There are dozens of hiking trails in Zion National Park. But when most visitors are planning a trip to the park, a few trails, in particular, tend to come to mind.
For those with a taste for adventure, the hike to Angels Landing is often at the top of the list. Those who have visited the park before and want a more leisurely way to enjoy the park, the Riverside Walk or Weeping Rock might come to mind first. If you’re bringing a bike or your beloved pup into the park, you might have your sights set on Pa’rus Trail.
While each of these trails is unique and beautiful, Zion National Park is also home to one of the most unique hiking trails in the nation; The Narrows. Because it guides hikers through the flowing waters of the Virgin River, this hike is far from your traditional trail. With towering cliff faces that get more narrow as you go along, the trail is a must-see for every visitor.
But up until last week, hiking this iconic trail from start to finish actually involved doing a bit of trespassing.
Trespassing on Private Land
Most visitors to Zion hike only a small portion of The Narrows. Those wishing to hike the entire thing must shuttle to the start on their own transportation, then hike 16-miles into the lower canyon, where The Narrows intersects with the Riverside Walk.
The trailhead is actually located outside of the national park, at Chamberlain’s Ranch. But this isn’t where the trespassing was taking place. The issue began several miles downstream, where the Virgin River runs across a property called Simon Gulch, owned by the Bulloch family.
The property is located just before the river enters the eastern boundary of the park. While visitors to the park have hiked across the property for decades, last year, “for sale” signs and “no trespassing” signs suddenly appeared.
The Bulloch family had received a low offer from the federal government in an attempt to acquire the property. Soon after that offer, the signs appeared, and hiking across the property was quickly suspended.
In order to hike the full length of The Narrows, hikers need permits. The National Park Service suspended these permits for several days in 2018 after the signs were posted. The Bullochs family told the media that the signs weren’t placed there to keep out hikers. Instead, they wanted to highlight just how precious their land is.
Solving the Problem
After a few days, Washington County officials worked to set up a short-term deal to reopen the land to hikers, and negotiations began for a more permanent solution. That solution was finally signed just last week.
Thanks to a $1.5 million deal, there are now easements that protect the land from all future development and guarantee that The Narrows will remain open forever. Even if the land is sold, the easements around the Virgin River can never be developed or sold.
Hiking the Narrows
What better way to celebrate the new deal than by hiking The Narrows. Of course, with winter in full swing, water temperatures may dip below freezing, which means you’ll need the right gear. Whether you’re hiking the entire trail or just a short section, a dry suit is a must to prevent hypothermia.
Like any other time of year, you also need to be aware of the threat of flash floods so that you can protect yourself and any hiking buddies.
Avoiding Flash Floods
Southern Utah and the surrounding states, as well as many other desert landscapes, are prone to flash flooding. Because the dry desert dirt and sand don’t soak up water very quickly, heavy rain rushes down into the canyon rather than seeping into the ground. In a hilly landscape like Zion, the water is funneled to the base of the canyon, causing the Virgin River to swell very quickly.
This isn’t just an issue within the park either. Heavy rainfall far upriver can also cause the river to flood and can push a wall of water down into the park before the rainstorm even arrives there.
In the lower canyon, there is usually time and space to get to higher ground when a flash flood occurs. But in The Narrows, as well as in other slot canyons in the region, there is often nowhere to go. This can make a flash flood incredibly dangerous.
While flash floods are by definition unpredictable, you can help keep yourself safe by watching the weather and checking in with rangers before starting your hike. You’ll not only want to check the weather in and around Zion but to the north as well.
It’s also important to check the river’s flow rate before starting your hike. At less than 70 cubic feet per second, the river is easy or perhaps moderately difficult to hike in. But above that level, it becomes much more difficult. Normally shallow pools may become chest-deep. While the trail does remain open at this rate, all hikers should practice caution, and only enter if they are physically capable of this type of hiking. At 150 cubic feet per second, The Narrows closes. It also closes whenever the National Weather Service issues a Flash Flood Warning.
Planning Your Next Hike
Have questions about renting a dry suit or other gear? Looking for tips on conquering The Narrows? Stop by the Springdale Visitor Center to talk to one of our experienced staff to find all the answers you’re looking for.