Have you ever wanted to hike and swim through a desert river, into a mysterious slot canyon, to crystal-clear waterfalls? That’s exactly what it’s like to go hiking the Narrows in Zion National Park.
The Virgin River Narrows is a section of river that cuts through 1,500 feet of red rocks on each side. Visitors to Zion can explore this and the surrounding slot canyons on a moderate “trail” — by which I mean, you’ll be in the water the whole time. The hike is totally unique, and you’ll come away with a new appreciation of what it means for Zion to be “an oasis in the desert.”
Since the Narrows hike requires you to get wet, it requires a bit more preparation than your typical day on the trail. In this post I’ll walk you through everything you need to plan the perfect bottom-up Narrows hike!
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- 1 Hiking the Narrows: Quick facts
- 2 What does a “bottom-up Narrows hike” mean?
- 3 River levels and flash floods
- 4 Best time to hike the Narrows in Zion National Park
- 5 Clothing, gear rentals, and other waterproofing considerations
- 6 Cyanobacteria blooms in the Virgin River
- 7 Getting to the Narrows trailhead
- 8 On the Narrows hiking trail
- 9 Is hiking the Narrows worth it?
- 10 A few other random tips for hiking the Narrows
Hiking the Narrows: Quick facts
Distance: 10 miles if you go all the way to Big Spring
Elevation gain: 350 feet
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous, depending on river levels and how far you go
Time to hike: As long as you want, up to 9 hours for the whole thing.
Starting point: Temple of Sinawava, Shuttle Stop #9
Access: Take the Zion Canyon shuttle (it’s free!) or bike/walk eight miles each way
Best time to go: April-June, on the warmest day you can
There are two route options for hiking the Narrows. You can start at the top of the canyon and thru-hike the whole thing, or you can start at the bottom and hike as far as you want (up to Big Spring). The former is known as “top down” and the latter is called “bottom up”.
The top-down route is 16 miles long. It can be done as a day hike or an overnight backpacking trip. Either way you need a permit and a commercial shuttle service or two cars to get you to the starting point. The main advantage to hiking top-down is you’ll escape the crowds for the first half.
The vast majority of people who hike the Narrows in Zion do the bottom-up route. This is a day hike, and it does not require a permit. It begins from a shuttle stop so it’s logistically easier (and cheaper!). You can just show up and hike!
Due to a toxic cyanobacteria bloom, the park was not issuing top-down permits when I visited. So I did the bottom-up hike all the way to Big Spring, passing Wall Street (the … um … slot – y – est part? that’s a word, right?) on the way. It was plenty of walking in the river for my taste.
River levels and flash floods
Since you’ll have to content with the river for your entire hike, water levels can make a big difference in difficulty. You can check the flow rate here. It’s also posted at the Visitor Center and most local outfitters.
Water levels are measured in cubic feet per second. To help you visualize it, imagine each CFS is a basketball coming down the river. So a flow rate of 60 CFS = 60 basketballs coming at you every second.
In drought conditions, it’s not unusual for the flow rate to be as low as 25 CFS. (When I hiked in May that was about what it was.) During summer monsoon season, the level can skyrocket. When the river flows at greater than 150 cubic feet per second, the National Park Service closes the bottom-up Narrows route.
The Narrows’ slot canyon environment makes it an extremely dangerous place to be in the event of a flash flood. Check at the Visitor Center for the latest flood reports before heading out.
Zion doesn’t close canyons unless there is an active flash flood warning in the area — sometimes minutes before a storm hits, by which point you’re already in big trouble. So be sure to proactively check flash flood projections, not just whether there’s an active warning. And don’t count on a visible storm in the area either. Storms anywhere in the region — often dozens of miles away — can cause dangerous floods in the slot canyons.
Best time to hike the Narrows in Zion National Park
Unlike pretty much every other hike in southern Utah, the ideal time to hike the Narrows is on the hottest day you can manage. The canyon will be much cooler than the sunny areas outside. But more importantly, the water is absolutely frigid.
The hike is open year-round, and true cold-lovers may not mind it in January (with a full wetsuit). When I hiked on a 90-degree May day, the water temperature was only in the 50’s. From late September-November and March-early May you’ll want a fleece, neoprene socks and water shoes at a minimum.
