permits, etc.
The North Fork of the Virgin River (aka "The Zion Narrows") is probably one of the most legendary canyons to hike in all of Zion National Park. The Zion Narrows is the section of the Virgin River just upstream from the Temple of Sinawava (the end of the road up the main canyon). Here, the majestic walls of the main canyon close in to form a tall and narrow canyon with beautiful dark corners and the Virgin River flowing around you. With beautiful flowing water and barely any direct sunlight reaching the bottom, this is the slot canyon that all other slot canyons are compared to.
Three Ways to Hike the Zion Narrows:
- Zion Narrows "Bottom Up" Day Hike (from the Temple of Sinawava):
For tourists or casual hikers who want to see the best of the Zion Narrows, this is the hike that you want to do! Starting at the Temple of Sinawava (the last stop on the free Zion Canyon shuttle), you can hike up the Riverside Walk trail and then continue hiking right up the river to see some of the best "narrows" sections of the North Fork of the Virgin River. Hike up as far as you want to go and then turn around and retrace your steps. A side hike up Orderville Canyon is also a good detour to see even more amazing slot canyon scenery. As a round-trip hike, this can be as leisurely or strenuous as you wish to make it. A wilderness permit is NOT required for this hike.
Hiking Guide Photos
- "Top Down" Two-Day Backpacking (from Chamberlain's Ranch):
The "Top Down" Zion Narrows hike is a strenuous 16-mile through hike that starts at Chamberlain's Ranch, many miles northeast of Zion's popular main canyon. (You must drive to or hire a private outfitter to shuttle you to the remote trailhead.) This route takes you through the more subtle scenery of the upper plateau as you follow the North Fork as it slowly transforms from an open stream into the majestic and deep slot canyon that opens into Zion Canyon. A wilderness permit is required for this route and you choose one of the beautiful designated campsites when you purchase your permit at the Visitor Center.
Hiking Guide Photos
- "Top Down" Strenuous Day Hike (from Chamberlain's Ranch):
If you are a fast and strong hiker, the "top down" Narrows hike can be completed in one day. This hike may take roughly 12-14 hours to complete, so be sure to start early and keep a good pace! Bring a headlamp just in case you have to hike the last stretch after dark. A wilderness permit is required for the top-down day hike.
Hiking Guide Photos
You do not need a permit to do the Zion Narrows "bottom up" day hike from the Temple of Sinawava. You DO, however, need a Zion permit for all "top-down" hikes, even if you are hiking down in one day. If you are doing the backpacking option, 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; rangers do patrol and ask to see permits.
Wilderness campsites are primitive. No open fires are allowed and there are no facilities, restrooms, or garbage cans. Pack out all of your trash and leave campsites clean for the next group. You are also required to pack out all solid human waste and toilet paper. Let's talk about wag bags!
NOTE: The National Park Service will not issue any Narrows permits if water levels are too high, either because of flash floods or high flow during the spring runoff. 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 Wilderness Permits website for more information.
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. 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. 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.
Beyond what you would take on any other hike (food, water, map, etc.), below is a list of some of the essential equipment you will need for any of the Zion Narrows hiking routes. If you don't have your own equipment, many of the outfitters in Springdale sell or rent equipment.
- Footwear: Since you will be hiking in knee-deep water almost all of the time, strong water-friendly footwear with toe protection is a must. Some of the stronger models of Keen sandals are okay, but even better are any trail runners that do *not* have GORE-TEX, so they can breathe and drain. (A shoe like the Bushido II Trail Running Shoe works great; they offer good foot protection, good grip, drain and dry quickly, and are good for dry hikes as well.) And a good pair of neoprene socks will be much better than cotton to keep your feet warm and blister-free.
Footwear to avoid: light sandals or water shoes like Tevas. They will likely break before the end of the day and if your toes are exposed, your toes will get smashed in the rocks. Also avoid big heavy hiking boots; while they will protect your feet, they will feel very heavy and most boots take too long to dry out and will get a bad case of the stinks.
- Hiking poles: You don't need anything too fancy, but hiking poles or even just a hiking stick will be invaluable! Since you will be in the water almost all day and many river crossings have fairly strong currents, poles or a stick really help with keeping your stability. Tip: If you have only one stick, use it on the upstream side -- this really makes balancing easier! Note: If you come to the trailhead unprepared, you may be able to find a walking stick at the unofficial walking stick exchange area at the end of the Riverside Walk trail. (I have been very happy with the Black Diamond Trail Back Trekking Poles.)
- Drybag: Very useful to stow your wallet, camera, and other items that don't like to get wet. While most of the Narrows hike is knee to waist deep, there are a few chest-deep sections and very occasionally you may get seasonal swimming sections.
- Clothing: Any clothing that doesn't mind getting wet. While quick-drying/moisture-wicking material is the best, it is also a bit too pricey for my wallet, but neoprene socks are a good (and not too expensive) alternative to cotton socks. A fleece would be a great to keep you warm as direct sunlight is sparse. If you are hiking in the cold off-season (October through April), a wetsuit or even a drysuit would be beneficial, especially when water temperatures are in the 30s and 40s (Fahrenheit).
- Backpacking Gear: If you are doing the top-down backpacking route, standard overnight gear is in order -- sleeping bag, small tent, small portable stove and drybags to stow this gear in. (Nothing is worse than a wet sleeping bag.) Note: No campfires are allowed in the Zion backcountry. To save space, many hikers forgo the luxury of the tent, but I can't bring myself to do this.
- Headlamp: This little piece of gear will be invaluable if you get stuck in the Narrows after dark. Without a headlamp, you don't have any chance of hiking out of the Narrows after final light. Bring one, especially if you are attempting the top-down route in a day. Two current lightweight models that I like are the Petzl Actik Core (dual LEDs with settings up to 300 lumens) and the Black Diamond Cosmo 300 (dual buttons to turn on/off without having to cycle through different modes and IPX8 waterproof rating).
- Even more useful items can be found on the Hiking and Backpacking Gear page.
Please see the Zion Narrows "Bottom-Up" Day Hike and Zion Narrows "Top-Down" Route descriptions for more specific route information!