Trip Narrative - Hiking the Zion Narrows
This narrative for hiking the Zion Narrows in Zion National Park describes the thru-hike, or top to bottom. This is the one-way downstream trip which starts at Chamberlain's Ranch, northeast of the park, and ends at the Temple of Sinawava in Zion Canyon. For information on how to get to Chamberlain's Ranch, see our guide page.
The start of the hike is in very pastoral range country at a cool 6,150 feet elevation. Here the North Fork of the Virgin River is a mere stream passing through a wide grassy valley with low forested hills on either side. You will likely encounter grazing cattle. This area is private property, and you must follow the dirt road west as it parallels the river from a distance. The trailhead is marked on the right side of the road just as it crosses to the south side of the river, where you will get your feet a little wet right at the start.
Photo, above right. The pastoral scene as the hike starts. Left, the farm road ends about 90 minutes into the hike.
You will reach Bulloch's Cabin (3+ miles) an hour or so from the start of the hike. The cowboy cabin has lost its roof since my last visit ten years ago. The farm road ends a short distance later at the river. A trail continues on the bench (embankment above the river) to the left, still on the south side of the river. It soon reaches the river again, and you must make a crossing. Here on the North Fork, the stream is small, the rocks in the stream are fairly small, and crossings are generally easy.
The river is starting to dig down into the sandstone at this point. There is a distinct channel with earthen bluffs on either side. Soon sandstone cliffs start to rise on either side. The canyon bottom is still fairly open with large benches high above the stream on either side. Due to the elevation, they are forested with pine. These will later give way to oak, maple, cottonwood, etc. In June, wildflowers are abundant. Look for trails on the benches. These cut the bends in the river and give you a break from rock-hopping.
Photo, above right. The canyon walls start to rise after a couple hours of hiking. Below left, one of the narrows on the North Fork.
Soon the canyon walls rise to hundreds of feet above the river as the canyon continues to narrow. After about 3 1/2 to 4 hours you will see a narrow black slot in the wall ahead that looks like the first narrows. However it is only an alcove. The river bends right and does soon arrive at the first narrows (almost 6 miles). This is the first of about seven narrows on the North Fork before the confluence with Deep Creek. These Upper Narrows have walls up to a few hundred feet high and close in a few places to a width of perhaps 12 feet. The walking continues to be quite easy with few obstacles.
There are two sections of narrows before reaching the first designated campsite known as Maple Camp. It is on the south side of the stream and also offers a shady lunch spot. There follows another short section of narrows, and you then arrive at the 12 foot waterfall about 250 yards from the campsite. The waterfall blocks passage. There is an easy bypass along a bench on the left (south) side of the falls.
Photos, right. It is interesting to note the changes in the canyon over time. Above, the waterfall in 1997. Below, in 2007, the waterfall is reduced to a trickle. Also, note the debris.
The photogenic waterfall is a popular place to take a break and take some pictures. There is a pool below the falls which is shallow during low water, and you can approach the falls. Just beyond the falls there is a large rockjam and much debris. Proceed carefully here during periods of high water.
Soon after the falls, you arrive at a fourth section of narrows which offers a dark, spooky, and very narrow stretch. After that, a fifth narrows ends where an enormous boulder has fallen, creating a large pool in the channel. This would pose a challenge during periods of high water. The canyon opens up briefly, and a sixth narrows follows with a nice dark, narrow stretch. Then the seventh and final narrows of the North Fork with an excellent narrow section.
Photos, right. Far right, a very narrow section as it appeared in 1997. Near right, in 2007. Note the new rocks in the streambed.
As you exit the final narrow section, you step into a huge open area which is the confluence with Deep Creek (9 miles). Turn around, and you will see the tiny slot from which you just exited. This is very photogenic when the lighting is right.
The nature of the canyon abruptly changes at the confluence. Deep Creek carries twice as much water as the North Fork. The stream becomes more river-like: wider, deeper, faster flowing, and more difficult to cross. Larger boulders, too. Also, the canyon widens, with more benches. It takes about five hours to reach Deep Creek. Therefore you will arrive around early afternoon with a high sun. The wider canyon continues to Big
Springs which is about 2 1/2 hours from here. It is mostly in the sun, and very warm. The benches are wooded however and offer some relief. During hot weather dehydration is a real risk here, so continue to drink frequently.
