This hike has a reputation for being one of the best in the country, for good reason. The scenery, the environment, the trail (or lack thereof) are all unique and awe inspiring. You are actually hiking in the Virgin River through what is known as The Narrows in Zion Canyon. Steep sandstone cliffs rise a thousand feet or more on both sides of the river. The colors in the rock are stimulating. As the limited light strikes the river and the sandstone, glows can range from hues of gold and copper, to pink, orange and red. The vegetation that clings to the rock walls and stands sturdy against the rushing torrent of flash floods is a brilliant shade of green. The only sounds you hear are the rush of the river and the beat of your own heart. My brother and I took the plunge in The Narrows beginning at 7:30AM and ending about 2:00PM on July 16, 2009. The plan was to take the Zion National Park shuttle from the Visitor Center to the Temple of Sinewava, then hike the Riverwalk trail to the end where you enter the river and The Narrows begins. Our goal was to reach Orderville Canyon, or until we got tired, then return the way we came.
Hike Length: 8 miles Hike Duration: 6.5 hours Hike Rating: Easy to Moderate
Blaze: None Elevation Gain: Inconsequential Hike Configuration: Up and back
Trail Condition: Swift river, sandbars, slick stones
Additional Equipment Requirement: Sturdy water boots, dry bag, hiking pole(s)
Starting Point: Temple of Sinewava parking area
Trail Traffic: Minimal if you start at dawn. Hundreds on the way back.
How to Get There: From the Zion National Park Visitor Center, take the park shuttle to the Temple of Sinewava parking area. Look for the trailhead for The Riverwalk. It is one mile up The Riverwalk to the point where you enter the Virgin River and The Narrows begins.
View The Narrows in Zion Canyon in a larger map
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk first about a number of very important warnings relative to hiking The Narrows. This isn’t just any ol’ hike through the forest on your cousin’s farm. It is in a river! There is cold, rushing water. You might fall down and get yourself, your camera, and your pride soaking wet. It is in a very narrow canyon, less than 50 feet wide. If there are storms upstream, there can be flash floods in the canyon while you are in it. Not a good thing! You must be extremely cognizant of the weather in the area before you begin this hike, and not just in the national park, but even 50 miles north, upstream of the canyon. The best season to do this is during the hottest part of the year, July-September. Otherwise the water will be very cold, and probably too deep. During summer months the water temperature is bearable, and the river is mostly knee deep with a couple stretches to your chest. You will need at least one hiking stick or trekking pole, if not two. I promise you that the river current will knock you down all day long if you do not have poles to lean on when crossing the stream. You must have sturdy water boots and even neoprene socks if possible. Leave the flip-flops and sneakers in the car. The stones on the river bed are very slick and smooth and make it like walking on wet bowling balls. You will hurt your feet and ankles without proper footwear. If you have a camera or other expensive electronic equipment, it is also a good idea to carry them in a dry bag.
Still with me? Do you still want to do this? Well good, because it is one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done. If you cherish the peace and solitude that nature offers, and go to wild areas to get away from the madding crowds, then you probably want to be at the trailhead ready to hit the river at dawn. We did, and we didn’t see or hear another soul for the first two hours we were in the river. Our photos did not have hundreds of other tourists in them, only the beauty of Zion Canyon. We arrived at the Zion Visitors Center about 6:30AM, were on one of the first shuttles up the canyon road, and had hiked the mile up The Riverwalk to step in the river by 7:30. The first thing I noticed was the cold water. It isn’t unbearably cold, but it will get your attention. I got used to it after about 15 minutes. Then there’s the river stones. They are round and slick, and they moved when I stepped on them, so the footing was immediately treacherous. I learned quickly to pay attention.
Right off the bat, in the first quarter mile, the river tested my resolve. We reached a stretch around a bend where there was just the river and two sheer sandstone walls, and the water looked deeper than we had seen. I inched forward and it kept getting deeper, eventually rising to my waist, and then higher. I was prepared to swim if need be, but not really what I had in mind. I took my pack off, held it above my head and kept going. The water eventually reached my chest, but then I could see a rocky bank not far ahead. It got no deeper, and the reward for pushing through was the remarkable sight in the picture at the top of this post. The early morning sun was striking the wet cliff wall just right to create a shimmering golden glow that left me breathless. My brother and I paused for several minutes to stare at the remarkable light show created by the sun, stone, and water. The rest of the hike, the water never again got above my thighs.
Much of this hike involved crossing the swift river from sandbar to sandbar. Most up canyon progress is made on the sandbars, usually not more than a couple hundred feet long. Occasionally we would happen upon one that had several trees and shrubs on it that were protected from onrushing floods by a bend in the stream. Even though the summer temperature in the rest of Zion National Park was well into the nineties, it was a very comfortable low 70s in The Narrows. We did have to watch for hypothermia from the combination of cold water and cooler air temp. We didn’t see any other people for the first two hours, then a couple of teens with more vigor than us caught up from behind and passed us. It was a surprise at first to hear voices other than our own echoing off the canyon walls. Another half hour later, we encountered the first hikers coming downstream from the north trailhead at Chamberlain’s Ranch. The full length of The Narrows canyon is 16 miles. Those who do the complete hike from north to south usually take two days and camp overnight.
The deeper into the canyon we hiked, the narrower the walls became, sometimes no more than 20 feet across. About 11:00 we reached Orderville Canyon. We went up Orderville two hundred yards to look around, then came back. We pulled up a nice piece of sand and enjoyed our lunch. It didn’t take long for the crowds that were behind us to begin catching up. We spoke with two dozen teenagers who were from a youth group in Louisiana. The chaperones were a little flustered trying to keep up with the youthful exuberance. There were groups of two and four who passed us, then it got pretty regular in just the twenty minutes we were enjoying lunch. When we finished, we only went another 1/4 mile upstream, a total of about three miles from the end of The Riverwalk.
Best HikeIt didn’t take us nearly as long to get back, as the crowd in the river kept getting bigger and bigger, and we simply didn’t stop for pictures. We noticed a lot of people who didn’t prepare. There were those with very young, crying children who didn’t realize what they were getting into. I saw several with nothing but flip-flops on their feet who had stopped to rub, and complain about the tortuous rocks. Forgive me, but I couldn’t help but chuckle at those who were taking a bath because they were trying to cross the current without a stick. I know, call me smug. There were also those who were prepared. We passed a number of large groups who had all stopped at the local outfitter shop to rent shoes, socks, and poles. When we returned, the golden wall had lost its glow, and the deep wade didn’t seem quite as bad because I learned to stay right up against the rock wall. Even the hundreds of people couldn’t remove the smile from my face. It was a great day, and I would label this one a best hike.
My brother put a 10 minute video together.