TRIP REPORT: The Narrows, Top Down – Zion National Park – 8-14-15
Hike Stats at a Glance:
16 Miles one way trip
Hiking mainly in a river.
-200 ft of elevation gain
Hot summer day 90+ during the day, 54 degrees at the start.
10hr total elapsed time
The Narrows is a deep section of canyon on the north fork of the Virgin River that runs through Zion National Park. It is usually included on lists of the top 10 best hikes in the United States, and I have to say that is for good reason! The hiking is very dramatic and quite unique from start to finish. Although it is a strenuous day hike, and many people opt to do it as a two day trip, if you are a fit hiker and have good endurance you should have no problem doing it as a 10-14 hour day trip. The canyon is non-technical so no specialized equipment is required to descend it but hikers should be very aware of flash flood risks as in many parts of the canyon there is no high ground to find for safety and getting stuck in a flash flood could be disastrous.
Stav and I spent the night camping at Zion RV and Campground which is right off the road on just outside the parks eastern boundary. The campground is very basic but was perfect for our needs since we planned on getting a very early start since we had a long day ahead of us doing the Narrows as a day hike. We called it a night early and I was in my tent by 8pm but was kept awake well past midnight by the kid in the campsite next to us chopping at a piece of wood for hours. Eventually I was able to fall asleep but awoke to my alarm at 3am, it was time to get moving.
We woke up, had a quick breakfast and broke down our camp. It was a chilly night but the sky was crystal clear and I made sure to take some time to enjoy the shooting stars that were painting the sky. We were lucky enough to be in such a dark and clear place at the same time as the Perseids meteor shower was passing by overhead, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Since the Narrows is a one way hike, the day before we had left one of our cars at the visitor center within the park and used the other to drive to the trailhead. The trailhead for the Narrows top down hike is on the Chamberlain’s Ranch which is private property outside of the park boundary. The trailhead was about a 1 hour drive from our campground along a dirt road, we arrived there at about 4:30am.
Once we arrived we were going to get started but to our surprise it was only 54 degrees and felt quite cold. Since sunrise was still a ways off we decided to just wait a while longer and take a nap in the car before getting going. We awoke around 5:45am and hit the trail shortly after. The trail starts on a dirt road along the side of cattle pastures.
Be sure to hike along the road as long as possible before entering the water as to avoid the electric fences meant to keep the cattle in their pastures. The road is pleasant and is some of the only dry trail you will walk on all day so you should enjoy it while you can. The views of the surrounding area are also quite beautiful.
After following the road for a few miles you will come to a point where a pretty obvious foot path becomes apparent. This path weaves along the river for a short way until you come to the first water crossing. At this point you will begin to pass in and out of the water as you following the river into the start of the canyon. There is no point trying to keep your feet dry at this point as the rest of the day is spent walking in the water and you might as well get used to having wet feet at this point. I used neoprene socks with my Five Ten Water Tennis and was quite pleased with their performance throughout the day. My feet stayed warm enough in the cold water and the rubber on the shows was great for gripping to the slippery rocks of the river bed.
As you walk along you can see the landscape start to change as the river digs its way deeper into the canyon below. After a while you will begin to see the canyon walls growing taller and taller as you go which really gives you a good sense that you are making progress as you hike and building up to something bigger and better.
The canyon is made even more impressive by the fact that it was cut by the river itself. Once the canyon began to close in on both sides of the river we came to a pretty neat slot canyon that we took a short detour into. Before this trip I had never been in any kind of canyon but I find them really incredible and look forward to being able to explore more of them in the future.
After crossing back and fourth over the river for a while you finally make it into the canyon proper where you are forced to begin walking in the water more and more.
Eventually we came to what I liked to consider the start of the canyon proper. It is the first narrow section you reach which to me acted as a gateway into the Narrows beyond.
Once passed this first narrow section the river runs almost wall to wall on the canyon and you begin having to walk through the water more and more as you go. Hiking through the water is a fun experience and certainly very different but we avoided it where we could simply to save time. The next landmark you reach is the small post which marks the Zion National Park boundary.
The section after this marker is some of the more interesting and beautiful parts of the entire hike in my opinion. The canyon gets quite narrow in spots and it is a truly unique experience, especially if you do not normally spend time in canyons.
After this section you will come to a spot where the water rushes over a literal log jam in the narrow slot creating a pretty neat waterfall. At first we thought we would have to some how get down this thing but there is actually a small slot for you to walk down to the left of the river.
