Zion National Park is known for one of it’s most beautiful and distinctive trails, the Zion Narrows hike. 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, the Narrows hike 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?
Description of the Zion Narrows Hike
The Zion Narrows hike actually begins as a concrete trail called Temple of the Sinawava. From February to November the only way to reach this area of the park is through the shuttle bus. The start of this trail is one of the last drop off points for the Zion National Park shuttle bus. If you start at the main visitor center, it will take approximately 45 minutes to reach the Temple of the Sinawava trail. This is important to know to plan your day accordingly.
The concrete section of the trail is along the river and continues for approximately 1 mile. Many visitors to the park only complete this section of the hike. Technically, this isn’t part of the Zion Narrows hike. The Narrows portion of the trail only begins once you reach the end of the concrete path at the rocky beach.
Depending on the time of your visit, the river could be quite low here and quite chilly. Even during the summer on our visit with 104 degree temperatures, the water was still very cold!
The first bit of the Zion Narrows hike in the river is about .5 miles long. This section is the short area from where you start walking in the water until you reach the beautiful section where you see water flows down the side of the canyon wall. Some families only make it this far as it is not always easy to get your balance on the rocks while also hiking upstream.
However, if you can, keep going!
Orderville Canyon / Wall Street
The next main section is Orderville Canyon and Wall Street. This is approximately 1 mile from Mystery Falls. As I mention below, plan on taking 45 minutes to 90 minutes for a mile with children. We went at a good pace, but still people were passing us and the kids did need to go slowly to make sure to keep their footing.
Once you reach this area, you will notice the canyon walls begins to get much closer together. This is another area where you will take out the camera for sure.
While walking in this section, you can take a detour to the Orderville Canyon to a small falls. We did do this during our visit, but we heard it’s beautiful and worth the extra 1 mile round trip that it adds to your hike.
From Wall Street you can walk another couple of miles (2 miles approximately) up the river until you reach Big Spring. To this point all hikers can go without a permit. Anyone who wants to go past this point must have a permit and be registered with the visitor center.
This is the ultimate goal for many visitors hoping to do the Zion Narrows hike. However, to reach the Subway, you do need a permit. Estimates put the Subway section of the hike at around 8-12 miles. Some say 8, some say it’s much more and closer to 12. We have not been able to make it that far, so I would love your comments if you do it!
Things You Must Know for the Zion Narrows Hike
Is it Dangerous to Hike the Narrows?
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 truth be told, 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 what the likelihood of flash flooding is for the day. If you notice the water beginning to get murky or rise, get to higher ground as quickly as possible.
There are also times when the river is full of Toxic Cyanobacteria Bloom which is a type of algae that makes inhaling the water dangerous. During the times, rangers will recommend not hiking the river, however many people ignore this advice and continue on. Just make sure to not accidentally drink the water.
In addition to the threat of flash floods or toxic algae, 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.
When is the Best Time to Hike the Narrows?
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 becoming 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 quite 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 Gear Do You Need for Your Zion Narrows Hike with Kids (or without!)
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. For children, we highly recommend the ones linked above as they are light and adjustable for height.
Water Shoes or Waterproof Hiking Boots
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 waterproof hiking boots. If you do not have any appropriate shoes, definitely consider renting these from 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.
Zion Guru is another great company to check out for summer dry suits as well as full body winter dry suits. During COVID they also offer a private shuttle to the Narrows trail if you are unable to get another reservation through the park shuttle system.
Dry Bag or Waterproof Backpack
Ideally you should take a dry bag or waterproof backpack, but if you do not have one or don’t want to purchase one, you can waterproof your backpack by putting a trash bag inside of it. Alternatively, you can put all of your belongings inside ziplock bags inside your backpack. 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!
Swim Gear / Light Clothes
Depending what time of year you are hiking, we recommend that you 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 once you get out of the water. We do not recommend heavy cotton clothes that will weigh you down. Think leggings, like workout type tops, etc.
In addition to actual gear, 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 Phone Case
Even if your phone is water resistant, 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.
First Aid Kit
If you are a hiker at all or have kids, you will know the importance of traveling with a small first aid kit. Make sure to include waterproof bandaids and moleskin which will be useful in case someone gets a little banged up
For much of the hike you might be in the shade, but depending on the season and time of day you hike, you will also need to plan on bringing sun protection. We had hats as well as sunscreen readily available.
A towel isn’t necessary, but depending on what time of day you hike you might want one to dry off before getting back on the shuttle bus for 45 minutes. We love our pack towels, but if you want to be a little fancier, check out the brightly colored Tessalate towels that are light and sand resistant, but also big enough for two.
One of my weirdest suggestions will come in the most handy – a sarong. Why you ask? Well, there are no restrooms once you leave the Temple of Sinawava bus stop. You will be hiking in water for a long time and eventually you will need to go to the restroom. For our kiddos they did not want to go in the water, so we used our sarong as a shield to set up a little potty area while on the banks of the river during breaks. There will be no privacy otherwise. A light sarong can also be used as a picnic blanket or towel.
What to Expect When Hiking the Narrows
The Narrows hike with kids is not necessarily an easy hike, but how strenuous it is, will mostly be based on your family’s abilities. For our two families, we didn’t find it difficult per se, just arduous. It is not a carefree hike where kids can run wild. They will need to be able to stay focused and concentrate while walking through the water, which means taking time for lots of breaks to refresh and refocus. Some kids will love this aspect, while others will find it very challenging. We had both experiences in our group.
What Is It Like IN the Water?
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 path 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!
Overall, the water is cold, but you do get used to it quite quickly, especially as you begin walking. It is difficult at times to see through the water to see where to put your feet which makes the going slow at times, but the challenge is part of the fun!
How Long Will It Take?
As long as you want it to take is the easy answer. However, to get the most out of the Narrows, plan on a full day adventure, especially if you are hiking with small children. As you know, everything moves slower with children.
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.
In general, you can expect at least 3 hours minimum just in getting to the start of the water trail and back even without stepping foot in the water. From that point, you can add on however much time you would like. 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.
Outline of Time Needed for the Zion Narrows Hike with Kids
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.
Keep an eye out for tadpoles, little frogs and the numerous squirrels (but don’t feed them!) on the Riverside Trail.
This is a long day no matter how you cut it. How far you go or how long it takes will depend more on energy levels and how much food and water you bring. That said, even walking in the water for only a few hours will provide a truly majestic hiking experience. During our visit with 3 small kids, we managed to hike a total of 6 miles from the trailhead at the shuttle stop through the water and back.
Final Thoughts on Hiking the Narrows with Kids
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.
For more information on Zion National Park, check out our Ultimate Guide to Exploring Zion with tips on where to stay, eat and of course our favorite trails within the park.
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