17.3 miles (plus 38 miles by car)
day 1: 6 1/2 hours
day 2: 6 hours
Elevations: 1,410 ft. loss
• Chamberlain Ranch Trailhead (start): 5,830 ft.
• Temple of Sinawava: 4,420 ft.
Trail: Except for a few miles at the beginning and the end of this hike there is no trail. You will be wading in the North Fork of the Virgin River most of the time, so be sure to wear wettable boots. Sandals and sneakers are not recommended. During the dry season the water is usually no more than knee deep, but it can get much deeper.
Season: Summer to mid-fall. It is imperative to check with the Park Service before beginning this hike. For safety reasons access to the Zion Narrows is strictly regulated and permits are required, even for day hikers. The best times of year are midsummer, after the spring runoff has subsided, and early fall. Thunder storms are more frequent in late summer; hence there is a greater danger of flash floods at that time. For current conditions call the Visitor Center, Zion National Park, at (801) 772-3256.
Vicinity: Zion National Park
This is probably the best known hike in Utah. The watery North Fork Virgin River Canyon offers a welcome respite from Southern Utah’s hot summer weather, and the scenery within the canyon is truly spectacular. There are only about three months of the year, however, when conditions are suitable for the hike, and a fair amount of planning is required for a successful trip.
The most important consideration is the weather. Flash floods are a constant danger in narrow desert canyons like the Zion Narrows, and you shouldn’t begin the narrows hike unless the forecast is good. The North Fork Virgin River drains several hundred square miles, and during a thunder storm the water level inside the canyon can rise several feet in a matter of minutes. At least five hikers have already drown in the Zion Narrows after being caught in flash floods, and because of this danger the Park Service no longer allows hikers to spend more than one night on the river. Also, it will not issue permits to walk the route before the 3:00 p.m. weather report is issued the day before the hike begins.
Another point to consider is the popularity of this hike and the limited camping facilities. There are only 12 allowed camp sites within the canyon, and they are filled almost every night during the summer. The camp sites are assigned on a first-come-first-served basis beginning at 3:00 p.m. each day, so if you want to be assured of getting an overnight permit you should be at the Visitor Center by at least 1:00 p.m. the day before your hike. The sites are assigned according to your group size. Most of the sites will accommodate 4 to 6 people, but only one site is large enough for the maximum group size of 12 people. In addition to the overnight permits, the Park Service also hands out up to 80 permits each afternoon for day hikes through the narrows.
Cross the North Fork Virgin River at the car parking area on Chamberlain’s Ranch and continue following the jeep road on foot above the south side of the river. This is a beautiful hiking area with rolling hills, scattered trees and large grassy fields along the river, but bear in mind that it is all private property, accessible to hikers only by prior agreement with the owners. You won’t actually be on National Park Service land for nearly seven miles. The owners have requested that hikers not camp on their land and not walk across their fields or disturb their cattle. If the ranchers’ private property is not respected there could come a day when hikers are no longer allowed access into this area, so please follow the rules.
After walking 2.5 miles along the jeep road you will come to Bulloch’s Cabin, an old abandoned homestead on the south side of the road. Remarkably, the cabin is still in reasonably good condition. There are also a few pieces of old farming machinery lying about the area. The road finally ends 0.3 mile beyond Bulloch’s Cabin, and a trail continues along the river. Soon the river begins its descent into the canyon which you will follow all the way to the end of the hike.
The North Fork Canyon is a canyon full of surprises, and for the rest of the day you can count on being awed and inspired over and over again. Frequently the canyon will appear to end at the base of an impenetrable cliff a hundred feet ahead, but it always turns at the last minute to find a way around the obstacle. Often you will see large trees and other debris that have been washed into the canyon from previous flash floods. But the way around these obstructions is usually easy and very little scrambling is necessary. Because of the large number of hikers that pass through the canyon the easiest route is generally well defined.
