Hiking the Narrows, Part Two: Permits and Planning

Hiking the narrows part 2

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.

 Zion Narrows Campsite Map1) Zion Narrows Top-Down Route

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. ZION WATER LEVELS 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.

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Even if you make an advanced reservation for your Narrows hike, you will still need to visit the Zion Canyon Visitors Center permit office in person to pick up your permit before setting off. They will go over the rules and regulations, including prohibitions on fires and other safety measures. Also, everyone hiking the Narrows is required to pack out any solid human waste using the bags provided by the permit office. The permit office opens at 7am during summer months and 8am during winter months. This and additional permit information will be provided in your reservation confirmation email. Keep in mind the permit office’s hours if you are catching a morning shuttle up to Chamberlain Ranch.

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. Zion Wilderness 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. Zion last minute drawing

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:

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.

Well that’s everything you need to know about permits to start planning your hiking trip in the Narrows.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO HIKE THE NARROWS? WHAT QUESTIONS DO YOU HAVE ABOUT THE PERMIT PROCESS?  LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW, TWEET ME, OR WRITE ME A POST ON FACEBOOK

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Hi! I'm Kristen....blogger, hiker, sunset-watcher, and dance floor shredder. I feel most alive in the outdoors and created this website to help you enjoy the best that the West has to offer.

25 Comments on “Hiking the Narrows, Part Two: Permits and Planning

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  1. Thanks so much for putting all this info together Kristen! Zion is one of my favorite parks in the US and Aron and I have always wanted to hike the narrows. We have a few days off over 4th of July and might look into taking a trip out there 🙂

    Great info! FYI for you and your readers, day hikers from the bottom up are not allowed past Big Springs without a permit.

      Hey Jenn – Thanks for the tip! Cheers -Kristen

    I greatly appreciated this post. I am planning a trip to Zion in 2017 and an overnight Narrows hike is on the short list. I live in Georgia and so there are few folks here who have spent a significant amount of time in Zion that I can gather information from. Your post was very helpful and addressed some of the topics I have been unable to find elsewhere.

      Super. Glad it was helpful Paul! You’ll have to come back and let me know how your trip goes.

    Hi Kristen! I am looking into doing this hike in a few weeks. I reserved already for camping in the Narrows (campsite 7) for April 20th. And the night before I was going to do the Wildcat trail camping there and entering through Lava Point (still dont know how Ill manage both and moving from one point to the other. I was reading your post and I see that you recommend to book a private shuttle from Zion to Chamberline, but I thought that Zion nat. Park had shuttles that you could take within the park.

    Also, Ill be flying into Las Vegas, taking a shuttle to St. George and from there another shuttle to Zion. Do you have any specific recommendations on transportation? (I wont be able to rent a car). Ive been reading a lot these past days but it is quite confusing!

    Thank you very much!!!

    Dominique

      The Park shuttle is only in the main canyon. It does not go to Lava Point or to Chamberlain Ranch. You have to arrange a private shuttle for those trailheads. Also, you’ll need to check but the road to Lava Point might still be closed. Check this page for current conditions: https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/conditions.htm

      I don’t have any recommendations for transportation from St George. Sorry about that!

    Dear Kristen,
    Thank you for your post. I have a question. If there is a lottery-type reservation for both, backpacking and hiking permit, what if you get one but loose the other? Also, the fire ban is against camp fires and not little gas stove to boil water, right? Thank you! Roman.

      If you get a backpacking permit, you can stay the night. If you get a hiking permit, you can only do a day hike. And that’s correct. You can’t have a wood fire, but you can still use your backpacking stove.

    How do you know if you got a permit? I got payment confirmation, does that mean I have it?

      You should get an email confirming that you got a permit.

    Awesome post and thanks for all the info! (A little note, the sidebar with all the Social Media sharing options hovers over the text and doesn’t move making everything difficult to read.)

