Overview - Hiking the Zion Narrows
Zion National Park in southwestern Utah is about a three hour drive from Las Vegas. The park is world-famous for its soaring, colorful monoliths such as the Great White Throne and Angel's Landing. Besides its great heights, Zion is also known for its amazing canyons. The park's most visited attraction is the Riverside Walk (Gateway to the Narrows trail). The paved trail follows the beautiful Virgin River about a mile through its lower canyon, where sandstone cliffs about 1/4 mile apart tower thousands of vertical feet above the river.
The most fantastic part of Zion Canyon, the Zion Narrows, lies beyond the road, beyond the trail and is accessible only by wading the Virgin River. It is perhaps the most beautiful canyon in the world and certainly the ultimate slot canyon. The term "narrows" or "slot canyon" describes a canyon section where the vertical walls of the canyon crowd in very tightly against the riverbed. In the American southwest, rivers, streams, and even intermittent washes often cut sharply into soft, pliable, regions of
sandstone. Eons of erosion, particularly from flash floods have created narrow, sheer-walled canyons of extraordinary beauty.
Photo, above left. Wall Street in the Zion Narrows. For perspective, note the distant hiker in the river. Above right, a more open section of the canyon with wooded areas.
The Zion Narrows offer the world's best and most beautiful slot canyon. Sections of serpentine narrows wind for miles, offering exquisitely colored and carved sandstone walls and new surprises around every bend in the river. In some places, such as Wall Street (photo, left), you will see the surreal sight of river flowing between vertical walls. Wall Street is a two mile stretch in the heart of the Zion Narrows which is the ultimate expression of narrows or slot canyon in the entire world. Vertical sandstone walls soar to over 1,500 feet above the river while narrowing as close as 22 feet apart.
Besides the spectacular geology, the Zion Narrows features a beautiful river which flows year-round and keeps the temperature comfortable in the summer. Springs are abundant in the lower half of the Narrows, including the famous landmark, Big Springs. All the water makes for a lush canyon with lovely hanging gardens, plentiful wildflowers, and in the more open areas, heavily wooded benches (an earthen embankment with permanent vegetation above the river's high water mark) which make delightful resting or camping spots. (Camping is permitted only in designated sites and only by reservation.)
Photo, right. A heavily wooded bench above the Virgin River. Below, the author wades through Wall Street.
Hiking the Zion Narrows
The Zion Narrows is your author's favorite outdoor place in the American West. In June, 2007, I hiked the Narrows for the fifth time, the first time coming nearly 27 years ago. One of the best aspects of this trek is that to see this wonderful place, you have to earn it. There are no scenic overlooks, roads, or trails. You simply walk through the river, along the rocky dry bed, or on the occasional benches.
While the hike does not require technical canyoneering skills or any particular skills, it is a difficult and strenuous endeavor. You must be very physically fit, have good agility and balance, and be comfortable dealing with rough places. You will be boulder hopping for much of the trip, both along the edge of the river and in the river itself. Below Deep Creek, the boulders in the stream become larger, and there are many instances where you must cross over them in rapidly flowing water. It is popularly described as "walking on bowling balls". In the shady narrow sections, the rocks become algae covered.
There are many places in the river where huge pieces of wall have collapsed into the river, leaving obstructions. These may include deep pools which could require swimming during periods of high water. There are detours around many of these obstacles, ranging from easy to very tedious. Some may be obvious from narrow paths or footprints; others may be difficult to find. Some may require boosting yourself or dropping down in awkward or uncomfortable ways. The possibility of taking a fall and getting hurt is very real; it's a very rocky place. It's not for everyone.
There is also a touch of danger here. Sudden rain storms upstream can cause flash floods resulting in a wall of water rushing downstream. Hikers must be alert especially during thunderstorm season (July-August) and be prepared to seek high ground. Also, cooler weather brings the real threat of hypothermia due to being wet all the time. The best, and safest, time to go is June or September.
There are three options for hiking the Zion Narrows:
- The Narrows Thru-Hike - Day Trip. This trip entails hiking the entire Narrows downstream in one day as a one-way hike. The trail starts at Chamberlain's Ranch, outside of the park to the northeast. There are shuttle services available to drop you off there. It is then a 16 mile hike down the canyon which takes about 12 hours. The advantage is that you get to see everything. Also, the stream's gradient is steep. You are essentially walking downhill the whole way. The disadvantage is that walking 16 miles in one day off trail is very strenuous, and you have to finish before dark.
- The Narrows Thru-Hike - Overnight Trip. This trip entails hiking the entire Narrows downstream as described above with an overnight camping stop. The park service allows you to spend one night in the canyon at a designated campsite available by reservation. The 12 sites are roughly near the mid-point of the hike. The advantage is breaking up a tough hike into two days, making it much easier to enjoy the place. The disadvantage is having to carry a full backpack through the many obstacles which could possibly include a deep water crossing.
- The Narrows Bottom-Up - Day Hike. This trip entails hiking the Narrows upstream from the end of the paved Riverside Walk. The park service allows you to hike upstream as far as Big Springs which includes the Wall Street section. It is a long walk to get that far however. The advantage is that you can hike as far as you have the time and energy for, and then turn back. Also, the most difficult hiking is beyond Wall Street. This is by far the best option for families with younger children or people who are not that outdoor experienced and want a taste of the canyon. The disadvantage is going up-canyon, against the current and with gaining elevation. Weaker hikers are not likely to reach Wall Street.
Photo, above right. Lower end of Zion Narrows. Bottom-up hikers can easily reach this point.
Hiking the Zion Narrows - Trip Narrative
Guide to Hiking the Zion Narrows