Canyons are inherently risky. Flash floods occur without notice on sunny days. Technical skills & surrounding topography knowledge required yet does not eliminate risk.
Carving the Gorge
The Virgin River has carved a spectacular gorge in the upper reaches of Zion Canyon: 16 miles long, up to 2000 feet deep, and at times only 20-30 feet wide. The Zion Narrows; walking in the shadow of its soaring walls, sandstone grottos, natural springs, and hanging gardens can be an unforgettable wilderness experience.
It is not, however, a trip to be underestimated. Hiking the Zion Narrows means hiking in the Virgin River. At least 60% of the hike is spent wading, walking, and sometimes swimming in the stream. There is no maintained trail; the route is the river. The current is swift, the water is cold, and the rocks underfoot are slippery. Flash flooding and hypothermia are constant dangers. Good planning, proper equipment, and sound judgment are essential for a safe and successful trip. Your safety is your responsibility.
Weather forecasts, flash flood potential ratings, and stream reports are available at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, (435) 772-0170. Permits are not issued when the flow is greater than 120 cubic feet per second.
When to Go: Entering the Narrows is safest when the Virgin River is low, clear, and relatively warm. Conditions change from day to day, and are impossible to predict. Check at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center for the latest weather forecast and possible advisories. Flash floods can occur at any time, but are more common in mid-summer and early fall. From November through May, trips through the Narrows usually require wet or dry suits and special cold-weather preparation.
Day-Hike From the Bottom and Back: This is the easiest way to experience the Narrows. Ride the shuttle to the Temple of Sinawava, walk one mile to the end of the paved Riverside Walk, and begin wading up the river. Almost immediately the views are breathtaking, and each bend of the river brings new delights. There is no formal destination, and you return the same way you came. Many hikers try to reach Orderville Canyon, a tributary creek approximately 2 hours upstream from the end of the paved trail. In the vicinity of Orderville Canyon the Narrows are at perhaps their most majestic. No permit is required for this day-hike. Travel upstream beyond Big Springs requires a permit.
Day-Hike From Top to Bottom: Walking the entire length of the Narrows can be a grueling experience. Under favorable conditions, the 16-mile route takes an average of 12 hours. Even for well-conditioned hikers, this makes for a long and strenuous day. Because the trailhead at Chamberlain's Ranch is a 1 1/2-hour drive from the Temple of Sinawava, either two vehicles or a shuttle is necessary. A backcountry permit is required. Permits may be obtained at either visitor center, on the day before you plan to hike. A maximum of 80 people daily will be granted permits.
Overnight Hike From Top to Bottom: To enjoy the Narrows at a more leisurely pace, some visitors choose to spend a night in the gorge. There are 12 numbered campsites, each located above the high water mark at a different spot along the route. Only one-night stays are allowed. Campsites are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis upon completion of a backcountry permit. Permits may be obtained at either visitor center, the day before the planned hike or until noon on the day the hike begins. Campsite capacity is limited, and only two sites can accommodate groups larger than six.
Waste: With the increase in recreational use along Zion National Park waterways, the National Park Service has introduced a human waste disposal program for overnight users in the Narrows. An environmentally friendly human waste disposal bag, complete with use and disposal instructions, will be provided to all party members with every Narrows overnight permit. The bag is called Restop 2. It is a lightweight, sanitary way to pack out waste. The bag within a bag design and ziplock closure securely contains waste and odor, while the special blend of polymers instantly breaks down waste and turns it into a deodorized gel. The contents of the bag are safe for landfills and may be deposited in the trash. Use of this waste disposal system is strongly encouraged as a means for protecting the Virgin River.
Transportation: If you are hiking the Narrows from top to bottom, there are several ways to arrange transportation.
Commercial shuttle service is available to Chamberlain's Ranch. There is a fee charged per person and seating is limited. Call Zion Canyon Transportation toll free at 1-877-635-5993, Zion Rock and Mountain Guides 435-772-3303 or Red Rock Tours at 435-635-9104
If you have two vehicles, you can shuttle yourself by parking one vehicle at Chamberlain's Ranch and the other at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center.
In either case, at the end of your hike at the Temple of Sinawava, you must catch the Zion Canyon Shuttle back to the visitor center.
Directions to Chamberlain's Ranch: Chamberlain's Ranch is a 1 1/2-hour drive from Zion Canyon, along paved and dirt roads. The dirt roads are passable for normal cars only when dry. When wet, they may be impassable even for 4-wheel-drive vehicles. Snow closes the road in winter. From the park's East Entrance station, drive 2 1/2 miles east on Route 9. Turn left on a paved road and continue 18 miles to a bridge that crosses the North Fork of the Virgin River. Turn left beyond the bridge and drive 1/4 mile to the gate of Chamberlain's Ranch. Please close the gate behind you. Drive 1/2 mile further and park just before the road crosses the river. To begin your hike, cross the river and follow the road for approximately 3 miles. Enter the river at the end of the road. Chamberlain's Ranch is a private ranch outside of Zion National Park. Please respect private property.
Limit: Large groups produce increased impacts on the backcountry. Group size is limited to a maximum of 12 people sharing the same affiliation (school, club, scout troop, family, friends) in the same drainage, route, or backcountry trail on the same day. This is strictly enforced; violators will be cited.
Footwear: Hiking the Narrows is like walking on slippery bowling balls. It requires balancing on algae-coated rocks in the middle of a swiftly flowing river. Sturdy footwear is essential. Hiking boots with good ankle support are best. Sandals, river shoes, and bare feet are not appropriate... they result in twisted ankles and in crushed toes.
Clothing: Even in mid-summer the Narrows is chilly. The water is cold, breezes blow steadily, and very little sunlight penetrates to the canyon floor. Although you'll probably hike in shorts (nylon shorts are best... cotton ones will stay wet), take plenty of extra warm clothing. Clothing made of wool or synthetic fibers provides the best insulation.
Drinking Water: Water in the Virgin River and its springs is not safe to drink untreated. It has passed over rangeland and may be contaminated with an illness-causing bacteria called giardia. Either treat the water you collect by filter, tablets, or by boiling, or carry in all the water you'll need.
Walking Stick: To help maintain your balance, a walking stick is recommended. Hiking the Narrows without one increases your chance of injury and fatigue. Walking sticks usually can be found in an informal depository at the north end of the Riverside Walk or may be purchased in town. Cutting trees or bushes to make a walking stick is strictly prohibited, both in the park and at Chamberlain's Ranch.
Waterproofing: Even the most experienced hikers fall occasionally in the Narrows. It is therefore a good idea to waterproof your belongings. Many hikers line their packs with large plastic garbage bags. Smaller, resealable bags provide extra protection for cameras and other valuables.
Water Depth: Water level varies in the Narrows. Under ideal conditions, when flow is under 70 cubic feet per second, most crossings are around knee-deep. Higher flows mean higher water, a stronger current, and may include wading in waist-deep water. Be prepared to swim. Even when the river is low, chest-deep holes are common.
Note: Chamberlains Ranch is at 5720 feet 37.378 -112.855
Gate Policy: If a gate is closed upon arrival, leave it closed after you go through. If it is open, leave it open. Leaving a closed gate open may put cattle in danger. Closing an open gate may cut them off from water. Please be respectful, leave gates as found.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.