How to Hike the Narrows - Equipment and Photography

The Narrows is one of the most beautiful areas in Zion National Park, and the hike through the Narrows is one of the park's best-known hikes. The narrow passages of colorful sandstone carved out by the Virgin River create a cathedral of beautiful scenery.

The Narrows, Zion National Park

There are three ways to hike the Narrows. You can start from the top and do it in two days. Or you can skip the overnight stay and do it in one long day hike from the top. Starting the hike from the top requires a permit in either case. The third alternative is to start from the bottom, which does not require a permit as long as you don't go beyond Big Spring (about 4.5 miles up the river from the Temple of Sinawava). Starting from the bottom is a round-trip hike. You go in as far as you want up to Big Spring and then turn around and go back out. This third option is the way I hiked the Narrows a few weeks ago.

Hiking the Narrows is an adventure. From the shuttle stop, it's about a mile hike on the paved riverside trail to the Temple of Sinawava. Then it's about 4.5 miles to Big Spring, and during that 4.5 miles you are in the river about 60-70% of the time, at least in late May or early June when I did it. Earlier in the spring, there is more water along with the increased threat of flash flooding. Once you enter the river at the Temple of Sinawava, there is no more trail. The river itself is the trail, and you wade through it slowly and cautiously the rest of the distance. The water is cool. It is shallow for most of the way, but it is often knee-deep, and there are a few places where it gets chest-high. Depending on the options you choose, you may also have to swim. I found myself swimming unexpectedly a couple of times on the way back down!

Let’s talk about equipment, because it’s important to be equipped properly for the hike. I saw a lot of people wearing sandals and other flimsy footwear, but I was very glad I had some real hiking boots on. I also wore wet socks to keep my feet nice and warm all day. They were very comfortable. I wore dry pants during my hike. I saw several other people with dry pants as well, but this time of year it's not really necessary. In colder weather, dry pants would be needed due to the colder water temperature, but shorts or a swimming suit is fine in late spring and throughout the summer. The most important clothing to me were the wet socks and sturdy boots.

Big Spring in the Narrows in Zion National Park

Some other equipment is also very helpful. First, I used hiking poles. I haven't used them on hikes in the past, but I was very glad to have them once I got in the river. Without those poles I would have fallen down a couple dozen times at least. The poles provide balance and stability while walking through the river with its rounded and slippery rocks, not to mention the current, which is quite strong in many places. I was probably very lucky not to have broken a pole, however. A better option would be an unbreakable hiking staff. Finally, I brought a dry bag for my camera equipment, food, a towel and other items I wanted to keep dry. Even after swimming through some sections of the river, the dry bag kept everything completely dry and safe.

Glowing Mountain in the Narrows at Zion National Park

Now for the photography. The photographic opportunities are huge! It all comes down to composition and light, though, because wherever you look the scenery is beautiful. To create a photograph that captures that beauty requires some patience and planning. Let's talk about the light first. There is a specific kind of light to seek among three lighting possibilities in the Narrows. The first is when the rock walls are in direct sunlight. This lighting is not desirable for all the reasons it rarely is desirable in any photograph. The direct sunlight is harsh and creates sharp, contrasty shadows. The second possibility is when the rocks are in the shadows. That lighting is not desirable because it diminishes the beautiful colors that exist in the red sandstone of the Narrows. Finally, the third possibility occurs when only some of the rock faces are in direct sunlight. Those rocks are not in our frame, however. Instead, the light reflects off those rocks and lights up the rocks that we do include in our photograph. This light is perfect because it is soft and produces a glowing effect in the rocks. It brings out the color and creates a much more interesting environment that reveals the true beauty of the Narrows.

Because I intended to do the entire hike, I did not have time to wait for good light. Further, since I had never done the hike before, I didn't have a specific location in mind where I wanted to photograph. The photographs I created were therefore dictated by the light. When I encountered the third lighting scenario with the soft, glowing, and colorful light, I stopped and searched for a good composition to make a photograph. I feel fortunate to have returned with the photographs I made given this approach, and it ended up working out very well.

I will be hiking the Narrows again, and next time I will take a different approach to my photography. The best part of the Narrows is in the Wall Street area, which is about 2 miles up the river. Instead of searching for the light, I will hike to that area, spend some time finding the composition I want to create, and then wait until the light is good. In other words, I will decide what photograph I want to compose and then wait for the light to accommodate my choice rather than having my options limited by the light at the particular time I happen to be in an area. I am very happy with the photographs I created this time, and I'm looking forward to creating additional photographs next time.