The Narrows is another name for the North Fork of the Virgin River and it is probably the most legendary hike in Zion. National Geographic’s Adventure Magazine rated hiking the Narrows number five in its list of America’s best 100 adventures. It is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon with walls a thousand feet tall and the river sometimes just twenty to thirty feet wide. The most dramatic section of the Narrows is known as “Wall Street” for good reason.
There are 3 basic ways to hike the Narrows in Zion National Park. Which route you choose will dictate what type of clothing, gear, and supplies you need to carry. The 3 routes are:
- Bottom up, starting at the Temple of Sinawava- You can hike as far as Big Spring and this route does not require a permit. Doing the hike this way allows you to see some of the most spectacular and narrowest parts of the canyon. You can hike a short distance and then turn around or you can hike as far as Big Spring, a strenuous, ten-mile round trip, all-day adventure.
- Top down, from Chamberlain’s Ranch as an overnight- You will hike sixteen miles downstream over two days, entering the park soon after starting the hike and then exiting at the Temple of Sinawava. This option requires a permit and a shuttle to the start of the hike outside the park at Chamberlain’s Ranch.
- Top down, from Chamberlain’s Ranch as a thru hike (1 day)- This is the option I chose to do. This is basically the same as #2 above, except you must complete the hike in a day and it also requires a permit and a shuttle to the start of the hike outside the park at Chamberlain’s Ranch.
There are a few reasons I chose the route I did, which is arguably the most challenging of the three options. The first reason is that I like challenges. This option had those aplenty, between the cold water, the slippery rocks, and the very tight timeline for me to make it to the shuttle stop in time to get a park shuttle back to my car. Another reason I chose this route is because I was doing it alone, and if I had opted to camp overnight, I would have had to carry a LOT more weight and gear and that was super unattractive to me. Finally, I chose it because I wanted to maximize my time in the park and minimize my exposure to crowds. The top down route is very remote and I knew it would be much less crowded than the extremely popular bottom up route and I would get to see parts of the park that the majority of people never get to see.
I was fortunate enough to obtain a permit ahead of time through the reservation system. Because I was traveling there in October, I don’t think it was a competitive as it would have been in the summer months to get a permit. I had also gotten a permit for Subway which I gave up since I wouldn’t be using it, so I can definitely say October is probably a good month to plan either of those hikes if you are looking for a last minute trip and need permits.
As I prepped for The Narrows, I did a ton of research. I read as many threads, trip reports, and blogs as I could about the hike. I also kept a close eye on the Zion National Park site for updates, closures, etc. Unfortunately, one week before my hike, a hiker died in a flash flood in The Narrows. It was a sobering reminder of the power of Mother Nature. I was committed to abandoning my plans if park officials felt there was any threat of flash floods, and it is important to mentally prepare yourself for that possibility. Yes, it would be disappointing, but you will live to hike another day.
One of my biggest considerations was what to wear for thru hiking The Narrows. Pretty consistently the information I was finding recommended wearing a dry suit and canyoneering boots (you can rent both from local outfitters), especially in October, when water temps were dropping rapidly. I weighed all my options carefully, and decided against using that gear. I knew I had to move quickly to make the trek in the time I had and I felt like the heavy boots and drag on the dry suit would slow me down considerably. I knew there was no way around getting wet and that the water would be cold (it was around 55 degrees), so my plan became to wear as little clothing as possible to minimize cold wet fabric on my skin.The air temp was forecast to be in the low 70’s, so I felt like I would normally be comfortable in the clothing I chose at that temperature. But in order to be safe, I also knew I would need to carry dry, warm clothing and shoes in case I found myself in a survival situation. I packed a compressible down jacket and dry shirt, fleece lined leggings, and down camp booties in a dry bag in my pack. I also had extra socks, a hat, gloves, and a sturdy emergency bivy. I used polarized sunglasses which can really help with visibility when walking through water. I wore Keen Marshall trail sneakers and neoprene socks, a hiking skirt, and various layers (all quick drying) on top. Everyone else I saw had on the rental outfit which made me second guess my choice a bit. But it was a decision I had made after talking with other knowledgeable people (mostly Mike), checking weather, and knowing my hiking style and my own limits.
