I Hiked the Narrows! (Therefore, anyone can.)
I Hiked the Narrows! (Therefore, anyone can.)
I have long had a cerebral bucket list but only last year did I begin writing it down. Mostly this lends to making the list longer and longer and longer…Thanks Instagram! But I recently checked a thing off of it. I hiked the Narrows of the Virgin River at Zion National Park!
Let me tell you, this is less hiking and more of a wading trudge through shin deep water. Though it does work the core. And there is a beautiful payoff at every bend in the river.
I did the “bottom up” route as the “top down” needed a permit and, frankly, a lot more time! (Luckily my bucket list wasn’t explicit about the breadth of my Narrows experience.) This hike is listed as medium-difficult to strenuous but that’s because it takes a while and the fact that your feet are submerged in cool water about 85% of the time. I believe the elevation change is less than 350 ft. the entire way.
You can read more about my tips for Zion’s shuttle here, but in short: get in line early and get on the trails ASAP. The shuttle stop for the Narrows is the Temple of Sinawava, the last of the nine stops. Makes sense as the Narrows are what lead out of Zion’s canyon. Once you disembark, feel free to take a potty break at the handy facilities; remember, you will be surrounded by the sound of running water for the next 4-10 hours, depending on how long you plan to wade. Don’t feel the urge? Pee anyway. (This is probably the reason I didn’t ever plan on doing the entire ten hours. I mean, what did those people do? Never mind…)
After your pit stop, you’re going to take Riverside Walk, a easy paved mile and a popular attraction in Zion. This is another reason to get there early. Before my Narrows hike, there were several people around but a few stretches of serenity. After the hike? It was a freaking parade. You couldn’t even pass people because there was another stream coming at you. It’s a beautiful walk though. Take the time to enjoy it as a lot of people are just running for the mouth of the Narrows and ignoring all the sights on the way. They miss the ROUS’s (I’m kidding, they’re really just huge squirrels) and waterfalls and lazy river bends hugged by sapling trees.
That last is kind of key. This is a slot canyon and subject to flash floods. The park is really active in keeping an eye on these things and will “close” the Narrows if a storm is coming through. But! There’s really no closing a hike in a park that’s open 24-7 and allows two entrances. Meaning it’s up to you to check the weather before you embark as only you know how long you’ll be in there. And look up, dudes. Dark clouds gathering? Get out. It’s not just a wall of water that’ll come at you but rocks and dirt and whole freaking trees. That is why many trees are so young along the Riverside Walk. Young means bendy so they don’t snap. Makes for a pretty picture though.
The put-in for the Narrows is quite obvious: the paved walk ends and there are a bunch of people testing the waters. Like a BUNCH of people. I arrived at the mouth around 8:30-8:45 and there were about thirty people splashing about, about fifty more around the first bend. It’s a real free-for-all though. Everyone feels a bit surreptitious, like we aren’t really supposed to be in the water and may get “caught” any second. Makes it that much more fun.
So, the water. It’s not super cold and pretty easy to get used to, though I had to brace myself pretty much every time I got back in it. Also it ranged from ankle-deep to upper-thighs (I’m 5’6” so it’s all relative here) but there are areas that are deeper if you wanna play that way. (And if you go later in the day, you may want to.)
About the second bend you get to this trickling waterfall and everyone and their sisters and sisters’ best friends are trying to get a pic with it. I get it; I love me a waterfall. But after this photo-op, the crowd starts to lighten and the walls close in…
I decided to time my hike rather than rely on distance which is good because the baby steps I took for the first hour would have made my inner calculator go kaput. Many people I talked to said they just wanted to go around x amount of bends or get to some landmark (like this beautiful white rock that seems spotlighted in the center of the river). But every turn has payoff and some make you gasp. So it becomes like the Lays potato chip of hiking; bet you can’t do just one…more.
Feeding into that, the number of people starts to drop exponentially after a while. The fourth bend cuts the crowd in half, the eighth another half and so on. My own personal turnabout looked like a dead-end so I decided to treat it as such. (I hiked in around three hours but take that with some Morton’s because I was moving pretty slowly.) It was a restful area though. There’s a small beach on one side where a few people were sunning and the other side is over waist high so kiddos were floating and dunking each other.
