Have you ever hiked in a river? I don’t mean a stream or river crossing, I mean an actual hike in a river flowing through a massive slot canyon. The Narrows is the most well-known slot canyon in Zion National Park and possibly throughout the southwest. And no wonder: thousand-foot high walls of rock surround you on both sides as you hike in the cold waters of the Wild and Scenic Virgin River. It truly is an amazing experience like no other.
We started our hike on a warm July morning following a ranger talk about the Virgin River and the Narrows for our junior ranger badges. Like most visitors, we began at the Temple of Sinawava and hiked down the mile-long Riverside Walk trail. This portion of the trail is fully paved, and is a pleasant and green walk. It is wheelchair and stroller accessible. Beyond that, there is no trail but what the Virgin River itself created. For the adventure to continue, you must enter the water.
My kids, like they always do, heedlessly run into cold rushing waters without concern for safety. Or hypothermia. Even in late July, the water was cold. I was surprised by the temperature at first, but got over that initial shock quickly and hiked on. After all, adventure awaited, and I had never hiked in a river before. The hike itself wasn’t too difficult, although we had to be careful of the slippery rocks and occasional deep pools. I remember falling a few times, but didn’t sustain any injuries other than a bruised ankle when I stupidly jumped from a rock into one of the deeper pools. The kids loved being in the water, and so two hours of hiking before lunch went pretty quickly. After lunch we went a bit further upstream, and instead of heading into Wall Street, the iconic mile of canyon where the walls narrow to just 20 feet, we headed east into Orderville Canyon.
We didn’t go very far, but this part of the trek was really cool. It was significantly less trafficked than the main Narrows ‘trail,’ and there were deeper pools and boulders that the kids liked to climb and slide on. There were a few areas where we were able to swim, as the water was up to chest deep on me. This was where I bruised my ankle, but this was also where we had the most fun. It was a truly memorable experience. The kids were sad to have to leave, but we still had the four miles or so to get back to the shuttle stop, so we eventually had to depart. At least we had the fun of staying in the water on the hike back. And as soon as we sat down on the shuttle in the late afternoon, Sami tuckered out. It had been a full day of adventuring.
Some things to consider:
The Narrows is just one of many slot canyons in Zion National Park. Most require permits and technical canyoneering experience. There are classes available through companies based around the national park.
Be sure to check current conditions before heading to the park, and heed the warnings of the National Weather Service and park officials. Flash floods are no joke and the risk is real. A flash flood can occur when it is sunny and pretty at Zion if there’s a storm happening upstream. There is very little warning, and if flooding occurs, there is no safe place within the canyon. There have been deaths as a result of flash flooding; less than two months after our visit in 2015, seven people died when a flash flood inundated Keyhole Canyon within Zion. Please adventure, but adventure safely. The park will close the Narrows if flash flooding is expected or the river’s rate of flow is over 150 cubic feet per second.
I do not advise jumping or diving into the pools. The water isn’t very clear and you can’t see the bottom or other obstacles. I had the kids sliding into them especially when they were playing in Orderville Canyon. Unfortunately I did not heed my own advice and made the mistake of jumping off a boulder into one of the pools. I hit my ankle pretty hard on the rocks below and was worried at first that I had broken it, which would have been a disaster with how far up we were. Fortunately it just turned out to be a nasty-looking knot and a cautionary tale. I know it could have been much worse.
Please note that the hike into Orderville Canyon is restricted to those with permits. The actual Orderville hike is a technical slot canyon hike described as being good for beginning canyoneers. We did not go very far as the obstacles increased fairly rapidly as we went further into the canyon. To do Orderville right, there are a limited number of permits that can be reserved through the online permit system.
Closed toe shoes are a must for walking on the slippery rocks comfortably. We brought water shoes that are suitable for hikes, and those worked really well. I still use mine years later for our water adventures here in California.
Bring your essentials: water, trail snacks, small first aid kit, sunscreen, whistle, and flashlight. I used gallon-sized zipped bags to keep the water out. We took our phones with us, though I don’t remember there being a signal within the Narrows. Those we also kept in zipped baggies. What we did keep handy was our GoPro, and on that we filmed our epic adventure. For this hike I definitely recommend a GoPro or other water resistant camera. You’ll hopefully want to look back on this experience.
Our trip to Zion National Park is one we look back on with fondness, lots of laughs, and a desire to repeat. We probably will on one of our many trips to Utah. Happy trails!
Source information comes from the National Park Website.
Photos by the Haas family