Food was also a concern, since I wouldn’t have a lot of time to stop to eat, so things I could eat on the fly were what I packed. Peanut M&Ms and Skittles kept my spirits and energy up throughout the hike. They were easy to stash in an easy to reach pocket of my pack and I could pop them by the handful. I also had beef jerky, some Clif bars, dried fruit, and other snacks. I packed enough calories to sustain me if I should find myself stuck in the wilderness overnight. I carried a 3L hydration bladder since I did not want to have to carry any water filtration equipment. On the ride to Chamberlain’s Ranch, I had a power bar, some other snacks, and 32 ounces of Gatorade. I started out the day well hydrated and fueled with food, which helped to keep me from getting behind the hunger/thirst curve.
Other than food & water, my phone & camera, and my spare clothing, the only other thing I was carrying in my pack was my First Aid/Emergency kit. In there I had the first aid basics, a head lamp, extra batteries for the headlamp, waterproof matches, and a package of hand warmers. I carried hiking poles, and could not have done the hike without them. You can also rent a walking stick, but I really preferred the option to have 2 poles instead of just one. It’s a decision I still stand behind.
I carried a day pack and all my stuff was in color coded dry sacks inside. I carried a small dry sack that I clipped to the chest strap of my pack so I could easily access the things (mostly food!) inside without having to stop and take off my pack frequently. I carried my phone in a waterproof case that had a neck strap and a double ziplock closure. That worked great, as I could still use it to take pics without always taking it out of the case.
I had to go to the Ranger Station a day before my hike to pick up my permit. After a debriefing by the ranger, I was given a bag to be used in case I needed to pack out any #2 waste (because of the proximity to water, this hike is “leave no trace” in every sense of the word!). The next morning, I got on a shuttle from Zion Adventure Company at zero dark thirty to begin the long ride to the trailhead at Chamberlain’s Ranch. It was a crazy ride and you definitely need 4WD with LOTS of clearance to get there. I saw literally hundreds of mule deer on the way, but no big horn sheep. When you get to the trailhead, there’s a nice privy to use which was a happy surprise. The trail starts out going through pastureland and the river starts as a trickle. Once you start to get your feet wet, you will remain wet for the rest of the hike.
From Zion Adventures “Starting from the top, this hike takes you on an eighteen million-year journey through geologic time. From open pasture lands on top of the plateau, the river slowly slices into the Earth, sinking deeper and deeper below the stone walls on either side. Gradually, the shorelines grow smaller and smaller, the walls grow taller and taller, and you find yourself in a grand, enormous hallway of beautifully carved stone. It is truly like being in an Indiana Jones movie. The drama continues for miles, as corner after corner reveals more surprises and wonders of this unique and magical place.” I can say that this hike has also been described as “walking on bowling balls” and that is pretty accurate. It is mentally exhausting to have to literally think about about every single step you take. But the natural beauty is definitely worth the torture!
I met a great couple (Clint and Rhonda) who were also thru hiking that day, they had a lot more experience than I did and they were a wealth of knowledge. The husband confided that his wife made him rent the dry suit and that if it were up to him, he’d be doing the “less is more” approach that I took as well. While we split up soon after we got the the start of the Virgin River, I caught up to them at The Grotto and we hiked the rest of the way out together. After what seemed like many miles alone in the river, it was nice to have some other people around to talk to and problem solve with. There was one particular area where the water was pretty deep, and a fallen log seemed a legit way to avoid a true “swim”. If I had been by myself, I’m not sure I would have tried the log option, but with others around to provide some moral support, it was an easy choice and saved me a really cold swim.
At the end of the hike, I still had close to 2L of water left & lots of food. I quickly changed into warm dry clothes (“OMG, you brought camp booties? Brilliant!” were the words of Clint when he saw what I was putting on my feet) and I was very comfortable as I headed to the shuttle at the Temple of Sinawava.
All in all, I wouldn’t have changed anything about my preparation, planning, or execution of the hike. My clothing and gear choices worked exactly as I expected, and I managed to catch the next to last shuttle of the day! Then I just had a short ride until I had enough service to call a very nervous Mike and my dad to let them know I was safe.
Some helpful links for planning:
Have you hiked The Narrows? What route did you take and what were your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!