Hiking the Narrows | Zion National Park
Written by Brian Callender | Photography by Julie Boyd
In the summer of 2013, Julie and I went to Las Vegas for a wedding that Julie was shooting for a friend’s sister. With an extra day to spare, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity to explore, and we made the drive from Las Vegas to Zion National Park, about 2.5 hours. After a late breakfast at Cracker Barrel, a place Julie had been dying to visit once the decision had been made to visit Utah, we arrived at Zion in the early afternoon.
During the summer, the park implements a shuttle system to cut down on the number of cars that are allowed to drive through the park. We parked our car, hopped on the shuttle, and rode to the end of the line, The Temple of Sinawava. From the shuttle stop, it’s a mile walk down a paved walkway to reach the Virgin River and the starting point for hiking the Narrows.
Despite knowing little about the Narrows at the time, and not being prepared in the slightest, I wanted to do the hike. It was summer after all, and the water would have been a welcome change from the heat we had experienced up to that point on the trip. Logic prevailed, we were not prepared after all, so we decided to head to the Emerald Pools for a quick hike before heading back to Vegas. On our way down from the Emerald Pools hike, Julie sprained her ankle and had to hobble to the trailhead where she waited in pain for the shuttle back to our car and the return drive to our hotel. We left Zion knowing that our first adventure there together left much to be desired and that we would be back again for a better experience.
Fast forward to 2017, and we had booked our trip to Zion and Bryce National Parks as an after Christmas adventure, ready to rewrite old memories. This time we were going to hike the Narrows in winter, and were excited to cross another item off our bucket list.
We had read and heard quite a bit about hiking the Narrows, most recently from Julie’s sister who had done it earlier in the year. Had our trip been during the summer, the warm weather would have only necessitated that we had appropriate footwear to keep our feet relatively dry. But this was a trip during the winter, and even though the temperatures were projected to be mild (40-50 degrees), we knew the water would be cold and needed to plan accordingly.
The night before our hike, we stopped in at the Zion Adventure Company to inquire about renting dry gear. Staff at the store was friendly and informative, letting us know the water temperature and recommended gear to rent. We opted for the dry suit package at $53 per person which included: dry suit, shoes, socks, and walking stick. It was ideal that we were able to pick everything up the night before our hike, so we could arrive at the trailhead early, as they otherwise don’t open until 9:00 a.m. As this was our first time hiking the Narrows, we were given instructions on how to correctly put on the suit and accessories, and were given a few trip about navigating the route.
Mishap at the Trailhead
Julie and I are not morning people, but by necessity (a desire to avoid crowds, and sunrise photos) we push ourselves to get up early. As is especially true for visiting popular hiking trails, it is important to get an early start. This is further emphasized in winter when the days are shorter, and we don’t want to be stuck in a canyon in the dark.
On Thursday morning, we were up at 5:30 a.m., had a good breakfast at our hotel, packed the car up, took some sunrise photos in the park, and then made our way to the trailhead at the Temple of Sinawava. Since it was still early, we were able to easily grab a parking spot and started getting ready. The morning was chilly as the sun doesn’t start to hit the canyon until later in the day, and perhaps the cold was affecting my brain that morning. I slipped my left leg into the dry suit easily and began to put my right leg in and encountered resistance. Baffled as to why I was suddenly struggling with something I had just done successfully ten seconds earlier, I called out to Julie for assistance. Together we forced my leg into the suit and she went back to getting herself ready. The moment I stood up, it immediately hit me that I had royally messed up. I had just forced my leg into the arm of my suit, something we had been explicitly told not to do, and that it would result in a near impossible situation of trying to remove the mistaken limb. I’m here to tell you that this warning is 100% true and such an easy mistake is something that should be avoided at all costs (obviously right?!).
