Hiking The Narrows in Zion National Park had been a dream of mine for many years. I was entranced by pictures of the soaring 100+ foot sandstone walls carved away by the powerful Virgin River. The 16-mile “Top-Down” trek through the canyon can be done in one day, but the majority of hikers will choose to stay one night inside the canyon. Venturing along (and through) the river is an experience that will create life-long memories.
Reserving a wilderness permit
To hike through the Narrows from the top-down you’ll need a wilderness permit (even if you’re doing it as a one-day trek). Even under favorable conditions the 16-mile hike takes at least 12 hours, so most visitors choose to stay one night in the canyon. Permits are not issued when the flow rate of the river exceeds 120 cubic feet per second (cfs). There are 12 numbered campsites with limited capacity. Most sites accommodate 4-6 people but there are two group sites that have more space.
Reserving a permit can be done through the NPS Website. There is a $5.00 reservation fee per group. This process is EXTREMELY competitive. The wilderness permit system receives an insanely high volume of use when new permits become available. Half of the available Narrows permits for each month are available 3 months in advance. The other half are available as walk-up permits the day before your trip. On the 5th day of every month at 10AM MT, reservations for the next period are released. For example, we planned our trip for September, so I had to reserve a permit on July 5th. All the permits will be reserved within 5 minutes or less. To beat the rush, you’ll need to be prepared to enter your information quickly. Here’s a screenshot of the fields you’ll need to fill out:
I created an excel spreadsheet with all my info so I could copy it over to the permit form quickly. You will also need your credit card information. At 9:45 AM I went to the wilderness permit reservation website and selected the Narrows campsite that I wanted from the drop-down menu. A short description of each campsite and it’s location on the trail can be found here. My group of six decided we would attempt to reserve site 5 (Ringtail). At 9:59 AM I began refreshing the page every 5 seconds. Right at 10 AM the system let me through to the first page. I hastily entered my info (sweating the entire time) and clicked “Submit Reservation Application.” At that moment, the NPS server crashed. The volume was too much. I went back to my method of refreshing the page every 5-10 seconds until the server came back online about 10 minutes later. I basically committed my entire morning to this effort. Eventually I made my way all the way through the application and waited for a confirmation email. Five minutes later I got the email I was hoping for! We got the permit!
Picking up your permit
The NPS doesn’t let you print out your permit in advance. The day of your hike, you’ll need to stop into the Zion National Park Visitor Center and pick it up. It opens at 8:00 AM, but make sure to arrive early. There’s no express lane for people just picking up permits, so you have to wait in line behind everyone who is trying to get a walk-up permit. We found this out the hard way. When we arrived at 8:00 AM, the line was already quite long. After waiting 1.5 hours(!!) in line we finally got our permit. We convinced our shuttle to wait for us, but they almost cancelled our reservation.
Reserving a Shuttle
The trailhead near Chamberlain’s Ranch is a 1.5 hour drive from the end of the hike – so it’s recommended to arrange a shuttle. We opted to reserve a shuttle from Zion Guru in Springdale that would transport us to the trailhead. It costs $43 per person for a private shuttle for our group of 6. After completing the hike, we would then take the NP Shuttle from Temple of Sinawava back to the visitor center where we left our cars.
Alternatively, you can park one car at the visitor center and drive the other to the trailhead. This saves you some money, but will leave you with a 3 hour round trip drive after you finish the hike on day 2. For this reason, I highly recommend just reserving a shuttle.
The Narrows isn’t your average hike. You’ll be ankle to waist deep in water for more than half the hike. It’s important to equip yourself with the proper gear to make your hike comfortable and safe.
Light weight athletic shoes (Nike, Adidas, etc) and wool socks. Trust me. Don’t rent waterproof boots from any of the outfitters! It’s best to have lightweight shoes that drain quickly rather than heavy neoprene boots. Your feet are going to get wet, but it’s OK. Nobody in our group got blisters! When you get to your campsite, make sure you hang the shoes up on a tree to dry overnight.
Short or long sleeve dry fit t-shirt and microfiber shorts. The summer air is warm but once you’re in the shade of the canyon it will cool down. The water is also quite chilly. The dry fit material will breathe in the Utah heat but keep you dry and comfortable inside the canyon.
