Since my first visit to Utah some 16 years ago, Zion National Park has ranked up there as one of my favorite national parks, if not the favorite. Since then, I’ve been back three more times, all within the past two years, but my trip to St. George earlier this month was my first visit during winter. And let me just tell you, hiking the Narrows in winter is an experience that should be on every traveler’s to-do list.
But let me rewind. Prior to our trip out, I sent no fewer than a dozen texts to my best girl Jade, asking: “Do I need long johns? How about footwear? AND HOW MANY LAYERS IS ENOUGH LAYERS?” I’m pretty sure she thought me crazy, but she’d gone hiking in the Narrows in winter twice, so I consider her an authority on the subject.
And you know one thing I had never done until this trip? That’s right. Hike the Narrows.
That’s not to say I hadn’t tried. On my past two visits in May, we’d been signed up to go canyoneering and hiking, but then flash floods deemed the canyon too dangerous and so it was shut down.
Who would have known that not only was the third time a charm but winter is the perfect time to attempt the Narrows? That’s both in part because crowds are slim—friends who did this hike in summer months lamented the crush of people crowding the narrow slot canyon—but also because it’s not shut down nearly as often by the national park due to excessive rain that causes the water level to rise.
What to Wear to Hike the Narrows in Winter
First things first: your gear. We rented ours from Zion Adventure Company, which is located right in the heart of Springdale, and they give you a little video briefing beforehand so you get an idea of what to expect once you’re in the slot canyon. Luckily, my worries were unwarranted because not only was I not cold throughout the entire process, but I was downright toasty.
We rented the full Dry Suit Package, which runs a reasonable $55, and includes a full dry suit you’ll have to shimmy into, neoprene socks with an air-tight gasket and booties that are similar to those I wear when I go diving. This creates a seal on your body where water can’t get in, so even though you are walking through a river for hours, you don’t necessarily get wet. Genius! If the water level isn’t that high, you can also opt for the Dry Pants Package, which runs $45, and not look like you stepped out of an episode of Star Trek.
So, How Many Layers Are Enough?
It really depends on the air temp. The day we hiked, it was slated to be close to 60 in Springdale, but just a high of 50 in the canyon, meaning a bit cooler in shaded areas—and you’ll be in shade quite often. You’re also moving pretty consistently, so keep that in mind. I workout a lot and usually warm up pretty quickly, so I didn’t want to throw on too many layers for fear I’d begin sweating and then get the chills once I did slow down and the sweat dried.
With that said, Zion Adventure Company had about every additional layer possible you could need available for rent. A few of the tinier girls in our group rented fleece leggings to go under the drysuits, and I debated—but in the end, I’m glad I stuck with my original plan: a pair of running leggings, a long-sleeved running shirt and a relatively light vest. That paired with the drysuit, neoprene socks and booties was more than enough to keep me warm.
I had rented a pair of fleece gloves (an extra $5), but they never came out of my bag because I was fumbling with my camera most of the time, and plus, I just didn’t need them. If, however, you’re the type whose extremities get cold, I’d recommend taking a pair of gloves and a hat in your daypack just in case.
Can I Bring My Camera?
This was something I debated over for days. SVV prohibited me from bringing my DSLR, so I had my GoPro ready, as well as my smaller camera, which was safely housed in a waterproof case.
Only, I got to Zion Adventure Company that morning and found they had DSLR dry bags, so I went against my word to my husband (sorry, SVV!) and took my DSLR with my 24-105mm lens. This was a great find, and I’m so glad I had my big camera on me and not the bulky waterproof housing of the small one. The only downside was that this bag didn’t have any other pockets, so I had to rely on friends to carry my water, chapstick and other necessities. Were I to do it again, I’d take a small Camelbak-like day bag in addition to the DSLR dry bag and I might pack my wide-angle lens if I planned to make it all the way to Wall Street, though my 24-105 was perfect for the section of the Narrows I hiked.
You do have to worry about carrying your camera unprotected while hiking in the river itself as the rocks are slippery. I wouldn’t recommend taking any nice gear unless you have a dry bag on you to protect it as you’re fording the river.
