Great Hikes: The Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah

Difficulty: Strenuous, despite the nominal elevation gain
Distance: up to 10 miles roundtrip (for the bottom-up hike)
Location: Take the free park shuttle to the Temple of Sinawava, walk a mile along the Riverside Walk until its ending at the Virgin River. Get in the river. Walk upstream (hence the “bottom-up” in the trail name—“top-down” is an overnight backpack starting at Chamberlain’s Ranch and hiking downstream).
Note: Renting the right gear will make this a much better experience.

It was still pitch black when we arrived at the shuttle stop that would take us to the Temple of Sinawava in Zion National Park. As the bus wound through the canyon, the towering rock walls on each side of the road emerged from the blackness as a hint of light crept into the sky. After a mile-long walk along the Virgin River, we arrived at the trailhead—a few stairs that led down into the water.

The Narrows trail IS the river. Hikers walk mostly in the water of the Virgin River and occasionally on its sporadically appearing banks. Over millennia the river has cut a deep canyon, the walls of which stretch upwards for a thousand feet and more. These canyon walls, the gardens that hang from them, and the waterfalls that spill from their cracks, are your view for the duration of the hike.

Donning neoprene socks inside the Five Ten Canyoneers technical shoes we rented from Zion Adventure Company the night before, we plunged into the river. The water was 56 degrees—not quite cold enough to merit a wet suit, recommended for 55 degrees and below. So it was cold.

A nice spot to get out of the river for a moment and take a look around.

And challenging. While the Narrows trail lacks any significant elevation gain, each step is a challenge. The river’s bottom consists entirely of boulders of varying sizes, so each step must be taken with care, testing the security of your footing before transferring your weight, lest you slip, and topple comically but painfully into the water and bang your pelvis on a rock and leave your drenched fleece on a tree branch to dry while you hike on, shivering in just a windbreaker.

Not that that happened to one of us. Ehhhhhem.

Strong ankles and a good sense of balance a plus on this trail. Bring a sturdy walking stick, or rent one, like we did.

The depth and speed of the river depends on the season. The highest levels and fastest flow occur in the spring months. No matter what season you go, however, you should expect to have to swim—upstream—through at least one or two sections.

Despite being fully prepared for this, I found my self furiously paddling forward but going unquestionably backwards. Wild-eyed and short of breath because of the shock of cold water up to my neck, I finally allowed myself to drift back to my much taller husband, who towed me across the deepest section while I clung to the dry bag on his back.

Oh yeah, rent dry bags too.

This photo is blurry because I was too cold to hold the camera steady.

About 2.5 miles in, we reached the famous Wall Street section, where the river narrows to just 22 feet wide and the canyon walls soar over 1500 feet. Having left before dawn we had this very special stretch all to ourselves.

Wall Street.

If you hike the Narrows you really must make sure you get to Wall Street. Our total hike was around 9 miles, including a 1-mile spur trail through Orderville Canyon. We turned around only because we faced another section that required swimming, and the memory of that first frigid swim was too fresh in our minds to muster the nerve, now that we knew what we were in for.

The nice people at Zion Adventure Co. offer rental packages. Ours included neoprene socks, canyoneering shoes, and a walking stick. We added a couple dry bags as well.

And if you hike the Narrows, I recommend popping in to Zion Adventure Company early in your trip and checking out their weather report. They can advise which day is best for your hike. You can pick up your stuff the night before, and they’ll give you a comical yet informative talk about slot-canyon safety, along with this handy map. They also lead trips all over the area.

The Narrows is the kind of hike you look forward to doing again before you’re even finished with it the first time through. I can’t wait to go back!

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