The Best Guide to Backpacking the Zion Narrows

By Michael Lanza

The sound of rushing water increased in volume and the canyon walls pressed in close and reached toward the sliver of sky overhead as we walked downstream in the calf-deep North Fork of the Virgin River in The Narrows of Zion National Park. Turning a bend in the canyon, we came upon one of the most incongruous sights in the desert: a waterfall pouring from cracks in the canyon’s sandstone wall. Known as Big Spring, this oasis of cascading water and a hanging garden clinging to a redrock cliff is just one of the many wonders awaiting backpackers in Zion’s Narrows.

One of the most uniquely magnificent and coveted hikes in the National Park System, the Zion Narrows squeeze down to about 20 feet across in places, with sandstone walls that rise as much as a thousand feet tall.

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Day one in the upper Narrows, Zion National Park.
Day one in the upper Narrows, Zion National Park. Click photo for my e-book “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Narrows in Zion National Park.”

There are many great canyon hikes in the Southwest, but The Narrows is the archetypal great canyon hike—and certainly one of the very best backpacking trips in the Southwest and a top 10 trip in America.

I base that judgment on having done many of the most beautiful multi-day hikes in the country over more than three decades of carrying a backpack, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.

I think the photo gallery below will convince you to take this trip.

The Narrows is generally backpacked as a two-day hike from top to bottom, descending 1,500 vertical feet over the course of 16 miles, from the starting trailhead at Chamberlain Ranch to the Temple of Sinawava Trailhead at the end of the road in Zion Canyon.

Early summer and fall are the prime seasons for hiking The Narrows, which is frequently unsafe because of high water levels in April and May and sometimes into June, and during July and August, when heavy rainstorms are common.

My expert e-book “The Complete Guide to Backpacking The Narrows in Zion National Park” will tell you everything you need to know to plan and execute this classic backpacking trip. It is the most thorough guide you will find to backpacking Zion’s Narrows.

Click here now to Join The Big Outside and get my backpacking Zion’s Narrows e-book free!

Not surprisingly, our campsite in The Narrows graces my list of 25 favorite backcountry campsites. I also suggest it as one of “The 5 Southwest Backpacking Trips You Should Do First.”

See my feature story “Luck of the Draw, Part 2: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows,” with many more photos and a video, plus basic trip-planning information (though not nearly as much trip-planning detail as provided in my Narrows e-guide). Like most stories about trips at this blog, reading that story in full requires a paid subscription to The Big Outside.

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5 thoughts on “The Best Guide to Backpacking the Zion Narrows”

  1. HI Michael,

    Really stunning photos. Many years ago my brother and I hiked up the Narrows as far as you are allowed to go (I think Big Springs although I’m not entirely sure as it was about 25 years ago – somewhere with a large sign that says you can’t hike further). How different is the first half of the trip? The bottom half was definitely spectacular.

    • Hi Mike,

      Yes, Big Spring, five miles upstream from the bottom (at the end of the Riverside Walk), is the farthest you’re permitted to dayhike up the Narrows. The upper part of the Narrows, above Big Spring, is 11 miles long. It begins in open meadows and forest but the trail quickly enters the river’s canyon, where the walls rise steadily higher. It gets quite narrow in places, much more narrow than even the Wall Street section below Big Spring. There are some trees in the upper canyon, creating the scenic contrast of green against red walls. But most of all, I think, is the sense of how quiet it is, how very few people you will encounter because the only other people are backpackers and dayhikers who have a permit to dayhike the Narrows top to bottom in a day. It’s not many at all. And the campsites in the Narrows, all of them located upstream from Big Spring, are spread out to give each party a piece of the Narrows to themselves.

      It’s beautiful and such a unique experience. I highly recommend backpacking it.

      Thanks for the question.

    • Thanks, Kevin. The canyon changes character from the first day to the second. It certainly keeps getting deeper and grander as you descend it. But the first day is beautiful, too, and varied, and you’ll see many fewer people than in the last couple hours of the second day, when you’re nearing the mouth of The Narrows.