What to Expect on the Hike Out to the Narrows
The hike to the Narrows starts with a one-mile walk out on a paved trail that starts at the shuttle drop-off point at Temple of Sinewava (stop 9). Silly me, I thought we were going to have a guide, but nope—the Narrows is pretty self-explanatory, so it’s self-guided, and you can go at your own pace. This was nice as traveling with a group of 30, I could hang back and let others speed ahead, then have fewer people in my photos.
There’s not really any way to get lost; however, there’s a big fork in the river where Wall Street begins; from there, you can take the left route and continue all the way up Wall Street or veer right instead and wind up in Orderville Canyon at Veiled Falls.
If you’re going at a fairly moderate pace and not stopping every 20 feet like I did, it should take you around two hours (or possibly a little less) to reach the fork in the river. While I didn’t make it to Wall Street this time, on my next trip to the Narrows, I’ll plan to go at a brisker pace there, then take my time photographing the narrowest part of the slot canyon once I get there.
We did the bottom-up route, returning to the starting point. You can also opt to do it top-down, but you need a permit for this way—and also you need to be super athletic. It’s a 16-miler. In one day. Chew on that before you commit. Given the length, this might be best left for summer months.
You’ll get a walking stick when you pick up your gear; I thought it was going to be cumbersome and that I’d wind up ditching it halfway through. NOPE. I needed that bad boy in particularly deep or slippery areas. Take my advice: Use the walking stick.
What Time to Start the Narrows
We were at the adventure company an hour before they opened at 9am—note: they open earlier in spring and summer months—and it took us a good hour-and-a-half to get suited up, drive to the Zion Visitor Center and all get on the bus (we were a group of 30, after all). The Narrows is the very last stop on the shuttle, which is a good 45 minutes away, so it was 11:45am before we were actually at the start of the hike.
For smaller groups, I recommend being the first people at the adventure center when it opens, then high-tail it to the shuttle ASAP—you’ll likely want to stay in the Narrows all day long, and being the early bird will help you optimize daylight. The sun set at 6:15 the weekend we were there, meaning that it started getting dark in the canyon around 5pm, plus the gear rental shop closed at 6pm so we had a deadline to make. Be sure and factor the 45-minute shuttle ride back into your plans.
As far as how long will it take you to hike the Narrows, that depends on how far you want to go, as well as how often you stop. I was stopping frequently for photos, so while I was in the canyon a good five hours, I didn’t even make it to Wall Street. Next time, I’ll try to get in there as soon as I can gear up, so I can go a bit further and not worry about dusk catching up to me.
Where to Eat Before the Narrows
There are so many places to eat in Springdale that you won’t be lacking for breakfast options before your hike (or dinner/beer options afterward). We stumbled upon River Rock Roasting Co. in La Verkin, which had delicious breakfast pastries, quiches and coffee drinks. We loved it so much that Jade, Christie and I went again the next day for pizza and beer. YUM.
Will I Have Time for Other Hikes?
A few of the more intrepid hikers who did the Narrows with us planned to do Angel’s Landing and Observation Point right after the Narrows. HA. Quite ambitious. Needless to say, they didn’t get out of the Narrows until 4pm, so that plan was void.
If you want to do Angel’s Landing or Observation Point—both of which will take you a minimum of four hours, round-trip—you should base yourself near the entrance to the park and plan for two consecutive days in Zion, if not more. It’s simply too big of a park to try and cram anything more than one major hike in a day.
Other Tips to Zion in Winter
If you’re looking to spend most of your time in the park, now is a great time to stay in Springdale with crowds being slim and prices being lower. If you are hiking the Narrows but also want to spend some time in the other area parks—like Snow Canyon, Sand Hollow, Red Cliffs Desert Reserve—then I highly recommend staying on the outskirts of St. George or in Hurricane as a central base.
Looking for other St. George travel advice? Check out these posts:
- Everything You Need To Know About Zion National Park
- For the Best View in Zion, Try Observation Point
- Like Zion? You’ll Love Snow Canyon
- Visit These Awesome St. George State Parks
- 7 Tips for Photographing Southern Utah