From a distance it's a mysterious light-filled passage between two mountains of rock, an inviting gorge that beckons you to explore what's around the next bend. Though you'll be excited to see what comes next, the watery trail requires slow going. It's well worth the wait. Hiking the Zion Narrows, a 16-mile (26-kilometer) stretch of the Virgin River where it passes through the upper reaches of Zion Canyon in Utah's Zion National Park, is a wonderland of natural beauty. With towering perpendicular walls adorned with hanging gardens and set above streams of turquoise waters, Zion Narrows is a masterpiece set in stone.
Relatively few humans throughout time have appreciated the amazing beauty of Zion Narrows, mainly because its rocky terrain makes it difficult to reach. Native Americans have called the region home for at least 8,000 years, but European Americans only began exploring here in the late 18th century [source: National Park Service]. By the middle of the 19th century, Brigham Young led followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) to the areas, and soon Mormon homesteads were scattered along the banks of the Virgin River [source: National Park Service]. They are also responsible for its name. Originally called Mukuntuweap, the early Mormon homesteaders adopted the name Zion, which means "place of refuge" [source: Zion National Park]. By the early 20th century, roads and railways finally made the region accessible to tourists on a large scale.
Zion Canyon and the surrounding area was designated a national park in 1919 [source: National Park Service]. Since then, visitation to the park has increased steadily. Zion National Park is a now a tourist mecca, and Zion Narrows is its Times Square. In 2000, hiking the Narrows ranked No. 5 on National Geographic's list of America's best 100 adventures. In the next sections, we explore what makes it such a spectacular destination.
Zion Narrows: Trail Maps
Hikers in Zion Narrows are all headed to the same slender slot canyon – hence the name "Narrows" -- but there are a few different options for getting there. Because the trail to the Narrows is essentially the river, much of the journey is spent submerged in water, which may be knee or chest deep in various sections. Though the journey varies based on weather conditions and the river's water level, hikers should plan to swim at least brief portions of the journey. This isn't a problem for most visitors to the Narrows, assuming they know how to swim. The most popular time for hiking in Zion Narrows is between June and August, when the cool waters of the Virgin River offer welcome relief from the blazing summer sun.
The quickest and easiest way to reach the Narrows is to hike from the bottom up beginning at the Temple of Sinawava, which is located at the end of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive [source: American Southwest]. Hikers reach the Temple of Sinawava by shuttle bus from the visitor's center, and then take an easy footpath called Riverside Walk for about one mile (1.6 kilometers) before meeting the Virgin River [source: Utah Travel Industry]. The "bottom up" trail is ideal for those who want a round-trip day hike to "Wall Street," a particularly picturesque stretch of the trail where the canyon narrows to a mere 25 to 30 feet (7.6 to 9 meters) wide [source: Zion Adventures].
You can also reach Zion Narrows by hiking from the top down starting from Chamberlain's Ranch [source: Utah Travel Industry]. Note that this is a difficult trail meant for experienced hikers in good physical condition. For those up to the challenge, it's more than worth the effort. The "top down" trail is the best way to take in all the spectacular scenery that Zion Narrows has to offer. It is a hike through geologic time where you can see 18 million years of our planet's history set in stone. If choosing this trail, consider an overnight stay. The canyon is beautiful by starlight.
Note that "top-down" hikes require a permit, while "bottom-up" hikes do not. Permits are also based on the water flow in the Narrows. None will be issued when flow rates are above 120 cubic feet per second, so be sure to check conditions before you go [source: Climb Utah].
No matter which trail you decide to take into the Narrows, there are several important considerations for maximizing your hiking experience, including several "must-see" features and a few pitfalls to avoid. We explore these in the next section.
Zion Narrows: Hiking the Narrows
There are plenty of hiking adventures in the world that offer stunning views and pristine environments, but Zion Narrows is a beauty among beauties. Whether you're on a leisurely day hike, a pulse-pounding top-down descent, or an overnight backpacking adventure, be sure to stop and appreciate the many amazing features the Narrows have to offer.
At the start of the "bottom-up" hike – the most popular hike through the Narrows – the walls of the canyon are about a quarter of a mile (402 meters) wide, but soon narrow to less than 30 feet (9 meters) wide in some places [source: National Park Service]. Hikers are sometimes so focused on the river beneath them that they forget to look up and take in the majesty of the perpendicular sandstone walls towering above them at 2,000 feet (609 meters) in some places. When hiking the narrows, be sure to wear water shoes. They'll help you navigate the slippery rocks so you can focus on the view.
There is definitely more to Zion Narrows than rocks and water. The Virgin River forms an area within Zion Canyon that is surprisingly lush with trees and plants considering the nearby arid Badlands. Among the most photographed elements of the Narrows are its hanging gardens, where wildflowers, ferns, and mosses jut out from the rocks high above the canyon floor. Visitors to the Zion Narrows may also spot a variety of wild animals, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and the California condor [source: National Park Service].
Keep in mind that when hiking the Narrows, there are serious risks, particularly along the more difficult stretches of trail on the "top-down" approach. Hikers should stay on the established trails and resist the urge to jump into pools of water from any distance while hiking. Hikers should be aware that they tackle the Narrows at their own risk, as rescue or medical assistance could be a long time coming to much of the trail. Hikers must also be aware of their impact on the pristine environment, packing out absolutely everything they bring in.
The Zion Narrows is a safe and spectacular outdoor adventure as long as you take a few basic precautions and observe a few practical rules. So far, our tips and recommendations have centered on able-bodied adults, but kids can also have a safe and fun time in the Narrows. That is, assuming parents keep in mind a few important points, which we discuss in the next section.
Zion Narrows: Hiking with Children
Hiking the Zion Narrows can be a fantastic family vacation, particularly for older kids. There are no specific height or skill requirements for children hiking in the Narrows, but most recommendations suggest that "bottom up" day hikes are appropriate for kids at least 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall [source: Utah Travel Industry]. On the other hand, every kid is different and parents should assess whether a child is strong enough to manage a hike that includes several hours submerged in fast-moving water.
Another important consideration for kids in Zion Narrows is swimming skill. On average, adult hikers spend about 60 percent of their time submerged to the knees in the Virgin River and occasionally have to swim short distances. Kids who are tall and strong enough to handle hiking in Zion Narrows should also be able to swim on their own.
Parents should check the weather advisories at the park before they set out on a hike with children. Flash flooding can occur without warning in the canyon, even when skies are blue, but weather advisories can help gauge the risk. When hiking, you should also be aware of changes in the water. If it suddenly becomes cloudy or the level rises noticeably in a short time, you may be in the midst of a flash flood. If so, seek higher ground immediately [source: National Park Service].
Zion Narrows is not without an element of danger, and that's probably part of its allure. But as long as parents are cautious in the Narrows, this can be one of the greatest and most memorable hiking trips you can do with your kids. There is nothing more satisfying than being among nature's most awe-inspiring creations, and Zion Narrows ranks among the most spectacular.
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