PHOTOS: Hiking the Narrows at Zion National Park

If you have the chance to visit Zion National Park, make sure to plan a day around hiking the Narrows, one of the most spectacular and unique hikes you’ll find anywhere in the United States.

The Narrows is different than most hikes in that it takes place almost entirely in the Virgin River, so you are guaranteed to get wet. This free hike does not require a guide– just bring a walking stick, lightweight clothes and a sense of adventure!

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Setting out

The Narrows is one of the most popular hikes in Zion National Park, a  230-square mile park located in southern Utah.

The frigid Virgin River runs through the middle of Zion Canyon and is framed by sheer red-rock cliffs that extend over 2,000 feet from base to summit. In certain spots the gorge narrows to 20 feet across, making the scenery even more dramatic.

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The Narrows hike, while strenuous, is relatively flat and hikers can turn around at any point, so you can make it as long or as short as you’d like.

The first mile of the hike, known as “The Riverside Walk,” takes place on a completely dry, paved walkway that gives you an idea of what the narrow gorges look like. However, for the full effect, you gotta get wet.

Into the water

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The entire hike from this point on involves working your way upstream in a zigzag pattern, crossing from bank to bank.

Make sure to bring sneakers that you won’t mind destroying and a walking stick for balance. Also, if you want to bring a camera, think about bringing a backup since it may get wet and ruined. (We brought a very old iPhone wrapped in a plastic bag). We saw plenty of people slip and fall in along the way.

Finding a path

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The current of the Virgin River can be deceptively strong, and the murky water and rocky bottom make it difficult to get a foot hold during crossings. Most of the time you can cross in 1-2 feet of water, but there are points where there is no choice but to wade in water up to your waist in order to proceed.

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A big part of the hike involves brainstorming before each crossing to determine which section would be the easiest to cross– and the least likely to result in an accidental dunk in the freezing water. The shallowest spot is not always the best, since the current there can sweep you right off of your feet.

We started off by following others, and eventually learned that the easiest place to cross (without getting too wet) is usually the stretch of water just above the rapids.

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The red canyon walls shoot up vertically for hundreds of feet, so little sunlight gets down to the canyon floor. Even on the 97-degree day that we visited, we ended up pretty cold thanks to the lack of sun and 50-degree water.

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Early on we spotted a pair of climbers rappelling down the cliff face to the river below. We later learned on a canyoneering excursion that waterfalls are among the trickiest places to rappel since the rocks are wet and slippery.

Escaping the crowds

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For the first 30 to 45 minutes of the Narrows hike, the water was rather crowded with hikers. However, the farther we got upstream the fewer people we saw. We hiked for almost two hours upstream, and by that point were almost entirely alone. Going back downstream is much quicker, and with the current helping us along we made it back in just over an hour.

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The hike can also be done in the opposite direction, but only through an organized tour that drops you off upstream and lets you hike down to the end. The full trail is 16 miles long and can be completed as a one or two day hike.

The independent hike that we completed, which heads upstream and continues as far as you want to venture before turning around, is a much easier (and cheaper) way to experience the Narrows.

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Sometimes hikes can get a bit repetitive and start to blend into one other, but the Narrows is a unique trail and a great way to cool off from the heat in Zion National Park.

Getting there

Zion National Park is about a 3 hour drive from Las Vegas and a 5 hour drive from Salt Lake City. During the summer, no cars are allowed inside the park but a convenient shuttle bus takes you from entrance to all relevant locations. The trail head for the Narrows is located at the last stop on the shuttle, “The Temple of Sinawava.”

Have you been to Zion National Park?

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About Jake Semmel

I'm a blogger and round the world traveler. I'm always on the lookout for new places to scuba dive, hike and ski.