Zion National Park: Hiking the Narrows

While horseback riding in Bryce Canyon, I got to chatting with another mom who had just come from Zion National Park. As luck would have it, we were headed to Zion, too–that afternoon, in fact–so I asked her for suggestions. Her one and only piece of advice?

Hike the Narrows.

“If you do only one hike in Zion,” she said, “make it the Narrows.” I’d read about the Narrows prior to our trip but had decided the hike would be too challenging for our youngest, who was only six at the time. I told the friendly mom that we planned to do the Riverside Walk instead, a one mile loop that leads to the mouth of the Narrows. “No,” she insisted, “your kids will be fine. Trust me: you need to do the Narrows.”

I listened with fascination as she told me about the outfitter her family had rented neoprene socks and hiking sticks from. I asked her questions about the water depth and temperature. Were there natural stopping points, or was it all river, all the way? Would we able to get the full effect even if we were only able to hike 3 or 4 miles in? (Spoiler alert: a resounding “yes” is the answer to both.) She reassured me that hiking the Narrows–even if it meant not seeing as much of the park as we’d previously planned–would be the single best decision we could make.

She was right. One-hundred percent.

We entered Zion National Park via scenic Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, a truly beautiful stretch of highway. The view of Zion upon exiting the tunnels reminded me of Tunnel View in Yosemite Valley–a striking and metaphorical passage from the ordinary world into paradise.

We pulled into a parking area between the two tunnels to hike Canyon Overlook Trail, an easy to moderate 1 mile hike. Parents should keep an eye on small children here as some sections of the trail are narrow and exposed. The views at the end are incomparable.IMG_20140619_142038

Hiking Canyon Overlook Trail, Zion National Park
View from the top, Canyon Overlook Trail, Zion National Park

We also stopped at Checkerboard Mesa before driving the winding road to the Visitor Center. With our Junior Ranger packets in hand and newfound plans to hike the Narrows, we had but a few hours left to make it to Zion Adventure Company to rent our gear! Luckily, Zion Adventure Company was located just a few minutes from the park entrance. For $14 each, we were able to rent hiking sticks and neoprene socks. We opted to use our own footwear for the Narrows, but the company also offers a $23 warm water rental package that includes canyoneering shoes in addition to the stick and socks. Note that all rentals require you to view a 10 minute Narrows Safety video.

We caught the Zion shuttle to Sinawava Temple bright and early the next morning. The 45-minute drive brought us to the Riverside Walk we’d originally planned. Half a mile along this paved trail brought us to the beginning of the Narrows Trail, which is where the real fun began.

Temple of Sinawava, Zion National Park
Beginning of the Narrows, Zion National Park

Walking upstream though the Virgin River was unlike anything we’d ever done before. We watched lush moss-covered rocks give way to intricately carved, towering canyon walls. For all the people traversing the trail with sunscreen and the like, the water itself appeared unsullied and clear. Stones and pebbles marked a colorful path beneath the river’s surface. We stopped often to admire the “weeping walls” and the interplay of light and shadows along the narrow canyon walls.

Hiking the Narrows, Zion National Park
A “weeping wall” in the Narrows, Zion National Park

The kids had a blast–this hike was simultaneously more challenging and a hundred times more memorable than any hike they’d done before. At times, the water levels found our youngest chest-deep in icy water, but he took the dunking in stride. All three enjoyed the challenge of navigating the current and slippery riverbed rock. My husband took to pointing out “rock maps” to help our youngest find the shallowest path through the river. He shouted out rock colors or shapes to follow, a routine our son loved.

Taking a break, the Narrows, Zion National Park
The Narrows, Zion National Park
On the way back to the trailhead, the Narrows, Zion National Park

For those considering this hike with children, there are many natural resting spots–some along sandy beach-like areas and others along rocky coves. Also, because it’s an out-and-back trail, you can venture as far as you have time (or legs!) for and easily retrace your steps back. We found it took us much longer going up-river than down, though I’m unsure whether this had more to do with the current, the initial cold (we started the hike at 8 am, pre-canyon sun), or our frequent stops to admire the scenery. All told, we hiked a little over 7 hours, 6.5 miles total, stopping for crackers, salami, and cheese several hundred yards into the Park Avenue/Narrows stretch of the trail. There is a closer turnaround point about a half mile earlier (2.5 miles from the mouth of the canyon; this where the canyon branches off into Orderville), but we had our heart set on seeing the Park Avenue section, so we pressed on. The kids never complained once; in fact, it was the kids who insisted we continue on.

The next day, we managed to squeeze in a hike to Upper Emerald Pool (about 3 hours roundtrip), a quick stop at Court of the Patriarchs, and ice cream at Zion Lodge before bidding a sad goodbye to this beautiful park.

Our Narrows hike might have taken an entire day, but the quality and depth of the experience imparted such meaning to our time at Zion that I wouldn’t have had it any other way. As a very wise mom once told me: Trust me. You need to do the Narrows.

Tell me: Have you visited this amazing park? What’s your favorite Zion memory?

Tips for Families Hiking the Narrows:

  • Dry sacks: You’ll want these to keep your electronic devices and belongings dry. In a pinch, Ziploc freezer bags will do (this is what we used), but you may want to consider renting a dry bag from your Narrows outfitter.
  • Rent Appropriate Gear: You could attempt this hike without neoprene socks, but I wouldn’t advise it, especially for children. We were cold with neoprene socks and can’t imagine how uncomfortable it would’ve been to attempt this hike without them.
  • Leave No Trace: No digging catholes along the sandy beach areas; all waste must be packed out. It would be wise to come prepared with plastic bags and wipes.
  • Just do it!: Even if you can only walk a mile up the Narrows, your experience will be well worth the effort. Hiking in allows you to experience this slot canyon in a way that viewing it from the mouth of the canyon cannot.
  • The Gift of Time: Allow yourself enough time to enjoy and embrace the experience. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to block off an entire day for this hike, especially if you have small children who may not be able to move as quickly. The hiking will be slow-going but incredibly rewarding.


9 thoughts on “Zion National Park: Hiking the Narrows”

  1. Last time I was in Zion, it had just rained (snowed in the higher elevations), so the river was too high and the Narrows were closed off. But the waterfalls cascading over the sides of the canyon and a much-more-gorgeous-than-usual Upper Emerald Pool made up for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can imagine how beautiful the waterfalls and Upper Emerald Pool must have been. The Emerald Pools were pretty dry when we went, but still quite pretty. I’ve heard fantastic things about Angel’s Landing, too. Looking at the narrow chain sections near the top on You Tube makes me a little nervous (!), but I’d definitely give it a go if we were ever in Zion again. Thanks so much for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

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