Backpacking the Zion Narrows
A “top-down” backpacking trip in the Zion Narrows, in Utah’s Zion National Park
May 9-10, 2022
On May 8, 2022, Cale Green, Ryan Stassel and I drove into Zion National Park with no plans and few expectations. We were at the tail end of a nine-day Southwest trip that had included backpacking in Escalante, speedboating around Lake Powell, and hiking to Rainbow Bridge. The rest of our group had already flown back to Alaska, but the three of us still had a few days to kill before our flights and we figured we might as well explore a new area. After finding a parking spot at the sprawling Zion National Park Visitor Center complex, we walked up to the information desk to see what was good.
The woman behind the desk helpfully told us about several of Zion’s iconic hikes, including the Narrows. “There’s a sixteen-mile overnight backpacking trip in the Narrows,” she said, “but you guys won’t be doing that.”
I’m not sure why she thought we wouldn’t be doing that. Maybe it was Cale’s leather fanny pack, or maybe the fact that we were asking for advice from the information desk in the first place. In any case, nothing motivates like a challenge so we marched over to the backcountry office to ask about permits. Some people spend years applying for the lottery to backpack the Narrows, but as luck would have it a handful of the reserved walk-up spots were still available. The ranger also seemed skeptical about us (it was the fanny pack, wasn’t it?) but reluctantly issued the permits.
We’d be doing the “top-down” backpacking route in the Narrows. Most people who visit the Narrows do a “bottom-up” out-and-back day hike, starting and ending at the Riverside Walk Trailhead. But “bottom-up” hikers are only allowed to travel about four and a half miles up the canyon, to a small waterfall called Big Spring. By contrast, our “top-down” backpacking permits would allow us to start at the Chamberlain’s Ranch Trailhead and cover a full sixteen-odd miles, including the entire Upper Narrows part of the canyon.
With permits in hand, we rounded up a few last-minute supplies (only fitting for a last-minute plan) and bought tickets online ($50 each) for a private shuttle to take us from the Visitor Center to the Chamberlain’s Ranch Trailhead. The day concluded with a spirited game of cornhole at the Zion Mountain Brewpub.
The next morning we woke up early (at least by the standards of people on vacation), stuffed our sleeping bags into our backpacks, and met the shuttle at the Visitor Center.
Day 1: Chamberlain’s Ranch to Campsite 10
The shuttle washboarded down dirt roads around a series of tall hills, then dropped into a valley and came to a stop at the dusty, nondescript Chamberlain’s Ranch trailhead. The first miles of the Zion Narrows top-down backpacking route cross in and out of private land, requiring the National Parks Service to maintain a complicated set of agreements and easements for hikers. The driver instructed us to cross the creek on a bumpy dirt track and just keep going till we reached the canyon.
The Chamberlain’s Ranch portion of the route was picturesque in the way that much of rural Utah is picturesque. Trees, hills, fences, artificial ponds, sunny meadows and the implication (though not appearance) of livestock. I didn’t take any photos during this leg of the trip but you get the idea.
After passing through a cattle gate, the old road narrowed to singletrack and began jumping in and out of a tiny, clear creek with the incongruously grand title of North Fork Virgin River. The canyon walls pinched down and began rising up around us, and soon we rounded a bend and found ourselves facing a tall, sheer rock wall. Here we go!
From here on out, we would spend the rest of our trip largely walking in the streambed and overshadowed by canyon walls. It is not an exaggeration to say that every bend in the river/trail after this point was beautiful. The Zion Narrows top-down route is a backcountry power ballad that builds to the high notes quickly and then just friggin’ stays there.
In the early afternoon we stopped for lunch under a sandstone overhang. Normally we’d also filter drinking water during a meal break, but Park staff had repeatedly instructed us not to take water from the Virgin River. The multiyear drought affecting the Southwest has allowed cyanobacteria to gain a foothold in the canyon, lacing the water with cyanotoxins that cannot be reliably removed with typical backpacking water filters.
We’d been told that the only place to safely collect water in the Narrows was at Big Spring, much farther down the canyon. Water is heavy, but carrying it in is better than getting sick.
After lunch we continued downstream. The walls grew taller, and taller, and taller. In places the sky became an afterthought–something you’d have to make a point of looking for.
At the backcountry office, the ranger had repeatedly insisted that we rent drysuits or wetsuits (and then asked us to acknowledge that he had told us). But even on a relatively “cool” day like today (70s and sunny), I was glad we’d opted not to. I was happy wearing long underwear tights, which reduce the bite of cold water on bare legs and stay warm when wet. Cale had bought some neoprene socks but soon switched back to wool to avoid blisters. We all hiked in our normal backpacking footwear.
We hadn’t totally eschewed rentals, though. Ryan had grabbed a waterproof backpack and we had all rented wooden walking sticks for $10/day from an outfitter in the park. As a woman who’d just hiked the top-down route had told us while we were waiting in the rental shop line, “you’d be a fool not to bring a walking stick.” Though the sticks weren’t particularly necessary here in the Upper Narrows, I was glad to have mine further down. And even though it felt a little silly to spend $10 to borrow a glorified broom handle, it made much more sense than taking on the risk of snapping or bending an expensive trekking pole.