    Can you backpack/camp the narrows from the bottom up? Or are you required to start at the top and hike down?

      I believe the permits are for top down only….but if you got one of the lower sites and didn’t want to shuttle…you could probably start from the bottom. I’m not totally sure though, so you should probably check with the ranger office.

    We have a group of six planning to do the two-day hike, so shuttling up will be expensive. I have thought of two options: driving up and leaving the vehicle for two nights, taking a shuttle up (just me) the day after we get done and retrieving it, or driving up with the group earlier in the morning, then driving back down (just me) and taking one of the later shuttles while the group waits. I can’t really find any info on parking at the trailhead, other than that there is parking. I assume since people do the two-day hike that overnight parking is allowed. The advantage of driving up and leaving the vehicle is that we can still start fairly early in the morning, but not too early (and, in fact, can try to sort of time our start to be in the middle of the shuttle runs). The advantage of dropping off is that the vehicle is not sitting up there for two days, and no extra time is used on the third day. Any thoughts?

      Hey Robert – You’ll definitely save money if you can avoid having to shuttle every one in your group up. I think the idea of driving up and one person shuttling up at the end would work. You’d just need to make sure you have a campsite reserved or somewhere to stay in Springdale on your second day. Hope that’s helpful and have fun!

    I just finished the top-down route in one day. It was amazing!
    It was an easy hike and tooked me only 8.5 hours. ✌️️

    Hi!

    We plan on driving to chamberlin ranch to to do the top down hike..

    When we finish our hike how do we get back to our car in chamberlin ranch?

    Thanks for the advice 🙂

      Autumn, great question! Kim (Bearfoot Theory editor) has used Zion Adventure Company before and recommends them–they offer a one-way shuttle back to Chamberlin Ranch. The only other option would be for you to have two vehicles and leave one at the bottom to access after you finish and then drive back up. Enjoy the hike! Have fun!

    Hi!

    This is really helpful.
    I am applying for the permit in the narrows top down-day hike since the overnight permit is running out.
    But I am not sure my group will be able to complete the entire trail in one day but we want to avoid crowd, I am thinking if we can do a returning trip from top. I do not see you talk about that option and wondering whether that is not an option?

    Thanks
    Jia

      I would not recommend doing a return trip from the top. You have to walk several miles before reaching the Narrows through a long cow pasture. Plus the trailhead is hard to reach and you still need a permit.

    hi there, stumbled on your blog after doing some research on hiking the narrows since i will be going in august 2017. i’m dreading the hot weather but it’s the only time i’m able to do it. anyway, i will be doing the bottom-up route since i won’t be able to do an overnight hike. can you give us some info on that route, do we need to get a shuttle, where we start, etc.? thanks!

      Hello Angie! That is great to hear that you are heading out to Zion to explore the Narrows. Bottom-up is actually the way I usually explore the area. You’ll want to take the Zion National Park shuttle to the Temple of Sinawava. From there you’ll see the paved path along the river that takes you to the mouth of the Narrows. Don’t fret too much about the weather as the water will keep you cool–keep in mind it is mostly snow melt so it is really refreshing! Since you are doing bottom up without an overnight I’d start early in the morning to beat the crowds and try to be on the first shuttle from the visitors center. You’ll be able to hike as far as you’d like up the Narrows and then when you decide you’ve had enough you’ll want to turn around and head back. Hope that makes sense.

    Hi Kristen,
    Loooove your site, great info!
    I am planing in real time my first roadtrip with Jeff.the.West (falia) solo women to Utah! Very excited. So, many questions, but here’s 2: When you talk about permit, is it the pass America the Beautiful?
    I haven’t reserved nothing for camping, in Utah from 19 sept – end of oct. Will it be enough with the first arrived ones?
    Is it better to do Moab, canyonlands, Page, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Capitol Rief in that sense (clock wise) or the other way around, arriving from Colorado (actualy, Qc, Canada!)

    Thank you in advance!
    Josée

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