Hiking the Narrows: Permits and Planning
Hiking the Narrows in Zion National Park is one that should be on every hiker’s bucketlist. With it’s steep canyon walls, turquoise water, secluded camping, and a trail that runs right through the riverbed, it’s one of the most unique trails in the country and certainly one of the best in Southern Utah. Hiking the Narrows, while worth every bit of effort, does take a bit of additional planning. Permits, the time of year, and transportation to the trailhead are all factors that need to be thought out in advance of your hike.
In this Hiking the Narrows Planning Guide, I tell you everything you need to know to get a permit and execute a successful hike through this Zion National Park must-do.
*Already have your permit? Skip to my Zion Narrows Gear Guide. *
••• Hiking the Narrows: The Routes •••
The Narrows is the section of the North Fork of the Virgin River in between Chamberlain Ranch and the Temple of Sinawava, and there are two ways to hike the Narrows.
This is a 16 mile route that can be done as an overnight backpacking trip or a strenuous day hike. Whether backpacking or day hiking, this route requires a permit from the National Park Service. The Top-Down route begins at Chamberlain Ranch and getting there either requires a car shuttle or a shuttle with one of the outfitters in Springdale (more information on transportation is below). The Top-Down Route allows you to explore a larger portion of the canyon and to experience the subtleties of the canyon as it shifts from an open pasture to the deepest and darkest slot canyons that you see in the photos. You will also have the canyon mostly to yourself for the first 2/3 of the hike, encountering very few day hikers. The Top-Down route took us 15 hours in total, spread across two days, and we made numerous stops for swimming, snacks, and photos. With a lighter day pack, you could potentially hike the Top-Down route in as little as 12 hours, but you would need to be on the trail very early in the morning, and you would have very little time to stop and explore. For that reason, unless you are an ultra-speedy hiker, I recommend doing the Top-Down route only as an overnight backpacking trip. If you prefer to day hike at a more enjoyable pace, you should consider the Bottom-Up route.
2) Zion Narrows Bottom-Up Route
The Bottom-Up route starts at the north end of the Riverside Walk trail at the Temple of Sinawava in the heart of Zion Canyon. It’s easily accessible using the Park’s free shuttle service. The Bottom-Up route is an out-and-back hike and can be as easy or as strenuous as you want. Since there is no specific turn around point. You hike up as far as you like, and then when you are ready to head back, just turn around and hike back the same way you came.
You do not need a permit to hike the Narrows from the Bottom-Up. Therefore it is a more plausible option for those who haven’t been able to plan in advance, as well as those who are not interested in backpacking, while still allowing you to experience the most beautiful sections of the Narrows. I recommend getting an early start. The first 1.5 miles as you hike up from the Riverside Walk Trail can be very crowded with families, especially in the afternoon, and the further you hike up, the fewer people you will encounter.
••• The Best Time to Hike the Zion Narrows •••
The best time of year to hike the Zion Narrows is in May, June, late September, and October. Water levels tend to be lower and temperatures are comfortable. Water levels in July and August are good for hiking, but those months are hot and the risk of thunderstorms is high. Always check the weather forecast before attempting the Narrows. Hiking the Narrows should be avoided when rains are predicted, as the danger of flash flooding can be real. The Bottom-Up day hike may also be attempted in winter and spring months, but a dry suit is necessary due to the cold water temperatures. No matter what time of year you hike the Narrows, before beginning your hike, you need to check the water levels on this US Geological Survey (USGS) website. The National Park Service considers conditions ideal when flow is less than 70 cubic feet per second. On the USGS site, you will see a graph like this. The blue line indicates current discharge, while the yellow triangles represent the average water flow over the last 25 years. When I backpacked the Narrows in early June, water levels were at 36 cubic feet per second, and only once did we encounter a waist deep pool.
••• Permit Process for Hiking the Narrows •••
Permits for hiking the Narrows are only needed for the top-down route and are required whether you are backpacking or day hiking. Reservations are accepted up to three months in advance. See below for the schedule of when Narrows hiking permits become available, and make sure to set a reminder in your calendar, as the permits often get swooped up immediately for hikes during busy months.
Zion Narrows Backpacking permits
Getting a permit is the most difficult part of planning your overnight backpacking trip through the Zion Narrows. There are only 12 campsites in the Narrows, meaning only 12 backcountry permits are issued for each day. To make a reservation, visit Zion’s online Wilderness Reservation System.
On the drop down menu, you will see a list of all of the backcountry campsites that are available for advanced reservation, as well as the maximum group size in parenthesis for each campsite. Once you select the site, a three month calendar will pop up. A date appearing in green indicates that permits are available for that date, while dates appearing in red have zero available permits. If your desired date is green, click it and complete the reservation form. There is a reservation fee of $5 per site.