The Narrows gets super crowded on nice days. So it’s a good idea to start out as early as you can manage within the constraints of the shuttle system. If you can be on that 6 am shuttle and book it into the canyon, you have a chance of near-solitude.
Additionally, leave yourself plenty of time before the last shuttle out. I visited Zion when you needed a reservation to ride the shuttle. The only time I could get was 11 am. I trail-ran the entire way back from Big Spring, which was miserable, but it got me back to the shuttle line by 6:30 — in time to be on a shuttle by 7:30. A couple folks from my campground left Big Spring at the same time I did, but walked back at a hiking pace. They missed the last shuttle and had to walk the 8 miles back to Springdale.
Clothing, gear rentals, and other waterproofing considerations
The Narrows is not a hike you can do tiptoeing around the wet sections. You’re going to get wet. In fact, you’re going to get soaked, potentially up to chest-level, and so is everything you bring with you.
That means you need some water gear.
Springdale has outdoor shops where you can rent Narrows gear. In winter, a full wetsuit is essential, even for a short hike. In late fall or early spring, you can get away with neoprene pants, socks and shoes. Late spring and early fall hikers will want neoprene socks and water shoes. Only in the peak heat of summer are sandals viable.
You could hike with your own shoes if you don’t mind getting them wet. But the gear rentals are affordable, and the gear is a lot more comfortable than sopping, blister-inducing sneakers.
I rented socks and shoes from Zion Outfitter next to the Visitor Center. They made it easy to reserve online, pick up gear the night before, and drop it off at the end. I got a discount on a second day, which was great for hiking the Subway. And the gear was high-quality.
You’ll also need a dry bag to carry your electronics and food. I have one of these (10 liter) and love it. I’ve dropped it in rivers and oceans probably 50 times and it’s never leaked. I clipped it to the loop on top of my backpack for the Narrows hike — easy and comfortable. You can rent waterproof backpacks from outfitters in town, but buying a dry bag in advance is cheaper and it’s a great hiking/camping accessory anyway.
If you rent gear, you’ll get a wooden walking stick too. If you don’t have your own trekking poles, definitely take it — it helps with balance in the current. But despite what the outfitters say about sticks working better, I really missed my own poles.
Cyanobacteria blooms in the Virgin River
Unfortunately, the Virgin River — the river you hike through on the Narrows trail — is struggling with toxic cyanobacteria.
This bacteria produces toxins that are especially potent for young children and dogs. It can cause symptoms ranging from a mild skin rash, to liver and kidney failure, to death.
The good news is your risk is low if you only have incidental contact with water. Walking through the river while hiking the Narrows is not considered dangerous for adults. It would be wise to cover any open cuts or sores on skin below your chest.
However, it’s much more dangerous to swim in the river. If you ingest bacteria, you are much more likely to experience more dangerous symptoms. Keep your head above water at all times on the Narrows hike.
Additionally, it’s more risky to take children through the Narrows right now. Kids might ingest water if they fall while walking. And they’re more likely to get very ill if exposed.
The Utah state government is monitoring cyanobacteria levels in Zion National Park. You can check the latest updates here.
Getting to the Narrows trailhead
Much like Angels Landing, would-be hikers of the Narrows have only three options to reach the trailhead: walking, cycling or the shuttle.
Walking isn’t a super realistic option for the Narrows. It’s 8 miles each direction from the Visitor Center in Springdale.
Cycling is a good choice if you have your own bike, or are willing to spend $35-90 on a rental. Bikers can get to the trailhead earlier than the shuttle begins, and don’t have to worry as much about missing the last shuttle.
If you are stuck with the shuttle, brace yourself for absurdly long lines — as much as 2 hours on peak weekends. The shuttle ride is an additional 30 minutes. So if you get in line at 6, you could reach the trail as late as 8:30. You must wear a mask on the shuttle, even if you’re vaccinated against COVID-19.
The trailhead is at Stop #9, the Temple of Sinawava. There’s a huge picnic area with water filling stations and restrooms. Use the bathroom here — you won’t have another ecologically-friendly chance for the entire hike.
