Hiking The Incredible Narrows at Zion National Park, Utah
“The most thrilling hike I have ever completed.”
The quote above was something I said when I finished hiking The Narrows for the first time. My experiences as a professional photographer, tour guide and adventurer has led me to some pretty incredible places. From trekking in The Peruvian Andes, exploring the Amazon Jungle and conducting interpretive tours at Yellowstone National Park, it would take a special and unique place to impress me. As a professional photographer I can be guilty of focusing on my techniques instead of enjoying my surroundings. The Narrows at Zion National Park is one place where I forgot about photography and relished the experience of exploring a new and truly unique landscape.
To experience the true essence of The Narrows, you need to come prepared. The Narrows is not really a hike, it is more like a ford. Except you won’t be going across the river, you’ll be negotiating your way upstream. This is the bottom-up hike. The 16 mile top-down adventure will be described in a future article. The bottom-up hike begins at the end of the Riverside Walk Trail at the end of the Scenic Drive in Zion Canyon. The Riverside Walk Trail is a mile long and begins at the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop. Once you start The Narrows hike, you will encounter a number of obstacles. The forces of nature created The Narrows and those same forces make it somewhat difficult to endure. First off, you’ll need to rent the right equipment. Slick rocks and boulders underwater and the swift moving current of the Virgin River demands that you are prepared. Water boots specifically designed for river hiking and a large wooden pole for balance and stability are essential tools for working in The Narrows. These items can be rented in nearby Springdale at Zion Outfitter for about $20/day. See link below.
Another precaution is to check with the Zion National Park Visitor Center to see if the Narrows is open and if there is a flash flood danger. Summer monsoons can produce dangerous flash floods. Five people from the same group died in 1961 and two in 1998 from flash floods in The Narrows. The Park Service usually opens the Narrows anytime from mid-June to mid-July. In 2011, The Narrows did not open until mid-July due to above average snowfall during the previous winter. You can check the status at link below.
The classic bottom-up Narrows hike is only 2 miles. But it is not your typical 2-mile hike. It will take you about 2-3 hours to negotiate the 2 miles and about 2 hours to return. I recommend you get an early start to avoid the crowds in the high season. During the summer, temperatures will soar to 100 degrees in Zion Canyon so the Virgin River’s 65 degree F water is most invigorating. In the fall when water temperature dips below 60 degrees, it is recommended you use a dry suit. In some spots, the water level will reach your chest, so you want to store your valuables in some type of waterproof bag. You are not always in the water. There are a number of sandbars along the canyon walls that provide refuge from the rushing water. At the 2 mile mark, you will be surrounded by 2,000 foot canyon walls, aptly named Wall Street. The sun doesn’t shine here but it will be noticeable at the canyon rim above. Shafts of sunlight bounce off the fluted canyon walls producing a variety of hues.
Speaking of photography, it is not easy to shoot The Narrows. A tripod is recommended to capture the low light throughout The Narrows. I also use my tripod as my trekking pole for balance. If you don’t have a tripod, set your camera’s ISO to at least 400 in the darkest areas. A wide-angle lens is a bonus to get the top and bottom of the canyon walls into your frame. Panorama shots can also produce the results you are looking for. It is best to include someone in your shot so we get a sense of scale.
The Narrows hike is not complete if you don’t explore the side canyon, Orderville Canyon at the 1.8 mile mark. Orderville Canyon is one of the major tributaries of the Virgin River Narrows and has equally spectacular scenery. It is as deep, over 1,000 feet in places, but even narrower and is easier to explore in some ways as most of the canyon is dry. The hike is popular although much less traveled than the main narrows so has the added advantage of increased solitude.
Zion National Park is a great destination for hiking. Along with The Narrows, the park offers Angel’s Landing, Observation Point and The Subway. It’s probably why Zion is one of the most photographed national parks in the country.