Every summer I venture out on a backpacking adventure, usually in a national park in the western US. This summer was no exception. My hiking buddy Marv has a great book that details some of the best backpacking trips in the world. One that has caught our eye for years is the Virgin River Narrows in Utah’s Zion National Park. This unique hike takes hikers 16 miles through the Virgin River valley and slot canyons known as the Narrows.
Since this is a one-way hike, transportation is required to get to the trailhead unless you can leave one car at the top and another at the bottom. We opted for a shuttle that dropped us off in the area known as Chamberlain’s Ranch. Although on private property, it’s the trailhead for the Virgin River Narrows hike. Complete with an outhouse (the last toilet you’ll see until returning to Zion Canyon at the end of the hike!). The trailhead is the starting point for both day hikers, doing all 16 miles in one day, and overnighters like us. The Park Service requires permits to camp overnight in the canyon. About half the permits are available in advance and the others on a first come, first served walk-up basis. Permits are released a month at a time approximately three months in advance. We reserved ours in advance on the first day they became available. Judging from availability on the website, nearly all permits were snatched up within minutes of becoming available, so be sure to plan ahead.
Several outfitters provide shuttle service to the trailhead as well as gear to make your hike in the river easier. Dry bags, river shoes & socks, and hiking poles can be rented from a variety of outfitters in Springdale. We opted to wear our own hiking boots, carry our own hiking poles, and simply insert a rented drybag into our own backpacks to keep food, clothes, sleeping bags, and valuables dry.
Three shuttles converged on the trailhead at approximately 8:15 a.m. After queuing up for the outhouse and slathering on sunscreen, we hit the trail. The trail immediately fords the Virgin River, dunking your hiking boots and setting the tone for the rest of the hike. The trail starts out as a gravel road that meanders near the Virgin River in its somewhat wide meadow-filled valley.
This part of the trail is an easy stroll, passing a deserted historic cabin before catching up to the river again. Here, the trail ends, the road ends, and the hike truly enters the river. From here on out, the hike spends more time in the river than out of it. The National Park Service describes it as walking on slippery bowling balls, and we found this to be not too far from the truth, as my swollen ankles will attest.
By this point, the day hikers had left us behind, unburdened by heavy backpacks and needing to get the 12.5-hour hike underway so they could finish before dark. Note to day hikers: the shuttle driver asked each group of day hikers if they had a flashlight! Not a bad plan considering that the route was tricky at times and slow. However, I would not want to have to hike any of this in the dark, flashlight or no!
As the hike continues, the valley narrows and the canyon walls rise. With the day hikers well ahead of the overnighters, and few overnighters on the trail, there’s lots of solitude to be had, especially given the many twists and turns on the trail. Occasional side canyons offer chances to explore and get out of the water, whether it be for a rest or a snack or a photo opportunity.
Most spots on the trail require walking in ankle- or knee-deep water, but a few spots are waist- and even chest-deep. It’s possible to walk on the banks at times, but the few social trails that exist along the banks are quite rocky and uneven and often require boulder scrambles or scrambling over downed trees. I preferred staying in the water while my hiking partner preferred walking on the banks when possible.
At one point the canyon narrows and the river plunges over a 20 foot waterfall. Luckily, nature has provided a split in the rocks just to the left of the waterfall and a steep downward scramble connects the upper river valley with the lower. Unfortunately there’s no easy way to see the waterfall from below without getting into some deep water. We opted to continue on.
The backcountry ranger recommended not using the water from the upper Virgin River for drinking, as it passes through ranchland prior to entering the canyon. We filled up our water bottles at our hotel before taking the shuttle, and had plenty of water to get us through the day.
Below the waterfall, Deep Creek merges with the Virgin River. The backcountry ranger correctly said that water flowing from Deep Creek was much cleaner than water coming from the Virgin River, so we stopped there to fill up our water bottles before heading to our campsite. We used our Vapur microfilters to fill up our Nalgenes, Platypus, and Vapur anti-bottles in a white sandy spot between the two rivers.
Campsite number one is across the river from where Deep Creek merges into the river and is perhaps the nicest location of all the campsites we saw. The dozen or so campsites are spread out along the river, each one being about a 10 or 15 minute walk from the next. Staying at campsite number one would make the second day of the hike much longer. We had campsite number three, which was perched on a wooded bluff above a bend in the river.
Our campsite had a nice flat spot for a tent as well as some logs and rocks to sit on and use as tables. As for bathroom facilities, the Park Service requests that you pee in the river and use a wag bag for pooping, and they provide the bag along with your permit. While pooping in a bag may be a turn-off for some backpackers, considering how many poop holes would be dug within walking distance of your campsite over the course of the summer is perhaps more disgusting. In reality, the wag bags are a brilliant design. Complete with a drawstring bag, enzymes to break down the waste, a strong mylar design, a Ziploc-type seal, and its own carry bag, it’s a go-and-forget-about-it deal.
The second day of the hike took us through the most spectacular part of the Narrows. The canyon walls rose and rose hundreds of feet on either side of the river and narrowed so that there was no bank on either side for extended periods of time. The first landmark we passed was Big Spring, a beautiful set of waterfalls cascading down one side of the canyon and adding more water to the flow of the river. It was also the first point where we encountered day hikers coming up from Zion Canyon. From here, the river traffic really increased. We encountered groups of scouts, youth groups, and lots of day hikers coming up from Zion Canyon to explore the Narrows. While our solitude factor decreased, the scenery factor increased.
The point at which most day hikers stop to turn around and go back to Zion Canyon was a narrow point in the river which required us to take off our packs, hold them above our heads, and wade through nearly shoulder deep water. The Narrows continued to Orderville Canyon, a side canyon that is navigable in both directions, but requires some climbing skills over a dry waterfall. I had explored Orderville Canyon on previous day hikes up from Zion Canyon, so we opted to continue directly to the trailhead.
The canyon widens a bit as you near the Temple of Sinawava, and the number of day hikers increases exponentially. It’s still a fun, beautiful hike, and the swift current of the river offers several opportunities for jumping in for a swim or and or a quick float down parts of the river. Just before the trailhead is the Weeping Wall. A cascade of water trickles down a rock face covered with many bright green plants. Along the last stretch of the trail, many of the day hikers asked us about our overnight adventure — always a little bit of encouragement to get you to the end of the trail.
This was the most beautiful scenery of any of the backpacking trips I have done, and although it was only a two day hike, it was still very challenging. My ankles were definitely ready for a rest by the end! If you have a chance to do this hike, take it. It’s well deserving of that spot in the best backpacking trips in the world book.
Enjoy your next hiking adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend — and whatever well-deserved reward you earn at trail’s end!