The first mile of the hike is along the Zion River Walk. This clearly marked, paved trail takes you on an atmospheric stroll through the wide mouth of the canyon. You can walk down to the river in a few sections or lounge in the shade of the surprisingly large trees. It ends at a stairway taking you into the river. It’s a right turn into the Narrows.
On the Narrows hiking trail
The trail begins in the river at the mouth of the canyon. You can’t get lost — just follow the crowds. The water is ankle-deep at this point but it gets deeper quickly.
The first major landmark — which you reach almost immediately — is Mystery Canyon, marked by a 100-foot-tall waterfall. It’ll be on your right. In the afternoon, you can see canyoneers rappel down the cascade as they finish their top-down exploration of the canyon.
After Mystery Canyon, the river deepens — it was up to my waist. You can criss-cross the water and mostly stay on the banks for this section. The current is strong if you stay in the river, so while you won’t have to contend with as many people, it is more challenging to hike.
The next landmark is the turnoff to Orderville Canyon. This very narrow slot appears on your right 0.6 miles after you enter the river. You can hike up to 0.4 miles into the canyon to another waterfall if you want. Going further requires a top-down canyoneering permit.
Orderville is a popular turnaround point. The round-trip hike, including the side trip into the canyon, is three miles. It’ll feel more like five because of the river current and slippery rocks.
The river is really shallow in this area — it was only ankle deep when I was there. You’ll have no trouble walking this section at a decent clip.
If you decide to continue, a short distance later you’ll enter the corridor known as Wall Street. This is where the canyon narrows to just a few feet wide, and the cliffs on both sides extend up 1,000+ feet. The light is best in the middle of the day for the full effect. It’s often 20 degrees cooler here than in the sun!
Wall Street lasts for about a mile, during which you’ll have to walk in the river almost the whole time. The current can be quite swift in places.
Additionally, Wall Street is the first place you’ll hit some deeper sections. The water is knee-deep or deeper for most of this stretch. At times it got up to my waist. There are a few places where you can hop onto dry land to stop for a snack or photos.
The vast majority of Narrows bottom-up hikers turn around early on Wall Street for about a 4-mile round-trip hike. There is one waist-deep section that thins out the crowd pretty effectively! That means if you’re willing to press on, you’ll find much more solitude by the time you get 3 miles from the river entrance.
Beyond Wall Street
Whew, you’ve made it this far — 3 miles from the river entrance, or 4 miles from Temple of Sinawava. Now is where the real fun begins.
Shortly after the end of Wall Street, you will hit the biggest obstacle on your hike. There’s a round boulder in the middle of the river, with a fast-moving current to the left of it. Along the left bank, you’ll run into a deep pool that you’d have to swim.
But don’t worry — there is another way! It’s not immediately obvious though. If you go to the right of the boulder, you’ll see what looks like a dodgy ledge that drops into a deep pool. If you very carefully shimmy around the ledge, you can step into the pool — just a single step — at a point where it’s chest-deep. From here, you should be able to see the bottom of the river. You can spot a place that’s a large step/short jump away, where you can get back to waist-deep level. The rest of the way out of the pool is shallow. If you can snag someone who just came back in the other direction to help guide you, you’ll have an easier time finding the exact spots.
Next, you’ll run into another very deep pool a couple hundred feet up. This one is shallower to the left.
The remainder of the trail goes like this — deep pool or large boulder you can’t scale or current that’s too fast to walk in, alternative route around. You won’t be the only person on this stretch but it’s much less crowded, with a group passing every 5-10 minutes. Ask everyone coming the other way for advice about the trail ahead to anticipate obstacles.
This last mile is the hardest and most time-consuming section. It took me about 90 minutes. If you plan to go this far, don’t even think about it without a dry bag.
Finally, 4 miles after entering the river/5 miles after leaving the shuttle, you’ll reach Big Spring. It’s a turquoise pool fed by three waterfalls, surrounded by wildflowers and jungle-green shrubs.
I’ve definitely done hikes where I spend a lot of time on the trail, it’s been super-hyped up, and I end up disappointed at the destination. Big Spring was not one of those hikes. If you think there’s even a chance you can press on through the deep pools to reach it, try.
