Zion National Park is known for one of it’s most beautiful and distinctive hikes, the Narrows. It brings visitors of all ages, shapes and forms. What is the Narrows? It is a “trail” through the middle of the Virgin River leading you through 10+ miles of dramatic cliffs, narrow slot canyons and gorgeous scenery. This hike lets you experience, rather than just view, what makes Zion so special.
For most visitors to Zion, this is a lasting favorite no matter how far up river they managed to go. It is one of the most unique hikes with breathtaking scenery and one that cools you down along the way. What more could you ask for on a hike?
In order to get the most out of hiking the Narrows, some planning and precautions should be made in advance. This is a very popular hike, however it can be dangerous. Flash flooding is a real danger while hiking through slot canyons, and especially through a river. The danger of flooding occurs when it rains upstream with no notice of rain in the area you are hiking. Always check in with the ranger station before doing the Narrows hike to see the chance of flash flooding. If you notice the water beginning to get murky or rise, get to higher ground as quickly as possible.
In addition to the threat of flash floods, walking in a river bed with massive rocks presents it’s own hazards. Zion park rangers tell you it is like walking on bowling balls. I personally didn’t find it quite so dramatic, but walking the trail does take concentration with each and every step.
Things to Know
When To Go?
The best time of year to do this hike is during the summer months from June-September. The winter snow melt has eased with water levels more manageable for children. Summer is also ideal since the temperatures typically exceed 100°F, which makes walking in cool water even better.
The best time of day to start your hike is early in the morning. It takes quiet a bit of time to get to the start of the Narrows, so leaving early allows you more time to walk leisurely without feeling the need to rush. It is also a little less crowded earlier in the morning. Be aware, hiking in the morning will mean cold water! You get used to it quickly and by noon the sun will be shining heavily through the canyon to warm you up.
What To Bring?
The number one most helpful item on our hike were our ultra light walking poles. If you didn’t bring hiking poles you can purchase aluminum or wooden poles from the visitor center, Zion Lodge or outdoor shops in Springdale. These are an absolute necessity to help keep our balance and check out the sturdiness or your next step ahead.
The second most helpful item for our hike were our water shoes. Our group wore Tevas and Keens. Recommendations are to wear closed toe hiking boots, but we were happy with our water shoes which were light and water proof, but also kept our feet protected. You will see some people with no shoes, old tennis shoes or rented water proof hiking boots (These can be rented from most shops around Springdale, check out Zion Outfitters). I would not recommend walking the Narrows barefoot as it is slippery in parts and when the water is murky you have no idea what you are stepping on below.
Wear your swim clothes or items that feel OK wet. All of the kids in our group wore their swimming gear, while the adults wore regular clothes. You will see everything from bikinis, workout clothes and full hiking gear. Wear what you are comfortable in and something that will dry quickly.
In addition to these items, take lots of food and water. More than you think you will need. Hiking in the cool water, even in 100°F heat, you will feel cooler and subsequently get hungry more often. You may not be out of breath or sweating, but you are exerting a lot of effort and need to refuel. Pack a morning snack, a full lunch, an afternoon snack and some energy bars. The more food you have, the longer you will be able to stay out on the river.
Waterproof your backpack by putting a trash bag inside of it or by putting all of your belongings inside ziplock bags. It is likely that you will fall in at some point or be forced to swim in the deep sections, so it’s better to be prepared and protected!
Get a waterproof case for your phone or don’t take it. Trust me on this one. I managed to go the entire hike without dropping mine until the last 100 feet. It will happen.
There are no restrooms once you leave the Temple of Sinawava bus stop. Plan on squatting in the deep parts of the river or bring a sarong to use as a shield to go to the restroom on the banks of the river. There will be no privacy otherwise. A light sarong can also be used as a picnic blanket or towel.
Lastly, waterproof sunscreen, a hat and a small first aid kit with waterproof bandaids will be useful to protect yourself against the sun and in case someone gets a little banged up.
What to Expect?
The Narrows hike is not necessarily an easy hike, but you can make it more or less strenuous based on your family’s abilities. The beauty of this hike is that you can turn around at any time. Many people aim to make it to Orderville Junction and the beginning of “Wall Street”, the most dramatic section of the hike where the canyon walls are very narrow. Families with small children in tow will most likely not make it to this section, but it’s nice to have a goal.
Most of the hike is spent wading, walking and occasionally swimming through cold river water over ‘bowling ball’ rocks. There is not an actual maintained trail, but you will quickly see that most often those in front of you have found the easiest way (or deepest which you can then avoid!) to get through the water. Sometimes this is right up next to the cliff walls, other times it is directly through the middle of the river. There are also spots where you can walk on the sandy banks rather than in the water. The sandy areas are great for snack breaks and to give your legs a rest. Feel free to create your own path, but be prepared to get wet in the sometimes fast flowing currents and deep pools of water!
How Long Will It Take?
Taking the shuttle bus from the Visitor Center to Temple of Sinawava takes 40-45 minutes each way (not including waiting for the bus to arrive). From the Temple of Sinawava, you will have another 20-40 minutes (each way) on the Riverside trail leading to the start of the Narrows.
There are plenty of distractions along the Riverside Trail. Let the kids enjoy the walk down with plenty of time to explore. They will be too exhausted to do much on the way back except to stop for rest breaks.
Look for tadpoles, little frogs and the numerous squirrels (but don’t feed them!) on the Riverside Trail.
Once you reach the Narrows, go for as long as you can manage. Plan on hiking 45 to 90 minutes per mile upstream, and 30 to 60 minutes per mile downstream (with the higher times most accurate for families with small children). Returning down river is much easier and quicker as you go with the flow of the river.
This is a long day no matter how you cut it. Getting to the start of the Narrows and back alone can take 3 hours. That said, even walking in the water for only a few hours will provide a truly majestic hiking experience. Hiking not only in a river, but also in a beautiful slot canyon is unforgettable.
This is one hike that is definitely worth the added effort to get to. You and your children will feel such a sense of accomplishment (and excitement) no matter how far you make it. I have a feeling that regardless of how much time you get to hike in the river, you will always leave wanting more.
Have you hiked the Narrows? What did you think? Any other tips for hikers?
For more information on Zion National Park, check out our Ultimate Guide to Exploring Zion.
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