The return trip is pretty fast. The current is with you and your steps are more confident. Also, you’ve taken a lot of pics and your device is probably running low on space/power. I got back to Riverside Walk at about 1:50 having turned around at around about 12:40. I did stop for a snack/take-it-all-in break on the way, so there’s about 15 minutes. But I will say the way out was even more crowded than the way in. It’s hotter too which may be why it was more crowded. People were falling on purpose to cool off. If you don’t mind crowds, this is one hike in Zion that you could plan on taking in the afternoon. But wear a hat and sunscreen as the canyon works to focus the light on anything vulnerable within.
As a newbie, I wondered if I needed gear or at least special shoes to do this hike. I’m cheap so I went with what I had though I did buy some decent hiking sandals (Hi-tec Cove sandals: cheaper than Keens/Tevas and cute to boot) so I wouldn’t waterlog my tennis shoes. They worked perfectly. I got a couple of rocks up in there but they flowed right back out with the water. I also got some trekking poles and used one for this hike. (Neither of these purchases were solely for the Narrows but just because I hike a-lot-a-lot.) You can rent walking sticks which is the one thing I can recommend. It’s so helpful to have that crutch to stick in to test depth and stability. Some of those rocks move, little tricksters.
So you can rent special shoes from the store at the front of the park (or at the plethora of outfitters in Springdale). Not sure how much this is but I saw whole families sporting blue and yellow technical looking shoes. I will admit that these guys looked like superheroes compared to me, at least the adults. They moved faster and surer and overall steadier. Though, let’s be real, they may have done so in flip-flops too; I was at best, wary of falling.
Speaking of falling, I did not. And I only saw one person fall and I was almost back to the start. Pretty sure she hit one of those jester rocks that, you know, rocks when you step on it. The only real danger is turning your ankle or getting a cut when on your hand from breaking your fall. Neither of these happened to her but I did hear over the shuttle radio the next day that a woman bloodied her knee up pretty good. She declined medical attention though so it must not have been too terrible. Wonder how long it takes medics to get there?
A note on rainstorms: If you decide to do the hike after the threat of flooding has passed know that the river will not be as clear as it is here. Sediment flows downriver and it takes a bit for it to clean out. I’m not sure what it looks like in the Narrows itself but elsewhere in the park, the water turned sort of taupe.
In case you are wondering, your feet aren’t submerged at all times. There are small “beaches” at almost every turn but you need to be on the right side of things or you just waste time crossing the river. But if you need a reprieve, it’s worth it to cross. Also the other side of the canyon from these strips of land are often pretty deep or moving at a rapid rate.
And yes, even in four-inch water you get rapids. Which are obviously harder to walk through though the stick comes in real handy in these. There is a stretch, not ironically, pretty close to my “dead-end” that is just fast flowing water from wall to wall, no beach in sight. It’s like that dream where you’re running from the monster but getting nowhere… And it’s even more precarious when you’re going with the current. It’s cool though, all shadowed with the sound of echoing water (and quiet otherwise since everyone’s concentrating so hard on staying upright!).
As for other gear of the picture-taking variety, I got a MPOW waterproof case for my phone and brought a GoPro. I did not however remember to charge the GoPro so…whoops. The case worked great though! I took about two thousand pics straight through the plastic and there was no glare. And the touchscreen worked fine; no having to open it up to switch between video/pano/photo. Best $6 I ever spent.
I also used I dry bag (Dry Vault) that I use when I kayak. Kept my snacks, backup shoes, unusable GoPro, et cetera dry the whole way. The bottom did dip in the Virgin several times. Because I’m short.
My biggest tip? Trust your feet. I didn’t start doing this until I was only about a half hour back to the start and my gait became so much more enjoyable. My shoulders even relaxed though I had no idea I was tensing them. I am a natural klutz, like trip over air and knock over chairs klutz, so I just assumed I would fall. Now I do have pretty decent balance but not while I’m moving, ya get me? So when I say trust yourself, know that it’s true. Do look down at what’s coming but use your peripheral. Don’t overthink it. Plant a foot and then plant the other and use your stick to brace yourself if necessary. Just walk.
AND! Look up! Those walls go straight up and make for pretty cool outlines up above. (The Paiute Indian name for the canyon was “Mukuntuweap” meaning “straight-up land”. Spot on, dudes, spot on.) Not only is it a good idea to glance at the sky to check for gathering storms but it’s just pretty up there.
I am thrilled I did the hike and checked the Narrows off my bucket list. It’s a family-friendly hike and a great one to take solo as well. Honestly I wouldn’t have enjoyed this one with other people as someone would always be the faster one and that competition would get old. Or is that a personal problem? Probably…
This is a lovely hike, difficult on the mental side only and I’m so glad I did it. Go for it and don’t be afraid to get wet!