The water usually doesn’t get high enough to reach your backpack. But it’s a smart idea to put your wallet, phone, keys, and camera equipment in a dry-bag. The rocks in the river are slippery and you never know when you might fall. Before our trip I purchased this small 8 liter dry bag at REI. I’ve also started using this as a stuff sack on more traditional backpacking trips.
While hiking through the river it’s difficult to see the slippery rocks beneath the surface. It can be challenging to maintain your balance without a pole or stick. If you already have trekking poles, bring them. I didn’t have any so I ended up just using one of my ski poles and it worked great. You can also try to find a walking stick somewhere along the trail.
Tent and/or Hammock
We brought two 2-person tents and two hammocks. This helped spread out the weight and made for quick camp setup. If you plan on bringing a hammock, make sure your campsite has some trees. Here’s a summary with pictures of each campsite.
40-65 liter backpack should be sufficient. The size requirement of your pack depends on if you’ll be carrying a tent or not. It’s a one-night hike so you won’t need to carry much food. I have an Osprey Atmos 65 that I love.
The shuttle drops you off at the trailhead near Chamberlain’s Ranch. Follow the dirt path west for a few miles as it winds along the stream. Stay out of the water during this section. After about 3 miles you’ll come across the remains of Bulloch’s Cabin.
The next 6 miles the stream flows calmly through some lightly forested areas and brief sections of shallow canyon. As you travel further along the path, you’ll notice the walls getting taller and taller. The river will also begin increasing in depth and flow rate. It’s best to walk along the edges of the river, crossing over when necessary to keep your feet dry as long as possible.
At approximately 8.5 miles you’ll come across North Fork Falls. It’s basically a 10-foot tall boulder and log jam that creates a small waterfall. After first look it seems impassible, but you’ll find a small passage to the south of the falls. Shortly after the falls, you’ll encounter the first river confluence in the canyon called Deep Creek. The volume of the river almost doubles at this point. The 12 Narrows campsites are spread out over the next 3 miles after Deep Creek.
Our campsite number 5 (Ringtail) was another mile down the river just before the Kolob Creek confluence. It was a sandy, spacious site with plenty of trees for our hammocks. We did some exploring and it looked like campsites 4 and 6 were also really nice. The canyon is really a magical place to camp. After getting camp setup we cracked some beers (and bagged wine) and celebrated the first leg of our journey.
Right from the start on Day 2 you’ll encounter larger obstacles. There are some deeper sections (chest level) and several boulders to scramble over. This is where the hike gets really fun! There isn’t a defined trail so you can make your way through in whatever fashion necessary.
At approximately 11.5 miles, you will arrive at Big Springs: a gorgeous spring that cascades down boulders and hanging foliage. It’s a great spot to take a break and have a snack. This is the point where you’ll begin to bump into “day hikers” that are finishing the bottom-up version of the narrows hike.
The section of the trail after Big Springs is where the canyon is the narrowest and tallest. Have your camera ready. Dubbed “Wall Street” due to the soaring, vertical canyon walls – this is the most famous part of the Narrows trail. By the end of the day, my neck was sore from looking up at the sweeping sandstone walls. At mile 14, you’ll reach the junction of Oderville Canyon.
Shortly after Oderville Canyon, the canyon begins to widen. At this point, there’s only another mile before dry trail. Near the end of the hike is Mystery Falls, flowing gently down the east wall of the canyon. After walking in tranquility for the past day you’ll be abruptly greeted by swarms of tourists that have wandered along the first mile of the trail. Sweaty, wet, and muddy – we stuck out like sore thumbs. Lots of people asked us about our journey and for a brief moment we felt like celebrities. The final mile of the hike is a paved path. This will lead you to the Temple of Sinawava where you can jump on a shuttle back to the visitor center.
Bottom-Up Hike Alternative
If you want to experience a small section of the Narrows as a day hike, you don’t need a permit. Take the NPS shuttle to Temple of Sinawava where the bottom-up trailhead begins. From there, you’ll be able to hike 2.5 miles in to the Big Spring waterfall. Traveling beyond Big Spring without a permit is prohibited. The round trip day hike is approximately 5 miles. This hike will give you a sample of the enormous sandstone walls and the beauty of the river. The main disadvantage of doing the short version is the crowds. Being a popular tourist destination – you’ll find yourself almost shoulder to shoulder with large groups of loud, splashing tourists.