Hiking The Narrows in Zion National Park
Zion National Park is home to one of the top-10 hikes in the world and perhaps the best in the USA — The Narrows. As the name suggests, it is a deep narrow canyon carved out over millions of years by the Virgin River. This unforgettable hike can be done one of two ways:
- Upstream day-hike: Starts and ends at the Temple of Sinawava. This is the easiest to do as it requires no permit, transportation or extra gear. Expect crowds as this is the most popular hike in Zion.
- The top-down overnight hike: Starts at Chamberlain’s Ranch and ends at the Temple of Sinawava. A strenuous 2-day 16-mile hike with an elevation change of about 1,359-feet, it takes between 12-15 hours to complete. It can be in a single-day if you leave early and hike very fast; but why rush?
The downstream one-way hike requires a special wilderness permit (regardless if you spend the night or not) and the permitting process is tricky to navigate and very competitive. Only 12 permits per day are issued — 6 are available in advance and sell out in minutes, if any are left they become available via a lottery drawing 2-7 days before the hike. The remaining 6 become are sold on a first-come, first-serve basis the day before. Permits booked in advance online can be reserved at exactly 12pm Eastern Time 3-months before your hike on the 5th day of that month. Be quick when making your reservation as popular months can sellout the entire month in 15-minutes or less. Here is a helpful chart to know exactly when to make your reservation based on when you want plan on doing the hike:
|For a permit/hike in:||Permits become available on:|
Use this link to make your permit reservation online at the National Park Service official website. Click here for a step-by-step guide of the online permitting process, which can help you beat the competition. When you make your online reservation there is a $5 fee. An additional fee of $5 per person will be paid when you pickup your permit (payments can be made via cash or credit/debit card).
Permits must be picked up and paid for in person at the wilderness desk in the visitors center the day before your hike. Make sure to get a free parking pass at the same time and leave your car in the visitors center parking lot the morning you depart on the hike.
Transportation & Gear
Once you get your permit, you will need to arrange transportation to the remote trailhead called Chamberlain’s Ranch (located outside of Zion National Park), there are several companies that offer this service. Special equipment is also required in the form of close-toed water-shoes, neoprene socks, walking poles and possibly a drysuit (depending on the time of year). Don’t forget that everything you will use, eat or drink for the next 2-days and 1-night must be carried in with you — including water, because while it might be called the Virgin River, the water flowing in it is not safe to drink. You also need to carry everything out with you… and I mean everything… yes, including #2 using special bio-bags you can buy from any outfitter.
We did The Narrows top-down hike so we needed to rent equipment and get transportation to the trailhead. We chose the The Zion Adventure Company located right in Springdale, UT as our outfitter — They had a Narrows package that included water-shoes, neoprene socks and a wooden walking-pole; all essential items for doing this hike. We also rented a waterproof backpack and purchased a few other supplies. Make sure to pick up all your gear the day before your hike. The transportation van leaves promptly so don’t be late as it doesn’t wait for anyone; there were supposed to be another group of hikers in our van but for whatever reason they never showed (just meant there was more room for us during the ride). The van was comfortable and clean. There are bathrooms at the Chamberlain’s Ranch trailhead, the last you will see until you arrive at Temple of Sinawava in a day-and-a-half. Overall the staff was very friendly and helpful, although we thought that the prices were a bit high — however to be fair the prices were probably exactly the same as all the other outfitters and transportation companies near Zion.
When to Go & Conditions
Water level, temperature and conditions are different for each season and can vary drastically from year-to-year. Here is a general idea of what to expect for each season:
- Spring: March to May. Water level is at its highest level so the hike is likely to be closed or at its most challenging if open.
- Summer: June to August. Lower water levels and high temperatures make this a great season to go but that also means more crowds.
- Fall: September and October. Generally considered the best months to go because the water-level is low, the temperatures are ideal and it is not as crowded as in the summer.
- Winter: November to February. Low water levels and the fewest crowds but expect frigid temperatures.
If the water level is low, expect the river to be ankle to knee deep most of the time. If the water level is high, expect the river to be knee to chest deep and you will need to swim in a few places. When the water becomes too high or flash flooding is likely, the the National Park Service will close the hike, all permits will be canceled and your carefully made plans will come to nothing (although better safe than sorry). Remember, a permit is not a guarantee and just because you have a permit doesn’t mean it is safe to hike. In the narrow canyon, conditions can change dramatically and in mere minutes — flash floods are always a constant danger no matter the time of year.
The Narrows hike itself through the incredibly deep and narrow canyon lives up to all the hype and then some. You will walk along the banks of the Virgin River, forded it countless times and for long stretches have no choice but to hike in the riverbed itself. The footing in the river can be treacherous with uneven and loose rocks obscured by the flowing water. Even though the water shoes and hiking pole help tremendously, expect to fall or stumble a few times. It should go without saying but don’t bring anything that you don’t want to get wet — dry and ziplock bags are an absolute must (especially for your food and overnight supplies). Since the canyon is so deep and narrow, you will spend the majority of your time in the shade where it can be surprisingly cold, even in summer so dress accordingly.
Each permit corresponds to one of 12 different campsites along the banks of the river, keep your eyes peeled as the sites can be easy to miss. The campsites themselves have no amenities whatsoever. Here is a list of all campsites, its name, how they can be reserved and the maximum group size:
Lightweight, nutrition-rich and ready-to-eat food (like sandwiches, nuts, dried fruit, bars, etc) make great options while you are in The Narrows. Overnight we put our food in a bag and hung it from a tree; unfortunately that was no deterrent as a rat easily chewed its way into the bag, ate much of our food and left an unsanitary surprise inside — I would advise keeping all food inside your tent.
The next morning we got an early start and continued down-river. While the first day you will essentially be by yourself the entire time (perhaps seeing a group or two of other permitted hikers), the second day you will encounter more and more day-hikers the closer you get to the end. Time permitting the detour down Orderville Canyon is well worth exploring, otherwise proceed to the Temple of Sinawava and catch a shuttle back to the visitor center and your car.
Step-by-Step Permitting Process
All overnight wilderness permits for The Narrows become available 3-months in advance on the 5th day of the month at 12pm eastern time. Permits sellout quickly for popular months so it is helpful to be familiar with each step so you can complete your application fast and beat the competition. Here is a step-by-step guide for making your reservation online:
Select your desired campsite. Remember that only campsites #1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 12 can be reserved in advance online and the others are walk-up only.
Select the day you with to obtain a permit by clicking the date number in the upper-right corner of the calendar view. The bottom-left numbers are the maximum number of people that can stay at that campsite. Days in green still have permits available and days in red are already booked.
Enter your personal information and agree to all of the terms. All fields are required.
Verify that all the information that you submitted is correct. Once you get to this step, that campsite for that day will be blocked out temporarily while you verify your information and complete the remaining step.
Make the $5 reservation fee payment (which is non-refundable). You will pay an additional $5 per person fee when you pick up your permit in person the day before. Once you complete this step, your permit application will be reviewed and the permit issued shortly.
As with most avid hikers and outdoor adventurers, the top-down Narrows hike has been on my bucket-list for years and was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Only the Classic Inca trail in Peru is better in my opinion. While the day-hike can be done on a whim, the top-down hike requires advanced planning, significant effort and a little luck from mother nature. The Narrows top-down hike was without a doubt the highlight of our 2-week Southwest USA trip and is not to be missed!