Imagine that the only sound you hear is the flow of a gentle river. You gaze up at the towering red canyon walls. A thick layer of fog hangs overhead, with light barely breaking through. You notice that some snowflakes have managed to fall through the cracks, dissolving in the Virgin River. The water rushes over your feet which are wet yet somehow warm. You constantly assess the river for the path of least resistance – where it’s shallow, or a sandbar to walk on the dirt. Sometimes though, you have to cross right in the thick of it, combating the current in chest-high water. Your dry pants cling to your body as the weight of the water crushes out any excess air. You see the occasional hiker, but for the most part, you are alone.
This post covers my experience hiking The Narrows from the bottom-up in winter. It does not cover the top-down trail and the conditions will be different if you go in a different season.
What is The Narrows and why should I visit?
The Narrows is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon one of the most famous hiking options in Zion National Park. You walk up to 5 miles one-way through a slot canyon floor into the Virgin River itself. It was one of the most unique and incredible hikes I’ve ever done because rather than climbing up and gazing down, I got to be inside a canyon looking up. The beauty and unique nature of this hike cannot be exaggerated.
Is it open year-round?
The Narrows is technically open year-round, but it’s accessibility depends on the rate of river flow. I visited in December- it was even snowing which was so beautiful to see the flakes falling into the canyon floor! The water was 40˚F and river flow was about 97 cubic feet per second. They close The Narrows to hikers when the flow is 150 CFS.
How do I get to The Narrows?
- Get to Zion. Zion National Park is located in southwest Utah. The closest major airport is Las Vegas. I flew to Vegas and then rented a car and drove for under 3 hours to get to the park.
- Use the free shuttles. There’s very limited parking inside Zion, and during busy times the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to private vehicles. Though I expected it to be open to traffic in December, it was closed during holiday break. Instead I hopped on the first leg of the shuttle, which stops at several points in Springdale (the town right outside the park) and ends at the south entrance and Visitors Center. There, I paid my entry fee and then boarded a park shuttle that stops at 9 points of interest. The last stop, Temple of Sinawava, has a gentle Riverside Walk that ends at the entrance to The Narrows.
What are the conditions on the hike?
- Prepare to get wet. You will be walking through the river. In some places, I had to contend with chest-level water. This varies depending on the season and river flow, but water is higher in winter and early spring.
- It’s flat, but strenuous. Don’t be fooled because you’re walking on a canyon floor. I was walking through a strong current on the way out, which takes more energy than a normal hike. Watch out for slippery rocks and sudden dips. There are many sandbanks and shallow sections to give you a break.
- Choose your own adventure. If you hike bottom-up, it’s a maximum of 10 miles round trip. The trail is one way so you can go for as long or as short as you’d like. I went out for 2 hours, had lunch, and turned around.
- You won’t be as cold as you think, even in winter. I was nervous that my feet would freeze given the gear provided, but I was surprisingly comfortable during the hike. Dress as you would for the weather if you weren’t going to walk through a river, rent proper gear, keep moving and you’ll be comfortable.
- Don’t count on using the bathroom. You’ve carefully ziplocked yourself into a rubber suit and there’s minimal cover.
What should I bring on my hike?
- Gear. There’s special equipment for this hike and the winter recommendation is the dry bib package. I was given overalls and bib, Neoprene socks, rubber boots, a hiking stick, and an optional dry jacket. You can rent it at Zion Outfitters right outside the park or in Springdale. The staff was incredibly helpful in showing me how to put it on so that I stay warm and dry.
- Food and water. There is no food available once you leave the Visitor’s Center. Estimate how long you will be hiking and bring enough.
- Camera. I wish I’d brought a waterproof phone pouch for my neck because there were no pockets in the gear and I had to take my phone out of my backpack every time I wanted a shot. It got really annoying, and I didn’t take too many photos as a result.
- Dry bag and/or waterproof backpack. I came across chest-high water in some parts, so your belongings will get wet. Bring some dry gear or risk a soggy lunch…or worse, damaged belongings.
How much does it cost?
- Entry to Zion National Park is $35 for a vehicle for 7 days.
- Gear rental was $45 for the dry bib package plus $10 for the dry top, which I did not regret given the height of the water. The staff can advise on the depth of the water if you’re unsure. There are warmer weather packages so do check what’s recommended for the time of year of your trip. I do not recommend going without gear in the winter. Remember, the water was 40˚F!
What’s there to see down there?
Aside from the pure joy and wonder that comes with walking on a canyon floor through a river? Well ok, there are a few landmarks. First is Orderville Canyon, which you’ll notice because the path branches. I found it about 2 hours into my hike and took a short detour to see where it led and even had lunch in there. Past that is “Wall Street”, known for some of the highest walls and narrowest sections. Honestly I didn’t see much more than a first glimpse because I knew it was time to head back, and I don’t feel like I missed out. I’m not sure I would have recognized Wall Street anyway! If you continue past that, you’ll come to Big Springs, a cluster of small waterfalls where the bottom-up hike ends. This is 5 miles from shore.
Here’s a video to give you a taste…