For the next 45 minutes, as Julie and I struggled and pulled to get my leg and heel out of the sleeve, my foot and body began getting cold from sitting on the edge of my car for so long. Between obscenities, I couldn’t believe how stupid I was. I also started to come to the realization that I might have to just cut the suit off and pay the money for a replacement. It was one of the lousiest starts to an adventure I can remember. Zion had once again proven to be a thorn in our sides, and I was ready to give up. But Julie was not ready to forfeit our adventure, and she pulled and pulled at the suit, trying different techniques to widen the fabric enough to get it past my ankle. Finally, with one last valiant effort, she was able to get my leg free! I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more relieved. Despite the serious delay to our morning, and no shortage of people coming and going while we struggled and not checking to see if we were alright, we managed to turn a negative into a positive, suited up and made our way down to the Virgin River.
Hiking the Narrows
Eager to get the bumpy start to our morning behind us, we made a quick pace of the mile-long path, the Riverside Walk, that leads down to the entrance to the Narrows. Because the trail leading to the river is an easy, paved walk, everything from casual tourists to full fledged hikers make the journey. Wearing full dry suits and carrying a wooden walk stick, we certainly garnered our fair share of looks from people we passed along the way. One lady even gasped, “You’re not going into the water? Are you?” as we strolled by her, smiles on faces.
Reaching the river, we had to quickly go against our normal desires to not go into water in clothes and shoes, and step in. While the dry suits keep water completely out, Julie and I both wondered aloud how long our water shoes and socks would hold up before it felt like we were in fact walking through water. That answer was not very long, maybe 30 seconds, but while our feet felt wet, they didn’t feel cold or uncomfortable.
Once we rounded the first corner, we were immediately out of sight of those who come down to the river to take photos and head back. From that point on, the river alternated in depth, depending on which side of the canyon walls we were on. As much as we could, Julie and I tried to stay in the more shallow portions of the river. In winter, it’s best to avoid being fully submerged in ice cold water for as much as possible, while certainly in summer it would be a welcome change from the heat. Before long, I noticed a pattern with the river depths. The more clear the water was, the shallower it was and we could see the rocks, particularly those that resembled bowling balls and needed to be avoided. When the water was deeper, it had more of a milky or cloudy consistency. Those were the areas where you could quickly find yourself in waist deep water, and often faster moving.
One of the nice things about hiking the Narrows is that the end destination is entirely up to you. There are main points of interest that can be used as stopping points, or for the more adventurous you can continue to Big Spring which is five miles one-way. For day hikers like us, Big Spring is the furthest end point, though many, including Julie and I, turn around at Wall Street.
Things we Learned
- While we both expected the hike to be exclusively through the Virgin River, there were a good number of opportunities to walk on land or just get out of the water for a bit. Definitely take advantage of this if you visit in winter whenever possible.
- Rocks are slippery and the water moves faster in certain parts of the river than others. Exercise good judgement and caution when walking through the river. I was a bit cavalier at times and ended up partially in the water twice. Julie was much more cautious and avoided my pitfalls.
- As I mentioned above, pay attention to the parts of the river where the water is murkier and subsequently deeper. It’s better to stay in the more shallow areas whenever possible.
- Walking through water is slow going! Take your time and use the stretches of land to break up the hike.
- But also remember to keep sunset in mind (particularly in winter) so you aren’t returning in the dark. To avoid crowds, start your day early, this will also aid in securing a parking spot.
- A walking stick can be rented through Zion Adventure Company, or if you arrive early enough in the day, free sticks are left at the river’s entrance. It’s definitely worthwhile to have a stick to help with balance, and I often felt like two, or even trekking poles, would have been helpful.
- If you are bringing anything you don’t want to get wet (camera gear, car keys, snacks, etc.), make sure you pack it in a dry sack. If you don’t want to invest in one, you can also rent them through the Zion Adventure Company.
- If you visit in summer, be prepared for crowds, and check the weather ahead of departure for flash floods.
- The only restrooms are at the trailhead, so be sure to go before you head into the canyon (and before you put your drysuit on!).
- Above all else, have fun! Hiking the Narrows is a unique and fun experience, take your time and enjoy it. We had a blast and were happy to cross off one of our bucket-list hikes.
Have you hiked the Narrows before or is it on your bucket list? Let us know in the comments!
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MORE TIPS AND INSPIRATION FROM OUR WINTER ROAD TRIP THROUGH UTAH: