The Narrows hiking trail in Zion National Park is one of America’s most iconic walks and is located along the narrowest section of Zion Canyon. The entire trail is 16 miles long and most of it goes through a river! The most popular option is to walk 4.7 miles upstream one-way, out-and-back. However, if these options seem a bit too time-consuming or physically challenging, then there are many other easy options for hiking The Narrows Zion National Park.
During our visit in May, park rangers were limiting access to The Narrows to reduce traffic. Therefore, we were not allowed into the area until much later into the day. Because of this, we were only able to walk about 2.5 miles upstream—or about three hours roundtrip.
It was a blessing in disguise. This is an extremely tough and slow hike. The water is ice cold and we were totally unprepared. At one point, the water was up to our chests.
We initially thought it wouldn’t go much higher than our ankles. Many long-distance walkers were wearing drysuits, boots, and more. It didn’t matter though, this was one of the most exciting hikes of our lives!
Getting Around Zion National Park
Zion National Park had recently reopened during our visit and for that reason, the shuttle service was not operating. Therefore, we were able to drive our vehicle directly to the upper section of the Zion Canyon where The Narrows is located. This is not normally how things work.
Typically, the Zion Canyon Shuttle System facilitates the movement of the majority of visitors in and out of the park. For the most part, this is because the shuttle is the preferred method for accessing the hikes located along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Specifically, this includes the Emerald Pools, The Grotto, Weeping Rock, Angels Landing, Big Bend, and The Narrows.
Walk or Bike From Springdale
It is possible to walk or bike from the nearby town of Springdale. However, it will add a level of complexity due to the fact that it’s about eight miles from the visitor center to the Temple of Sinawava, where The Narrows hike begins.
Zion National Park Lodge
The Zion National Park Lodge is located along the scenic drive and is the closest accommodation to The Narrows. Staying here allows guests to hop on the shuttle directly in front of the lodge and take the short 10-minute (3.7-mile) ride to the Temple of Sinawava.
Tickets on the Zion Canyon Shuttle System must be purchased in advance. Furthermore, just about every question related to the Zion Canyon Shuttle System is answered on the NPS website.
3 Easy Options For Hiking The Narrows Zion National Park
It would be nice if we all had the time and physical ability to complete the full 16-mile hike. However, most of us don’t. Therefore, these are the three best options for hiking The Narrows Zion National Park.
- Riverside Walk – 2.2 miles
- The Narrows via Riverside Walk – 9.4 miles
- Freestyle Walk The Narrows – x miles (recommended)
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The trailhead for all three hikes is located at The Temple of Sinawava, which is the last stop on the Zion Canyon Shuttle System.
1. Riverside Walk
The Riverside Walk is a one-hour out-and-back paved trail that follows the Virgin River within Zion Canyon. At 2.2 miles, this is considered an easy walk. There are minor drop-offs and trailside signage to view along the way.
There are many opportunities to depart the Riverside Walk and stroll along the Virgin River—allowing you to escape the crowds and embrace the spectacular environment. Also, the walk is a great place to spot wildlife including rock squirrels, mule deer, blue herons, and wild turkeys.
Seniors and the disabled may have some difficulty traversing mildly-steep slopes. Especially, after heavy rain, when the pavement may be slick and covered in sand. Also, water filling stations and restrooms are located at the trailhead.
The walk ends upstream at “The Gateway to The Narrows,” a section of the canyon that is so constricting that hikers must cross the river to continue on up the Virgin River.
As a result, most visitors who make it to this point decide to turn back. Options number two and three (below) continue on from this location.
2. The Narrows via Riverside Walk
Hiking The Narrows via the Riverside Walk is the most popular option for visitors who dream of visiting the iconic spots along The Narrows. This route is referred to as the bottom-up (south to north) and does not require a permit. The full 16-mile hike is referred to as the top-down (north to south) and requires a wilderness permit which must be purchased three months in advance.
Walkers selecting this option are not allowed to go beyond Big Spring, which is 4.7 miles upstream. Also, access to Orderville Canyon is prohibited. About 60 percent of the walk takes place in the water.
The depth of the water will vary based on the season. Most people decide to go in the warmer months when the water temperature has increased and water levels have decreased. For this reason, walkers (6 feet tall) should expect the water to reach the upper abdomen. Also, don’t be surprised if you have to swim in certain sections.
This hike will take the average person about seven to eight hours to complete, as traversing through the river is slippery and rough, in fast-flowing cold water. Flash flood potentials increase due to the extended length of time that it takes to complete the walk. For this reason, be sure to check the weather within about 100 miles for rain or ask a park ranger for recommendations.
3. Freestyle Walk The Narrows
Based on the circumstances, we were looking to keep our visit to The Narrows as flexible as possible. Therefore, we decided to walk upstream as far as we could and would turn back when we:
- Felt like we were getting in over our heads
- Began getting cold or tired
- Sensed it was getting too late in the day to proceed
This third option is best for people looking to wing it! If you feel like you can make it to Big Spring, go for it. If not, there’s no need to force anything.
You can turn back at any time. Most importantly, this option provides hikers with a taste of The Narrows. You’ll get something out of the amazing experience, even if you only walk for a half-hour.
Departing The Gateway to The Narrows
We departed ‘The Gateway to The Narrows’ at about 5:30 p.m., and with limited time, we walked up upstream as quickly as possible. We grabbed some wooden walking sticks left by previous walkers and set off. Our first step into the water was a bit shocking—it was pretty darn cold.
The river was flowing quite swiftly and it immediately rose over our ankles. Little did we know, in about 15 minutes it would be reaching our upper abdomens.
As amazing as the experience is, trudging upstream, crossing from one river bank to the next, and walking through deep water was a bit laborious. Much of the walk that takes place in the river really takes a toll on the body.
After about an hour, both of our knees we’re getting a bit sore, nothing terrible but notable. The cold water may soothe the pain but it also causes ligaments and tendons to tighten, increasing the risk of injury. Therefore, high-top boots and knee braces may be a good option. Also, plan on walking about 1 to 1.5 mph.
In many areas, the view of the bottom is obscured and walkers should take extra precautions to avoid rolling an ankle or damaging their knees. This is where the walking poles come into play—they are absolutely essential for this walk. We’re so thankful we snagged a couple of leftover wooden ones at The Gateway to The Narrows.
Staying Safe When Hiking The Narrows Zion
The curved, narrow sandstone walls glow in the sun with a cathedral-like light. When it rains, however, they can fill with raging rainwater in an instant, leaving hikers walking The Narrows with no way to escape.
If rain is in the forecast, walking past The Gateway to The Narrows is extremely foolish, as the risk of flash floods increases dramatically. This should come as no surprise considering walkers are hiking between 2,000 feet canyon walls. As a result, even mild storms, tens of miles away can generate flash floods. If 12-foot high water comes crashing down on you from the canyon walls, there is literally simply nowhere to find cover.
Heading Back to the Temple of Sinawava
After about 1.5 to 2 hours walking upstream, we decided to head back. While we never made it to the iconic spots, the brief time we shared in The Narrows provided us with the urge to come back and explore more. We’re glad we ‘gave it a go’ as they say.
The walk back seemed much easier. After all, we had the current of the river pushing us along, and we felt more comfortable with the terrain.
As we headed back to the Temple of Sinawava we couldn’t help but wish that we had a few more hours of daylight. Walking The Narrows Zion National Park up the Virgin River feels like a once in a lifetime experience. The adventure is so unique that you know at the time you’re doing something extraordinarily special. It’s amazing!