You will come to the first long stretch of really good canyon narrows near the park boundary, about three miles after you first enter the canyon. The canyon rim at this point is 800 feet above the streambed, and the walls at the bottom are often no more than fifteen feet apart. The first campsite, Maple Camp, is also located in this area, at a well marked location on the left shore about 8 feet above the water.
The next point of interest in the canyon is a small waterfall. About 1.6 miles below Maple Camp the stream suddenly plunges over a 20-foot dam in the canyon floor. Occasionally a daring hiker will take off his backpack and jump over the fall into the pool below, but to do so is foolhardy. First of all it is impossible to see what rocks might lie below the boiling water, and second, it is hard to imagine a more inconvenient place to sustain an injury. Don’t take the chance. There is an easy way around the waterfall on the south side of the canyon.
Deep Creek joins the North Fork at a wide confluence 0.8 miles below the waterfall. Beyond this point you will notice a large change in the flow rate of the river; about two thirds of the water flowing through the Zion Narrows comes from Deep Creek. This canyon offers a popular side trip and you may want to spend some time exploring-especially if your assigned campsite is the Deep Creek Camp, located at the confluence.
The other ten campsites are all located in the next 2.5 miles downstream from Deep Creek. Unfortunately the Park Service does not allow hikers to stipulate which site they want, but if I were given the opportunity to pick one I would probably choose the Kolob Creek Camp, 0.9 mile below Deep Creek. This campsite is located on a high shaded bench, just south of the Kolob Creek confluence. The site is very pretty, but what makes it especially attractive is its proximity to Kolob Canyon-the most interesting of all the Zion Narrows side canyons. If you have a few extra hours to spend exploring on your way through the narrows this is a good place to spend it. Kolob Canyon is one of the best examples in Utah of a deep, narrow slot canyon.
The next side canyon you will pass is Goose Creek Canyon, which merges into Zion Canyon 1.3 miles below Kolob Creek. Goose Creek also provides a good opportunity for side trips. It is a wider canyon than Kolob, with more vegetation in the bottom. Goose Creek joins the North Fork on the west side of the river near campsite number 10, the Alcove Camp.
Below Goose Creek you will pass the last two campsites before coming to Big Spring, about 45 minutes away. Big Spring is a large gushing spring that cascades out of the cliff face 10 feet above the river. It is the most dramatic spring you will see on this hike, but between here and the end of the trail you can count on seeing many other smaller springs. This stretch of river passes through the geologic boundary between the Navajo Sandstone and the Kayenta Formation. The Navajo Sandstone is a porous rock with microscopic spaces between the constituent particles of sand that allow water to seep down from the plateaus above, while the Kayenta Formation contains layers of clay and mudstone that effectively halt the water’s downward penetration. When the water reaches the Kayenta Formation hydrostatic pressure from above pushes it out into the canyons where it is seen as spring water.
Big Spring also marks the beginning of the two-mile section of canyon commonly known as the Zion Narrows. This part of the canyon is distinguished by its sheer thousand-foot walls that rise above the river with little or no sandy shore between. There is no high ground here; hence it is not a place you would want to be during a storm. Under certain conditions the water can rise very quickly, and people have died in the past from flash floods in this section of the canyon. When no storms are imminent, however, the danger is small. Just use common sense and don’t enter the narrows if the sky looks like rain.
About the time you reach the mouth of Orderville Canyon, 2.3 miles below Big Spring, the Zion Narrows widens again and you will find a well-used trail to follow on the sandy shore of the river. Also at this point you will begin to see day hikers from the Temple of Sinawava-hundreds of them. The remaining 2.7 miles of trail, from Orderville Canyon to the road, is the most popular part of Zion Canyon, and on a typical summer afternoon you will pass more than a thousand people splashing in the water along this stretch of the canyon. Finally, for the last mile you will be walking on the Gateway to the Narrows Trail, a paved trail leading back to the congested parking lot at the once serene Temple of Sinawava.