In Zion National Park in Utah, “The Narrows” is a trail that changes as you hike. It changes you too.
The Narrows is often called one of the world’s best slot canyon hikes. Some say it’s one of the best hikes, period. I don’t know if it’s the best, but it’s sure unique. How many hikes do you know of that change beneath your feet? How many could kill you?
This trail is about 16 miles long, right through the middle of the Virgin River in Springdale, Utah. Alongside the river, canyon walls reach up to 1,000 feet tall. Once you are on the trail, the only way out is through or back. Neither option is as easy as it sounds.
The canyon is 20-feet wide in some spots, and the water deepens, so you must wade or swim. The unpredictability of the river makes this hike ever-changing. Its difficulty level fluctuates with the whim of the river. Some have called it easy. Others would never say that.
Why Hike The Narrows
I believe sometimes the trails we choose also chose us. And it’s never about the trail. It’s who we become on them.
Each of us, when we see the path ahead of us, has a choice. There are always easier trails. We don’t need to pick the difficult ones, but they’re often the most unique, exclusive, and life-changing.
You can't compare The Narrows to Everest (except for the crowds), but the sentiment applies. It’s not an easy trial. Skipping it would be understandable for any number of reasons. And yet, we don’t skip it.
We Can’t Skip It
There aren’t many rivers that you can hike through. There are even fewer in slot canyons surrounded by 1,000-foot walls without an outlet for over 16 miles.
The Narrows is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon. This gorge is one of the most popular hikes in Zion National Park. Crowds stand in line for hours and flood onto the trail during peak hours. That alone might make you want to skip it, but can you?
Since there is no “trail,” a hike through The Narrows requires getting your feet and knees and hips wet. It doesn’t stop the Zion hiker, sights set on this particular prize.
I usually hike solo, but The Narrows made me nervous. With good reason. Lucky for me, on this hike, I had a partner.
My friend Erica and I rented special water hiking gear and got up at 5 am to face the trail or whatever we were facing.
You take a shuttle to the trailhead. First, there is a 1-mile concrete path alongside the river. Following it to its end, you’ll find The Narrows. There you keep walking into the water and the canyon.
Many people don’t go very far. Depending on your reasons, you don’t need to. Within a few steps of entering the water, you’re already in another world.
Immediately your feet are submerged, shoes wet, and your perspective shifted. The canyon rises alongside, and you see you’re at the bottom of a crack in the earth.
Because much of Zion is bare rock that does not absorb water, The Narrows is prone to flash flooding. During storms, runoff is channeled into the Narrows. It’s rare, but if there were a storm, the water levels in The Narrows would rise instantly.
The park warns that when storms occur, hikers are often stranded, injured and killed. More than a dozen people have died in the park in recent years on other hikes. Still, The Narrows hasn’t seen death since 1961. Then four boy scouts and their scoutmaster died during a flash flood.
The force of the water would be unmanageable for even the best swimmers.
The Virgin River Trail
The river trail is rocky to an extreme compared to other hiking. The rocks are various sizes, from pebbles to baseballs to boulders. Many are slippery, and navigating them takes diligence, patience and persistence.
Navigating the crowd of people hiking alongside you is a new complexity. Everyone is fighting for position, the best path, the easiest passage. Hikers struggle and many fall.
As we made our way, using our hiking sticks to help us balance, it was difficult to keep our eyes down. The canyon walls reached up toward the sky around us, making us smaller than we realized.
The canyon walls were hard granite, dark browns, reds and greys. Some were covered in greenery, and others with water flowing down.
The walls are foreboding. Craning your neck back to see their end, you accept that as you walk further, the only way out is back the way you came. There will be miles until the next outlet.
Many hikers go just five miles to a section called Big Spring before turning around. Any further requires a permit. Because pushing through the water is more difficult than walking on land, these five miles feel longer. Five miles in means you must walk five miles back out.
About an hour in, we saw a steady stream you could barely call a waterfall running down the canyon wall. Severe drought in the region has diminished many water features. They call this marker Mystery Falls.
