In addition to Angel’s Landing, The Narrows is one of the most popular hikes in Zion National Park. Although the first mile of the hike is on a paved trail along the bank of the Virgin River, the rest is directly in the water or on the narrow sandbars along the edge.
It’s a unique hike for sure, wading through the river with canyon walls rising up 1,500 feet on either side of you. It’s also a challenging hike, with the degree of difficulty depending on the volume of water, as deeper water adds to the effort required to both remain upright and keep moving forward.
Pro tip: A walking stick is enormously helpful in keeping your balance. The rocks can be slippery and the water is moving fast; having an extra point of contact with the ground and giving yourself something to lean on as the water tries to push you over can make all the difference. If you rent other gear (highly recommended, more on that later), a walking stick is included. You can also bring your own, although the sturdy, actual-stick kind are less likely to break in the river than narrow trekking poles.
There are two ways to hike The Narrows. The top-down route is a 16-mile, one-way overnight trip that requires a permit. The bottom-up hike is much more popular, does not require a permit, and can be done for as little or as long as you want (since it’s an out-and-back hike). However you do it, be prepared for slow-going. It took us six hours to cover six miles.
Another thing to remember when preparing for this hike is that you will primarily be 1) in the shade and 2) in the water. That means you will be much cooler than you would be doing hikes in other parts of the park and should plan accordingly. I highly recommend renting the appropriate gear to keep warm, although certainly many people we saw on the hike were in shorts and t-shirts (and were shivering).
We rented our gear from Zion Outfitter, located in the plaza where the last Springdale shuttle stops and the first Zion shuttle picks up. Gear rents out fast! It was extra fast when we were there because it was Memorial Day weekend and there was already a huge line of people waiting when the store opened at 7am. All the best gear was gone within 15 minutes. We were told that even on more regular days, they are sold out by around 9am.
You have a few different options for gear. Most people seemed to opt for dry suits (which, appropriately, keep you dry) but some people did go with wet suits (in which you will get wet but stay much warmer than if you were in regular clothes). Not being particularly tall, we all went with the dry suit overalls, which would allow us to wade through water nearly up to our armpits before it would get into our suits. The pants alone weren’t going to be quite enough coverage for us, as some part of the river were more than waist-deep. Some people also rented dry suit jackets, which pretty much protect you from anything. Each outfit also came with neoprene socks to keep your feet warm and special water sneakers, which have very solid ankle support and grippy tread to help you keep your balance on the rocks. These are way better than wearing regular shoes, as hiking boots or tennis shoes would get very heavy when wet and most water shoes do not offer much in the way of support.
One thing we didn’t rent that we probably should have was a waterproof backpack. We ended up not carrying packs because we didn’t realize how long the hike would take and, as a result, did not have much food with us, which was a bummer.
Common Sense Reminder: This is not a hike for young children. Waist-high water on an adult can be neck deep or worse for a kid, plus most kids don’t have the weight or coordination to navigate through fast moving water. And please, don’t bring a baby backpack. If you slip, that kid is going to be downriver before you know what happened. We saw tons of terrified kids being carried out of the river by wobbly adults because they pushed too far upriver and conditions just became unmanageable. Teenagers can probably handle this hike, but for anyone younger, take them on a different hike or let them play in the river along the first mile of the trail (the paved part), as there are many places to get to the water in safer conditions.
Safety Reminder: Flash floods are no joke. They are extremely dangerous and can seriously injure or kill hikers who get trapped in the canyon. It’s not just the water you have to worry about either. Flash floods bring with them enormous amounts of debris, including large rocks and logs, that can do real damage if they hit you. Flash floods can happen even when the sky is blue overhead, as the water is coming from storms happening somewhere else. Be sure to check with the gear shops, information centers, rangers, and/or the sign at the start of the hike to make sure flash floods are not expected before you get in the river.
The Narrows is an incredible hike and well worth the effort, but to get the most out of it I do recommend a bit of planning. Once you’re in the river, passing waterfalls and navigating the mini-rapids like a pro, you won’t even mind that you had to get up so early. Bottom line: get gear, stay warm, be smart, and bring lunch. It’ll be a hike to remember.