The Virgin River begins just below Brian Head, UT and then carves a dramatic canyon through the western portion of the Colorado Plateau. This is the highlight feature of Zion National Park. The Virgin’s upper canyon is referred to as the Narrows. Hiking the Narrows top down is a popular attraction for those seeking adventure. Zion’s Narrows are commonly done in two days, but that requires a sometimes challenging to get bivi permit. It also means you’ll be carrying bivi gear which you might fall in the river with. The day trip (16 miles) takes most parties between 9 and 11.5 hours. We were able to do in just under nine hours our first try. It was a long day hiking down the river in a beautiful canyon. I’m not sure where else you’d get a similar experience. The hardest thing for us was the endless hours of walking on slippery rocks in the river. This slipping around pulverized our feet and worked the stability muscles in our legs. The last couple miles were painful. Aside from the length, and these mentioned issues, the narrows is not a very strenuous day. The descent is very gentle so the only thing taking your breath away may be the current or the scenery.
- Take the shuttle service – It’s a long bumpy ride up to the beginning of the narrows. The shuttles are very reasonably priced and it’s not a drive you need to do twice. Here is a link to shuttle information.
- Rent a hiking pole – I had trouble with my collapsible hiking pole collapsing on me and I just gave up and put it on my backpack. I guess the narrows destroys these types of poles as well. The ones you rent are made of wood and it’s unlikely you’ll break them. You’ll want a hiking pole for sure as the current is strong in places. Hiking pole rental information.
- Wear sturdy shoes – we wore running sneakers and our feet were destroyed. Some more sturdy footwear would be better. The canyoneering shoes are popular and can be rented, especially in cooler temps. I think even stiffer light hikers would have been a big improvement. Pretty much everything you might want for the narrows can be rented at the Zion Adventure Company, the Zion Mountain School or other local outfitters.
- Hike on the road – For the first couple of miles, you will have the option of hiking along a dirt road or in the river. Take the road option. You’ll have your share of hiking in the river for the rest of the day. The time you’ll make up in this section will save you from getting out at dark.
- Hike on the trails – you can make much better time hiking on the trails alongside the river whenever possible. You will be constantly crossing the river to do this.
- Don’t bother exploring the side canyons – I’m sure the side canyons are beautiful, but isn’t 9-11 hrs of exploring a canyon in a day plenty? Just keep moving.
- Look for the camp sites and side canyons to measure your progress – It can be difficult to monitor your progress. The camp sites are marked and numbered so these are easy to match up to your map to see where you are. The side canyons are not marked, so they are a little tougher to tell which one is which.
- Extra water – we brought 3L/100oz (the large size camelback) each of water and that was enough for us to get down the canyon with in 100-degree temps. The canyon is cool, so you won’t burn through too much water. If you need extra, plan on getting it from deep creek or one of the springs toward the latter half of the day. The Virgin River can be silty and cattle graze at the headwaters. Use some sort of water purification method to treat your water. A camelback is recommended, as you won’t have to stop to drink.
- Take care of yourself – The narrows is a long hike, and would feel much longer with a twisted ankle. There are no escapes. Remember to eat throughout the day. Keep food handy so you can snack and hike at the same time. It’s not a “normal” hike either. Walking on slippery rocks for so many hours uses many stabalization muscles you don’t normally use.
- Bring a dry bag – Take a light pack, preferably a dry bag, but you can hold the pack above your head in the deeper water if need be. At 75 cfs we encountered water up to chest level, but swimming was not required. Outdoor Research’s DryComp Ridge Sack worked perfectly.
There you have it. Go experience Zion. It’s a beautiful place.