If there are no sites available for your desired dates, there is still a way for you to obtain a permit. The first thing you should do is continue to check the online reservation system. If there are cancellations at any of the sites, this will be reflected in the calendar’s availability. When we backpacked the Narrows, I was checking the reservation system the entire week before our trip and there were no permits available. However, the morning before we left for Zion, there was a cancellation for Site #7 in the Narrows, and I was able to score a last minute permit. So keep checking back, as things do open up.
If you are still unable to get a permit through a cancellation, there is still hope. You’ll notice the drop-down menu on the online Wilderness Reservation System only lists Sites 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 12 as available for advanced reservations.
This means that Sites 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 11 are held for first-come first-served walk up permits. Walk-up permits are issued starting the day before starting at 7am when the permit office opens at the Zion Canyon Visitors Center. Plan on being the first in line the day before your desired backpacking trip, and you might just get lucky. Just remember if you are successful in getting a walk-up permit, make sure to call the shuttle companies immediately to reserve a shuttle to Chamberlain Ranch (information below).
In terms of choosing a campsite, you really can’t go wrong. All of them are isolated, riverside sites with beautiful views of the canyon. The location of each campsite is indicated on the map above in the Route section of this post. From my quick observations during our trip, I determined my favorite sites to be:
- Campsite #1 – Near confluence with big creek. Really nice views. Downside is that it leaves a lot of mileage for day 2.
- Campsite #6- Huge riverside rock for sun bathing and several nice swimming holes.
- Campsite #7 – Set up on a bench above the river. A short hike uphill, but very private. Small beach with a nice swimming hole.
- Campsite #8 – Very cool spot in a narrow part of the canyon. Set right on the river next to a large cave.
Top-Down Day Hike Permits for the Narrows
You also need a permit to day hike the Narrows from the Top-Down. Remember, you do NOT need a permit for hiking the Narrows from the Bottom-Up. The Top-Down day hike is listed as a “canyoneering” permit and can be reserved here.
In the drop down menu, select “Virgin Narrows Day Use Trail from Top,” and the three month availability calendar will pop up. From here, the process of reserving the permit is the same as for the backpacking permit. If no Top-down day hiking permits are available for your desired date through the advanced permit system, then your next option is enter the Online Last Minute Drawing. Through this lottery, you can apply for a permit between 2 and 7 days in advance of your trip.
To enter, go to the Last Minute Drawing site, and choose “Virgin Narrows Day Use Trail from Top” from the drop down menu. On the next page, it will show you the available dates, the number of permits available, and the number of people who have already entered the lottery. Choose the date you would like, enter your information, and cross your fingers. There is a $5 fee to enter that is non-refundable, even if you are unsuccessful. If you fail to obtain a permit through all of these methods, don’t be bummed. The Bottom-Up Narrows hike, which does not require a permit, is an excellent alternative. It requires less planning, less equipment, and if you get an early start, you will still cover the best ground in the Narrows.
••• Transportation for Hiking the Narrows •••
For the Top-Down Route, the drive to the trailhead from Zion’s main canyon takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes, and much of it is on a dirt road. Since the last thing you are going to want to do at the end of your hike is to carpool back to the top to pick up your car, I would highly recommend using one of the four outfitter companies in town that offer shuttle service from the Zion Canyon to Chamberlain Ranch.
Shuttle prices range from $35-$45 a person and depart either from the outfitter’s office or from the Zion National Park Visitors Center. Departure times vary, but at the time of our hike, most offered a first departure time around 6:30am and a second departure around 9:30am. As soon as you know the dates of your Narrows hike, you should call to reserve your space in the shuttle. Shuttles do fill up in advance and if there is no space, then you are pretty much out of luck.
When you call to reserve your space, tell them you need a ride from Zion Canyon to Chamberlain Ranch. I would also suggest taking the earliest departure possible. This will allow you to get on the trail earlier, giving you more time to stop, as well as to hang out at your awesome riverside camp. The four companies that offer shuttle service are:
- Zion Rock Guides ($35/person) – (435) 772-3303
- Zion Adventures ($37/person) – 435-772-1001
- Rare Form Shuttles ($45/person) – 435-773-7450
- Zion Outfitter ($35/person) – 435-772-5090
When exiting the Narrows, the trail ends at the Riverside Walk Trail in the main Zion Canyon. Follow the paved Riverside Walk Trail for 20 minutes to the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop, where the Zion National Park shuttle stops every 10 minutes. Hop on and take this shuttle back to the Zion Visitors Center or your desired destination within the Park.