Despite the crowds on the Narrows hike I shared Big Spring with only one other group. (To be fair, it was late in the day by the time I reached it.) It’s easy to get the photos you want without the crowds of Wall Street and the Mystery Canyon junction.
Stop and relax for a bit, have a snack and drink some water. Then brace yourself for the long hike back.
The return route retraces your steps on the way to Big Spring. You’ll be walking with the current this time, which sounds like it should be easier. But actually it’s hard to keep your balance. I found the return journey more challenging.
With the current flowing in your direction, you can’t really see the bottom of the river well. So gauging depth and viable routes is tough. Try to remember the main obstacles from the way out and the routes you took around them.
The most challenging part is the boulder I mentioned above. Not only do you have to figure out where to step to avoid swimming, but you also have to scramble onto the ledge that you shimmied down to get here. It’s definitely a hands-and-knees endeavor.
Once you hit shallower water you can keep moving at a brisk pace. Finally, you’ll pass Mystery Canyon again and come to the mouth of the canyon. Hop on the Zion River Walk and stroll the final mile back to the shuttle line.
Overall, the return trip from Big Spring took me 2 hours.
Is hiking the Narrows worth it?
Okay, brace yourself — I’m about to share an unpopular opinion.
I did not enjoy hiking the Narrows very much.
I found the crowds to be claustrophobic. Wall Street didn’t live up to the hype for me, and Orderville Canyon was too mobbed for me to even get in.
I think I’d be more enamored with this hike if I’d had more time. I had to rush on the way back — literally running most of the way — and I slipped a few times. My water shoes were not designed to be trail runners, so I got an overuse injury in a foot muscle. I barely stopped for food the entire way to save time (hello, hanger). Instead of my normal happy post-hike chill time, I was running all over Springdale returning my gear and trying to shove as much food in my mouth as possible, as fast as possible. (Oh and I hiked the Watchman trail at sunrise so this was a 16-mile day on 5 hours of sleep.)
I also did the Subway the day before I hiked the Narrows. The Subway was one of my favorite hikes ever. The scenery was similar, but just … so much better. I had almost the whole hike to myself. The rock scrambling was fun. In comparison, the Narrows was anticlimactic.
However — and this is a big, big however — Big Spring made the entire Narrows hike worth it. I’m a sucker for waterfalls anyway, but the final destination of the Narrows trail was one of the most beautiful little alcoves I’ve seen, not just in Zion, but anywhere.
So would I recommend hiking the Narrows bottom-up? If you can’t do one of the permitted canyon hikes in Zion, the Narrows is unequivocally worth it, even if you turn around at Orderville Canyon. It’s also a good summer hike when the trails on land are too exposed and hot. And if you’re looking for a trail where you can hike less and play in the river more, it’s perfect.
But for folks hiking the Subway or other quieter canyons, the Narrows is only worth it if you think you can get all the way to Big Spring.
Of course this is just one woman’s opinion, and the Narrows is one of the most beloved hikes in Zion National Park. So read someone else’s perspective before crossing it off your list.
A few other random tips for hiking the Narrows
- You need at least 3 liters of water for the hike to Big Spring, or 2 liters for a shorter hike.
- Due to cyanobacteria and human waste contamination, it’s not safe to drink water — even treated water — from the river. There is no safe place to fill up between the trailhead and Big Spring.
- On that note, pack out absolutely all waste.
- Pets are not allowed on the Narrows hike, or any unpaved trails in Zion National Park.
- The shuttle line to leave Temple of Sinawava is about an hour long in the evenings.
- Hiking in the river is not easy! You barely gain any elevation on this hike, but I felt like I’d climbed at least 2,000 feet afterwards.
- Oscar’s Cafe is a great spot for a post-hike meal.
- If you aren’t staying in Springdale, you’ll need to park on the street — the Visitor Center lot often fills up by 6 am. It’s all paid parking.
- Zion entrance fees are $35 for a car, $30 for a motorcycle, or $20 for an individual for up to 7 days. If you plan on visiting multiple parks on a Utah road trip, buy an America the Beautiful pass for $80. Skip the lines at the park gates and order it online in advance (just leave time for them to mail it to you).
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