The second campsite is at the Deep Creek confluence. The remaining sites are scattered between here and Big Springs. The going is very tedious heading downstream. Mostly in the sun, lots of rock-hopping, and stream crossings requiring effort. A good place to take a break is near campsite four, about a half hour below Deep Creek. It is located high on a bench on the right (west) side, in a grove of shady maple trees.
Photo, right. Open section of canyon between Deep Creek and Big Springs.
Less than an hour past Deep Creek, Kolob Creek comes in from the right, between campsites five and six. You reach the Grotto shortly thereafter. This shallow cave is considered the halfway point of the hike. You should be here about six hours from the start of the hike. It will be another 90 minutes of the same tedious walking before reaching Big Springs (11 miles). You do reach the "spring line" before reaching Big Springs. The river has started cutting through a layer of sandstone which is porous. More and more springs and seeps will appear as you head downstream, swelling the volume of water and making the going more difficult. The park service recommends that you drink no water from the canyon without purifying it first.
Photo, below left. Big Springs.
Beautiful Big Springs marks the end of the warm, tedious section of the canyon but not the end of difficult hiking. It is however an excellent place to cool off and rest before facing the most challenging part of the hike. Note the pretty hanging gardens which are often present at springs. The springs will be about 7 1/2 hours from the start of the hike. Before leaving Big Springs, be aware of the weather. There is no safe high ground between here and below Orderville Canyon, over two hours distant.
South of Big Springs, you quickly enter an excellent section of narrows, deep and dark. In one area, the river completely fills the channel between the walls (knee deep on this trip). Beyond, the canyon opens slightly with some very narrow benches and embankments. This is the most difficult part of the hike. There are numerous obstacles from rockfalls and other debris. There are deep pools and difficult passages. The correct bypass or detour is not always readily apparent. Therefore it is important to be observant and alert here. Choose your route carefully. The alternative is to slog through a deep pool. This may work when the water is low but otherwise you might have to swim for it or go in chest or neck high. This is not a palatable alternative if you are carrying a pack and a camera, as most people do.
Photo, above left, the Narrows below Big Springs. Above right, looking south, the final difficult obstacle before Wall Street.
The final difficult obstacle is shown in the photo, above right. There is a deep pool in front of the rock and to its right. Stay close to the wall on the left (east side)! There is a shallow area (thigh deep on this trip) right against the wall from which you can boost yourself onto the ledge behind the pool. There is a dirty mud hole on the other side but it is not deep.
A short distance beyond this last obstacle, there is a stretch where the river completely and deeply fills the channel. If it is too deep to wade, there is a steep narrow bench on the left side that is very easy to miss and which bypasses the pool. On the other side, you will see the view in the photo at right.
Photo, right, the start of Wall Street looking south. Below, Orderville Canyon, confluence with Virgin River in background.
This marks the start of Wall Street, the tallest and most dramatic stretch of narrows in the canyon. Plan your picture stops carefully because the going continues to be very slow and difficult. There are no obstacles but most of the time the riverbed is filled with large algae-covered cobbles with fast, deep water. There are a few dramatic places where the river fills the channel. These pools could possibly be thigh deep or even more but the bottom is sand which makes for very easy walking.
After this long tedious stretch, there is a slightly open area with some rocky embankments above the water offering easier walking. You then enter the final, most spectacular section of narrows until reaching Orderville Canyon (mile 13.5). It is fascinating to walk a short distance up Orderville which is much more narrow than the Virgin River's gorge. Unfortunately, there are technical obstacles further upstream which most people can't bypass.
Beyond Orderville Canyon the canyon gradually widens with more rocky embankments above the water and benches with bypassing trails. This makes the going a little less strenuous if not much faster. You will start to see more and more day hikers coming up from the bottom, and the canyon can become very crowded. It is about an hour to the end of the Riverside Walk, and 20 minutes on the paved trail to the Temple of Sinawava where you can access the park's shuttle bus service.
Hiking the Zion Narrows - Overview
Guide to Hiking the Zion Narrows