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Hiking at Zion National Park

Story and photos by Lee Juillerat   August 1, 2009


The kids had it right. While many of us, me included, tiptoed upstream along the shallow but swiftly flowing river trying to keep our balance - and our valuable cameras and other gear dry – five teenage boys whooped and hollered as they deliberately stepped into the ripples and rapids. They sometimes slipped, unintentionally tumbling and soaking themselves in the Virgin River’s chilly waters. But, with temperatures along The Narrows Trail soaring near 100 degrees, getting wet sounded delicious.
The Narrows is a trail unlike others. Located in Utah’s Zion National Park, the undefined trail meanders 16 miles through a slot canyon where the walls soar up to 2,000 feet high and sections of the canyon squeeze only 20 feet wide. Most of the trail involves walking and wading in the river. Depending on the river flow and its unseen hydraulics, the water depth ranges from ankle-deep to shoulder-high.

Most people sample a small stretch of The Narrows. Traveling the entire distance requires a shuttle to the upstream put-in and, preferably, an overnight trek to the paved trail that marks the ending point of the Riverside Walk. One of Zion’s most popular trails, the Riverside Walk begins at the northern end of the shuttle route that bisects Zion Canyon. The 2-mile roundtrip walk is traveled daily by thousands of visitors, and for good reason. The route parallels the Virgin River as it weaves around spiraling cliffs to a view of the Temple of Sinawava, a wide spot in the canyon named by Methodist minister Frederick Vining Fisher in 1916, and of The Narrows.
Some hike The Narrows in running shoes, Crocs or water shoes. Many were outfitted in special river shoes and carryied wooden hiking poles rented from the Zion Adventure Company, an outfitter in Springdale, the cozy community just outside the park. My friend and I carried single hiking poles, which helped with keeping balance.

  Hiking The Narrows at Zion  
Hikers enter The Narrows
  Walking upstream, Zion  

We spent nearly five very fun, cool hours waddling up and down the canyon’s watery folds. How far did we walk? Hard to tell. Distances are deceiving. We probably traveled about two miles upstream, the more challenging direction because of the steady, persistent thigh-challenging current, frequent river crossings and photo breaks. There’s much to see. The riverbed bends back on itself as it wriggles accordion-style through the canyon, providing spectacular vistas and, especially during the heat of day, relief from Zion’s steamy sauna-like summer temperatures.

On the return trip, crusted from the heat and inspired by the teenagers, we took turns unloading our daypacks and, fully clothed, stepping into swiftly flowing sections of the river and rolling like frolicking river otters as the river swept us downstream. The trip was exhilarating, exciting and pure fun. It opened my eyes to being Narrow-minded

Picking the way upstream
Stairway to Heaven

I’d heard the warnings from a gal several days earlier while hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park. Her name was Barbie and she told of hiking the Angels Landing Trail in Zion National Park, describing it as an experience that was frightening and terrifying. She visibly trembled as she recalled the crux of the trail, one that requires walking along a narrow, exposed cliff without handrails. “I was really scared,” she said. Because she was obviously a strong and experienced walker, I took her comments seriously.

As a friend and I approached the section, which one hiking guidebook describes as the “feeling of walking on the razor’s edge,” we met two 20-something girls who shared Barbie’s concerns. They’d opted out. In the words of one with a thick accent, “I want to see Germany again.” Minutes later, reaching the stretch, I relaxed. On a wet or icy day it might pose a threat, but not this sunny day. Yes, the ridge is exposed, but it’s hardly a tightrope act.

  The Landing, Zion  
Relaxing on the Landing
  Zion north view

That’s not to say the Angels Landing Trail isn’t a challenge. The 5-mile roundtrip is steep, often exposed and, as Barbie worried, the drop-offs are daunting. With an elevation gain of nearly 1,500-feet the climb is strenuous. Over the final half-mile, chains bolted into the rock cliffs are helpful, especially in steep sections where we scrambled up precipitously narrow rock shelves, one hand gripping the chains. While hikers with rock climbing or mountaineering experience will find the section from the Scout Lookout to the summit only moderately challenging, people with less experience may share Barbie’s feelings.

The trail begins from the Grotto in Zion Canyon and immediately gains elevation, gradually at first until weaving up shaded Refrigerator Canyon. Near the head of the canyon, the trail gets seriously vertical with a twisty series of 21 switchbacks named “Walter’s Wiggles” in honor of Walter Ruesch, Zion’s first custodian who supervised the building of the West Rim Trail. Shortly after Wiggle 21, the trail reaches Scout Lookout, a flat area that offers spectacular canyon views and, for those uncomfortable with the final half-mile pitch to Angels Landing, it's a safe stopping point.

Zion Landing view  
The view looking north
The view atop the Landing
Other hikes    
Experiencing Zion National Park shouldn’t be limited to riding the shuttle through Zion Canyon. The park offers a variety of trails, from half-mile long easy strolls to challenging hikes best traveled in two or three days.    
Veil of water, Zion Within Zion Canyon, the most popular hikes include the Riverside Walk, a 2-mile roundtrip that begins and ends at the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop and is partially described above. Popular, too, are walks to the Lower, Middle and Upper Emerald Pools. All three begin from the Zion Lodge shuttle stop. The distances vary from 1.2 to 1.9 to 2.6 miles, with the easiest being the paved trail to the Lower Pool. All three pools are beautiful with individual characteristics. With its large alcove and veils of dripping water, the Lower Pool is an easy favorite. At the Middle Pool, the smaller pools are partially hidden by a jumble of Gamble oak box elder, bigtooth maple and juniper. The Upper Pool, which seems much longer than the posted third of a mile, is a natural amphitheater enclosed on three sides by spiring cliffs.  

Other hikes, all measured as roundtrips, include the half-mile Weeping Rock Trail; half-mile Archeology Trail by the Zion Canyon Visitor Center; 3-1/2-mile Pa’rus Trail that follows the Virgin River from the South Campground to Canyon Junction; mile-long Canyon Overlook east of the long tunnel; 2.7-miles out and back walk to the viewpoint at the Watchman; and the strenuous 2-mile up and back climb to Hidden Canyon.
Upper Pool, Zion  
The Lower Pool’s thin wall of water
The Upper Pool
  When You Go  
  Basic trail maps and information are provided in the Zion National Park newspaper available at park entrance stations. Other helpful guides include “Best Easy Day Hikes: Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks,” a pocket-sized book by Erik Molvar and Tamara Martin” and Molvar’s more comprehensive, “Hiking Zion & Bryce Canyon National Parks.” “Insight Guides: Utah,” has general information about Utah while “National Parkways: Bryce Canyon & Zion National Parks,” is a mostly pictorial publication with basic trail information. Look for these books and others in our Travel Bookstore. Also visit the Zion National Park website at For information about The Narrows, whether making a day hike or overnight, contact the Zion Adventure Company at, 435-772-1001.  
  About the author  
  Lee Juillerat is a writer-photographer who lives in Southern Oregon. He has written extensively for newspapers and magazines, including Northwest Travel, Oregon Coast, Oregon Outside, Range, Horizon Airlines inflight and others. He is the author of two books about Crater Lake National Park and contributor to several other outdoor and history related books. He can be contacted at  


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