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.


Getting Kids Excited About the National Parks

When it comes to the National Parks, I’m a true believer. Spectacular hikes, solitude, and wilderness–count me sold! The kids, however, sometimes require a little more coaxing to see the light. Parents, take heart; it is possible to engender a love for the natural world in our kids. It just takes a little time…and a little know-how.

  1. Monkey see, monkey do
    • Kids mimic their parents. If you’re excited about nature, kids can’t help but be excited, too. Two years ago, my then-6-year-old son was less than enthusiastic about hiking the Grand Canyon. Who could blame him, especially when the rest of his classmates had Disney summer getaways planned? Every night, we talked up California condors and Cenozoic rock; every day, he talked about California Screamin’ and Tomorrowland. It seemed we were at an impasse. And yet, that same little boy who would’ve traded Splash Mountain for Grand Canyon in a heartbeat surprised all of us when, upon his first glimpse of the canyon at Mather Point, declared with all the reverence and solemnity a six-year-old can muster, “This canyon isn’t boring at all, Mom!”IMG_20140610_073655Which brings us to point number two…
  2. You don’t need to sell the parks for your kids to buy them
    • The parks are majestic, wondrous places. Kids can feel that, too. Give them the chance to experience the magic by setting basic ground rules. It may seem counterintuitive, but rules set the foundation for every adventure to come. One rule we always adopt? No electronics upon entering park. On the hours-long drive to the park? The kids can Nintendo DS and iPad to their heart’s content. But once we’re in the park? Don’t even think about it. No one grumbles because they know the rules from the start. And without electronics in-hand, kids naturally tune into their surroundings…and each other.
  3. Give them a goal to work toward
    • Our kids love earning junior ranger badges. I can’t extol the virtues of the junior ranger program enough! Each activity booklet is chock full of learning experiences that engage all the senses. Even the most reluctant learner can’t help but enjoy themselves–and come away with a wealth of knowledge to boot. Many junior ranger programs also require attending a junior ranger talk. Not to fear: park rangers go out of their way to make their talks engaging and fun. At Dinosaur National Monument, our park ranger had the kids blow up balloons and encouraged them to release air in…shall we say…as flatulent a manner as possible in order to simulate dinosaur gaseous emissions. It was a blast.IMG_20150626_105247
  4. Stamp away
    • A National Parks passport book is a fun and affordable way to commemorate your national park visits. You can buy them online and in most Visitor Information Centers. Stamp centers are free and located inside most Visitor Information Center. The kids love collecting stamps for each region of the nation. Here’s a relatively unknown tip (or maybe it was just unknown to me): parks with multiple visitor centers sometimes have different stamps, so be sure to visit and collect them all!
  5. Journal away
    •  Reading and writing probably sound like the exact opposite of fun, but no one was more surprised than me by how much our kids love travel journaling. With a fancy notebook and paint set in tow, they can be as creative as they like in documenting their time in the parks. The kids stash ephemera in the pockets, and their words and pictures offer irreplaceable windows into their thoughts and feelings. This, from my 6-year-old’s travel journal after hiking to Delicate Arch: “Today we hiked to Delicate Arch. It was awesome! And I did not die!” Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up.IMG_20140614_090606
    • Be sure to stamp your journal at the Visitor Information Center, too! Stamps make for a unique and memorable header in any travel journal.
  6. Be still
    • It can be tempting to race around doing all the things ever. But racing around leaves precious little time to absorb the magic of a place. That’s not to say that visits should be left unplanned; on the contrary, coming from Hawaii, careful planning affords us the opportunity to maximize our time. But within our itinerary, I now try to schedule downtime, knowing that many of our best experiences have often occurred unplanned. Be still. Connect. It’s a mantra I’m learning to embrace with my family.
      Hiking to Double Arch is great. Snoozing under Double Arch? Incomparable.

      7. Be flexible

      • Even the best laid plans can be improved. True story: our Narrows hike in Zion National Park was completely unplanned, entirely impromptu and hands down one of the best hikes we’ve done, ever. When you leave room for the unplanned, you leave room for adventure and excitement. And every kid or parent can tell you–that’s the best kind of recipe for family fun!IMG_20140620_120950