The Narrows: The Only Trail in Zion National Park That Changes as you Hike ⋆ Middle Journey (2022)

In Zion National Park in Utah, “The Narrows” is a trail that changes as you hike. It changes you too. And it might kill you.

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 are dangerous enough to kill you if the weather strikes against 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 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. It depends on the day you attempt it.

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Why Hike The Narrows

I sometimes believe the trails we choose also choose us. And it’s never about the trail. It’s who we become on them. When we see the path ahead of us, each 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.

When asked why he climbed Mt. Everest, the undefeatable mountaineer George Mallory said, “Because it’s there.”

You can’t compare The Narrows to Everest (except for the crowds), but the sentiment applies. It’s not an easy trail. 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. Even fewer are 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, knees, and hips wet. The promise of being wet all day doesn’t stop the Zion hiker, though. Not once she has set her sights on this particular prize.

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Hike Day

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. Our own type of meditation.

You can’t drive to it, so you must take a shuttle to the trailhead. First, there is a one-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. You’re already in another world within a few steps of entering the water.

Immediately your feet are submerged, your shoes wet, and your perspective shifted. The canyon rises alongside, and you see you’re at the bottom of a water-filled crack in the earth.

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Dangerous Conditions

Because much of Zion is bare rock that does not absorb water, The Narrows are 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 hikers are often stranded, injured and killed when storms occur. More than a dozen people have recently died in the park on other hikes. Still, The Narrows hasn’t seen death in a while. In 1961 four boy scouts and their scoutmaster died during a flash flood.

The force of the muddy water would be unmanageable for even the best swimmers. It would pummel you with debris and toss you off the canyon walls before drowning you.

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. This is one of those hikes where a hiking stick or trekking poles are invaluable.

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, keeping our eyes on our footing wasn’t easy. The canyon walls reached up toward the sky around us, making us smaller than we realized. Every few minutes, we stopped and craned our necks backward, smiling.

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. Tipping your head back to see their end, you accept that as you walk further, the only way out is back the way you came. There is no scaling these slick, massive walls. 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. Also, five miles in means you must walk five miles back out.

The Sights

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, we came to a confluence many call 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.

The Narrows

After that, the canyon begins to squeeze. The space between the walls narrows to just 20 feet wide. It goes on for a distance in the Wall Street section. 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.”

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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.

Flood Warning

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.

The canyon got all the attention despite the crowds of people that hiked with us. 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 the canyon revealed a new feature every few hundred feet. The water went from ankle to waist deep. It was possible to walk along a rocky bank in a few sections and get out of the water for a while. But you were still dripping wet.

Walking is tricky when the river runs below 70 cubic feet per second, 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.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported,“In 2015, seven park visitors— six Californians and one Nevadan — were killed when two-thirds of an inch of rain fell in an hour and a flash flood swept through Keyhole Canyon. The group had entered the canyon despite a “probable” flash flood warning that day.”

Trail Difficulty on the Narrows

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 at the rock walls around us. It was the only time I’d ever 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.

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The End

In the end, just hundreds of feet shy of reaching our 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. You need to be able to walk, perhaps quickly, if a storm comes.

The Narrows: Part II

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” That is true of The Narrows.

The trail on our return was not the same one 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. It was now above our knees in many places where it had been shin-deep. Oddly, the river even seemed louder.

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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, as it hadn’t rained in that part of Utah in months. But I’m no fool, and we hiked quickly. Now, going with the current, our pace was faster. The water that once pushed us back now forced us forward. The waterfall flowed harder, the river louder, the sight of 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 had flash flooding, and They closed The Narrows. Pictures of rushing water were fearsome. It’s not the kind of thing you can swim through. And that’s the thing. The Narrows hold the same promise of a roller coaster, a jump from an airplane, or playing with fire.

It can be safe, but it’s risky; this rare, beautiful thing. How could you leave something like that unconquered? Those are the things that change you.

Read more stories about Utah here.

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