In mid afternoon we were halted by North Fork Falls, a modest drop created by a log jam. An absurdly convenient path through a fissure on the south side of the river allowed us to circumvent the waterfall.
The portion of the Upper Narrows below North Fork Falls was especially spectacular. The multicolored sandstone walls towering above us were carved with fantastical shapes that looked like the homes of a lost civilization of miniature cave dwellers.
At the confluence of the Virgin River and Deep Creek we found the marker for the first designated campsite. We had a bit of daylight left and decided to poke up Deep Creek. Despite being a mere “creek,” this tributary had at least twice the flow of the Virgin River and a noticeably different character. The deeper pools were pea green and the riverbed was covered in slippery river-smoothed blue and red rocks.
At one point, I climbed onto a sandstone boulder in the middle of the creek only to have the shelf I was standing on shatter and dump me into the river. I wasn’t hurt, but it was a good reminder that sandstone really is just glorified sand.
We were slightly disappointed to find that the Virgin River below the Deep Creek confluence was much more like the latter than the former. The volume of water was significantly greater than anything we’d encountered before, and the footing sometimes required genuine attention.
All of the campsites in the Narrows lie between the Virgin River/Deep Creek confluence and Big Spring. As we walked downriver, it was clear why. In addition to being situated at roughly the halfway point on the top-down route, this part of the Narrows had wooded embankments that made for flat, protected campsites perched safely above the water.
The campsites in the Narrows must occasionally be moved or renumbered, because we reached Campsite 10 earlier than the map on my phone suggested. Cale set up his tent, while Ryan and I just inflated our mats and slept in the open. You can’t hike the Narrows if rain is in the forecast anyway, so ditching the weight and sleeping in the open had seemed sensible while we were packing (I did bring my tent ground sheet to use as a rain cover just in case).
A few mosquitos buzzed lazily around our campsite so I pulled myself fully inside my sleeping bag and fell asleep in a cozy cocoon of down, listening to the white noise of the creek.
Day 2: Campsite 10 to the Riverside Walk Trailhead
Sunrise in the desert often brings an abrupt rush of light and heat that flushes you from your sleeping bag or threatens to broil you alive in your tent. But morning in the Narrows was more like a friendly alarm clock that lets you hit snooze a few times. We ate overpriced oatmeal and shared a can of cold brew while watching the sun struggle to work its way down the canyon walls.
After letting the day warm up a bit we hoisted our packs and headed out.
Soon we came to Big Spring, a small moss-lined waterfall tumbling out of the canyon wall and into the Virgin River. It would have been easy and convenient to filter water if we’d needed it, but we still had plenty so we pressed on.
Not far below Big Spring, we spotted a man in a red jacket hiking up-canyon toward us. Shortly after that we passed a small group, and then another. From here on out we’d end up sharing the canyon with more and more day hikers.
The Narrows below Big Spring was much more dynamic. At times we continued to walk in the rivered, but just as often we wound over banks or picked our way around jumbles of boulders.
During our trip, the flow rate of the Virgin River measured between ~55 and ~68CFS (cubic feet of water per second) at the nearest gauge. That is considered relatively low water for the Narrows. The NPS closes the Narrows to foot traffic when flows exceed 150CFS. Near those flows the river would be charging significantly deeper and faster, and this portion of the hike would require real caution. The boulder gardens and log jams added a nice dose of challenge and interest to this section, but you would not want to be swept into them at higher water.
After navigating the last of the boulders we came to a loosely-defined section of the Narrows called “Wall Street.” I generally dislike it when natural features are named after urban landmarks (can’t we leave the city references behind?) but the name does make sense. The canyon walls here were every bit as looming and sheer as skyscrapers.
At the confluence of Orderville Canyon and the Virgin River the crowds truly exploded in size. At times, the procession of people moving up and down the Narrows actually created minor traffic jams at choke points. Of course, when visiting popular outdoor places it’s always good to keep in mind that old saying, “you aren’t stuck in traffic, you are traffic.” Ultimately, I think the NPS has done an admirable job balancing its mission to provide broad public access via the bottom of the canyon with the goal of keeping longer stretches of the canyon wilder and less-trafficked. It was great having the upper canyon nearly to ourselves. It was also great–albeit in a very different way–to see so many people from around the world getting to enjoy one of North America’s natural wonders.
Eventually, the canyon opened up and we connected with the end of the Riverside Walk trail. At this point we left the riverbed and followed the easy, stroller-friendly trail for a couple miles.
At the large, bustling shuttle bus stop we dropped our packs and waited for a minute or two before catching a ride. During the main season, this road is only open to free park shuttles. We made a few stops before our dropoff at the main Zion Visitor Center.
We joked about swinging by the information desk to let the park staff know that we’d made it back alive, but there were more serious tasks at hand. After returning our rented backpack and walking sticks, we jumped in our car and headed to Oscar’s Cafe. After two days in a very big canyon, a very big beer and very big burger hit the spot.