Northeast of St. George and Springdale in the Zion National Park, the Virgin River Narrows Trail is considered the best hiking in Utah and one of the top ten hikes in the USA. Overall, the Narrows Trail is a 16 mile hike, though 90% of hikers explore only the first 3-4 miles as an out-and-back from the lower end. The Virgin River has carved a spectacular gorge through the Markagunt Plateau in the upper reaches of Zion Canyon. The resulting slot canyon narrows to 20 feet wide in sections and has walls up to 2,000 feet tall. Along the Narrows Trail, you’ll be walking in the shadow of soaring walls, sandstone grottos and hanging gardens.
There isn’t really a marked or maintained trail since the route follows the river bed. About 60% of the hike is spend wading, or even swimming, in the river itself. From the start, you can expect to have wet feet the entire time, and most of the year, the cold water necessitates gators or waterproof pants. With the cold water, hypothermia is a real and constant danger with wetsuits being a necessity from November through May. Moreover, the current can be quite swift at times and the rocks are known to be quite slippery. The Narrows Trail is actually closed when the current exceeds 150cfs. Flash floods are a constant danger as well, so you need to be aware of current weather forecasts for the region. In the Narrows, a flash flood can raise the water level over 30 feet in a matter of minutes.
In light of the cold water and slippery rocks, many hikers rent “river boots” with neoprene cuffs from the outfitters in Springdale. Do not use open or closed toed sandles. It is possible to also rent waterproof wader pants. While the outfitters also rent a single wooden hiking pole, it is highly recommended to have two metal trekking poles for stability on the rocks - you’ll move twice as fast. Pack all this gear in a daypack and put it on only after you reach the water to save your energy. It can be quite warm in the mornings in Springdale, but up at the lower trailhead the temperature coming out of the canyon is much colder, so bring several layers. Do not underestimate the effort of hiking upstream against the current over hundreds of stick rocks. While the river is closed at 150cfs, hiking upstream against 90-100cfs is still quite tough and there will be spots on the lower river from knee to waist deep. About 80cfs would be best.
The most popular section of the Narrows Trail is called Wall Street and starts about 2.5 miles (2 hours) from the lower end at the confluence with Orderville Canyon. The Wall Street section of the Narrows has walls over 1,500 feet and only 22 feet wide. The section is about 1.5 miles long, so the full out-and-back is 8 miles and takes about 6 hours. The lower starting point is at the shuttle stop for Temple Of Sinawava. From the shuttle stop, it is a one mile walk along a paved trail to the start of the slot canyon where you’ll enter the water. After hiking up the river bed for another 1.5 miles, you reach the intersection with Orderville Canyon, which is a popular hike in itself, and this is the start of Wall Street. The Wall Street runs another 1.5 miles up to a pair of large boulders blocking the river. While this is the most “popular” section to hike, it is also extremely crowded. Do not underestimate the size of the crowd (think Disneyland) where you’ll be waiting in line in the river to pass through the narrow more shallow sections. Even on weekdays, it is highly advisable to take the very first shuttle bus up the canyon from the Visitor Center so that you can be one of the first to start hiking up river, especially if you plan to do any photography without hordes of people in the photo. If you make it to the end of Wall Street, on the route back down stream you’ll be greeted by thousands of hikers coming up. The late-morning, mid-day hikers tend to be a “junk-show” with wet cotton clothing, flip-flops and some carrying kids up the slippery cold river.
The entire Narrows Trail is a 16 mile trek with 1,700 feet of elevation change. It is typically attempted from the upstream upper end at Chamberlains Ranch and hiked down to the lower Temple of Sinawava trailhead. While serious hardcore trekkers attempt the hike in a single day (12 hours), most backpackers camp halfway down to truly enjoy the beauty of the canyon. Near the mid-point, there are 12 high water campsites, but keep in mind that all human waste must be packed out via Restop 2 bags. One of the more scenic points along the route is the fern-covered Big Springs. There are paid shuttle services up to the Chamberlain Ranch trailhead.
The upper Chamberlain Ranch trailhead is about a 1.5 hour drive from Zion Canyon along paved and dirt roads. The dirt roads may be closed due to snow, and are impassible for 4WD vehicles when wet. To reach the trailhead from the East Entrance station, head east on SR9 for 2.5 miles. Turn left on paved road for 18 miles. Just across the bridge over the North Fork of The Virgin River, turn left and continue for 0.25 miles to the gate. Continue through the gate (make sure it is closed afterwards) for another 0.5 miles and park before the river crossing. Continue hiking on the road for 3 miles and enter the river where the road ends.
The lower Temple of Sinawava trailhead is only accessible during the day by the Zion National Park shuttle from the Visitor Center, which is located just east of Springdale. Note, there are two shuttle lines operating in the area. First, there is a “Springdale” shuttle servicing the village and ending at the Zion National Park entrance where you can walk across a bridge into the park to pay the hiker entrance fee. Second, after paying the fee, you can walk past the Visitor Center to get in line for the “scenic drive” shuttle service. During most of the year, you have to use the shuttle to enter the park, and the old popular “scenic drive” is only accessible by shuttle. Therefore, this main park shuttle is quite crowded. There are signs near the Visitor Center indicating the waiting times for the huge line up to 1 hour long. The shuttle bus is known to get quite crowded, so make sure to get an early start. Taking the first shuttle of the day up the valley to the Temple Of Sinawava (40 minutes) is highly recommended. After the long shuttle and hike along the paved trail to the start of the river hike, it will already be quite light out when you enter the water.
Overall, Narrows Trail is the 4th most popular hiking trail of all 38 hikes in Utah.