The size of these logs are quite big and it really makes you wonder what you might need to watch out for in the event of a flash flood. Getting hit by an object that big would be deadly so there is no need to take unnecessary risks. Also as tempting as it may be, do not try to jump into the water below from the top of the waterfall. The water a few feet down stream is about 6 ft deep but the area immediately under the waterfall is only about a foot deep.
After this point the canyon walls begin to get quite tall and they do a great job of really making you feel small.
The next major point you get to is the confluence of Deep Creek with the Virgin river. This spot is difficult to miss as the water of Deep Creek runs clear and creates a stark contrast with the red muddy water of the Virgin river. The water from Deep Creek is also suitable for filtering and drinking if necessary, although I would probably recommend waiting to fill up at Big Springs.
At this point you will also start to see the designated camping spots along the route. With the addition of the water from Deep Creek the river begins to dominate the canyon and you will be forced to walk almost entirely in the water for most of the rest of the day. Thankfully for us at this point the sun was starting to hit us in the canyon which made the cold water feel quite refreshing.
This section of canyon is pretty wide and open and you will be able to get in and out of the water at parts along the way which means this is also the best place to stop if there is a threat of flash floods. Once you are past Big Spring you are pretty much in wall to wall water, sometimes up to chest deep so high ground is not usually available in the case of an emergency.
Although beautiful, this part of the hike was probably my least favorite as it was not very interesting and after being in such cool narrow canyons earlier in the day it felt a bit boring. After a while we finally passed the last campground and Big Springs was in front of us. This is the last stop before entering the most dramatic part of the Narrows known as Wall Street. In this area the walls of the canyon are very tall and steep and the river flows from wall to wall forcing you to navigate its waters.
Big spring is an obvious spring flowing from the wall of the canyon covered in bright green vegetation. Also off to the right, prior to reaching Big Springs there is a small slot canyon which was full of crystal clear fresh water. We made a short trip down this canyon as well and it is quite cool to check out, just note some swimming is required!
As tempting as it may be to climb all over the springs, I would recommend you don’t as it is covered in poison ivy and that would be a terrible way to spend the rest of your day. We did not linger here to long as we were excited to get started with the real dramatic sections of the hike. Wall Street was just around the corner and we couldn’t wait to see it. It was also at this point that we were forced to navigate actually deep sections of water. There is no way to avoid these deep spots so be sure to bring a dry bag for your food and gear.
Up to this point we had not seen a single person all day which really makes for a great wilderness experience. However, this far down the canyon the people we did start to see were few and far between as most people coming from the bottom up do not usually try to make it all the way to Big Springs which is the turnaround point if you do not have a wilderness permit.
Wall Street is by far the most impressive part of the hike and it is easy to get hung up just staring at the immensity of the Narrows.
The hike continues down this deep section for a couple of miles before opening up again into a wider canyon as you get closer to the Temple of Sinawava which is where bottom up hikers begin there day and where we needed to finish in order to grab a shuttle back to the visitor center.
The two miles of hiking through the narrow canyon is incredibly fun and impressive since you have to do all of your hiking through the water. Luckily I did not stub my toes too many times on the river rocks but we did have one incident where a section suddenly got deeper without notice. In this moment I found that after walking in the water for so long, for a split second I forgot that I knew how to swim and ended up flailing for higher ground and in the process kicked a huge shin height boulder under the water which was pretty unpleasant. Needless to say I was a little more cautious moving forward and we did not have any more incidents. For added fun we tried to find the deepest sections we could as we made our way down the canyon.
By this point we were starting to see more and more people coming up from below and they seemed a bit dismayed to see us wading through such deep water on purpose. A large number of the bottom up hikers stopped and turned around at the first place where wading through chest deep water became necessary.
Once past the 2 miles of narrow canyon you come to a point where everything opens back up again and you start to cross in and out of the water as you make your way down the home stretch. At this point I stopped taking photos for the most part as the crowd only grew larger and larger until I started to get the feeling I was at a crowded water park and I honestly just wanted to finish up. I am not a huge fan of crowds so I just stuck to the water for the most part where no one else was walking and was able to make pretty efficient progress.
You will know you are at the end when you see a stone veranda on the bank of the river which marks the start of the paved trail back to the Temple of Sinawava and out to the shuttle buses. Once we exited the river it was a quick 1 mile walk down a paved trail to the bus stop. From there we hopped on a shuttle back to the visitor center to our other vehicle.
All in all the Narrows lived up to its name and was a truly beautiful and memorable hike, and I would certainly rank it in my personal top 3 favorites I have ever done. I would highly recommend that anyone who is in Zion should try and see it and even if you cannot get a permit it to do it from the top down, going bottom up to Big Springs would still certainly be worth the effort.