Soon after that, we came to a confluence many refer to as the Subway. There another canyon intersects the trail off to the right. It won’t get you out of the canyon any sooner unless you’ve come with climbing gear.
After that, the canyon begins to squeeze. The space between the walls narrows to just 20-feet wide. It goes on for a distance this way, in the section called Wall Street. The water rose to our waists. We forged ahead.
The park is diligent about ensuring hikers know the danger and keep a keen eye on the weather. They have a rating system for flooding marked throughout the park and at the trailhead. Nobody hikes into the canyon oblivious.
The signs say: “Today’s flash flooding is: “not expected,” “possible,” “probable,” or “expected.”
Most people hike The Narrows in the late spring and summer. Then the water tends to be warmest and the level drops. But, this is also the time of year that storms appear quickly.
The night before our hike, the park rated the warning level as “probable.” It was lowered to “possible” by the time we hiked into the canyon. Still, we kept an eye on the clouds above us and paid attention to the flood warning signs.
Despite the crowds of people that hiked with us, the canyon got all the attention. Instead of feeling frustrated with the crowding, we were grateful to share this rare, fantastic hike with many people. There was a sense of camaraderie and shared experience. The further you go, the fewer people are on the trail.
The river and canyon twisted and turned, and every few hundred feet, the canyon revealed a new feature. The water went from ankle to waist-deep. A few sections were possible to walk along a rocky bank and get out of the water for a while. But, you were still dripping wet.
When the river runs below 70 cubic feet per second, walking is moderately difficult, with knee to waist-deep levels on the slippery and uneven river bottom. If the current goes above 70, walking against it becomes much harder. The water can be chest-deep. If the flow goes to over 150, rangers close the trail.
We were surprised by the difficulty of walking against the current and took frequent breaks along the trail, finding giant boulders to sit on. Once, while sitting on boulders, with water up to our knees, we ate the snacks we’d brought and stared up at the rock walls around us. It was the only time I’d even eaten while sitting in a river.
But the terrain isn’t the only danger. Despite being surrounded by water, you can’t drink it. Harmful cyanotoxins are in the Virgin River system, so you must carry all that you will drink or have a water filter. We hoped we’d brought enough and measured amounts throughout our trek to ensure we’d have enough to get back.
In the end, just hundreds of feet shy of reaching or goal, Erica fell and banged her knee and shin. The fall left a dent and a bump and appearing bruise, so we immediately turned back. Though it didn’t seem serious, we didn’t know that it wouldn’t start to hurt more in the coming hours. An injury on a trail like The Narrows can be dangerous.
The Narrows: Part II
The trail on our return was not the same trail that we had hiked for the last three hours. As we made our way back the way we came, we forged a path anew – for the water had erased ours.
The water had been crystal clear at our start and was now cloudy, so we could no longer see the rocks at the river bottom. After a few minutes, we noticed it was also a little deeper in spots we’d thought were shallower. In many places, where it was shin-deep, it was now above our knees. Oddly, the river even seemed louder.
We looked up and saw grey clouds had started to form.
The signs of a flash flood are:
- Storms or rain
- Build up of clouds or thunder
- Sudden changes in water clarity
- Floating debris
- Increasing noise of water up the canyon
I wasn’t worried about an actual flood occurring, as it hasn’t rained in this part of Utah in months. But I’m no fool.
Now, going with the current, our pace was quicker. The water that once pushed us back now forced us forward. The waterfall flowed harder, the river louder, the sight to the river bottom obscured.
Still, as we neared the trailhead again, we saw many people entering the river and heading into the canyon.
But that is the draw of The Narrows. We come from far and wide to see it, be in it, conquer it—this rare thing.
Two days after our hike Zion did have flash flooding and They closed The Narrows. Pictures of rushing water wear fearsome. It’s not the kind of thing you can swim through. And that’s the thing. It’s like a roller coaster, or a jump from an airplane, playing with fire.
It can be safe, but it’s risky. It’s a risky, rare, beautiful thing. How could you leave something like that unconquered? Those are the things that change you.
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