Hiking The Narrows in the Winter {Zion National Park}

There is something enchanting and mystical about southern Utah. The plunging canyons; the towering climbing walls; the red gleam of the Navajo sandstone; it all combines to create an ethereal land of beauty. I dig it.

But somehow, I’ve managed to go my entire 34-year existence without visiting the hub of outdoor activity: Zion National Park. Naturally, Will knew it was on my shortlist so after slaying the powder of Crested Butte, we traded in our fat skis for hiking boots. We were off to Zion!

In the summer, Zion is a zoo. Hordes of tourist vehicles and buses choke the roads of the park and eager visitors clog the trails. Pro tip: if you can handle the chillier temps, the park is almost entirely empty in February. Totally worth it!

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PC: Will Rochfort

For years, I’d heard of the beauty of The Narrows, the narrowest section of Zion Canyon. The sandstone walls are a thousand feet tall, creating a canyon that varies in width. At its most narrow point, the base is only 20 or 30 feet wide so minimal light reaches the ground. The caveat? You will always be hiking in water! The Virgin River runs through the bottom of the canyon year round, so there is no way you can hike The Narrows without getting your feet wet {if not more. The water can be waist deep!}

For most people, this means they will only do the hike in the summer when the daytime temps are hot and the water temperature is a bit more comfortable. That said, it is open in the winter– if you’re willing to brave the cold!

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Will had done a winter hike of The Narrows a few years back and his photos were amazing. As we neared the park, he asked whether I had the gumption to tolerate the cold. With 38 degree water and an outside temp of 35, it would not be a cozy-warm day. That said, how could I visit Zion for the first time and NOT try?!

First things first: we needed the proper gear! We swung by Zion Adventure Company in Springdale to rent the goods. The guy on staff set us both up with four important items: a full-body drysuit, 5.10 canyoneering shoes, neoprene booties, and a walking stick. I’d never used a drysuit before, so it was kind of a trip! The outfit was basically an adult onesie {sans feet} made entirely of Gore-Tex. It had tight rubber seals around the wrists and ankles, as well as an adjustable neck seal and a waterproof zipper down the front. The guy assured me that no water could get inside, but it sure felt weird layering up with a down jacket and pants while knowing I was about to climb in the water!

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Once geared up, Will and I drove to the trailhead, loaded our packs with snacks and water, and began the hike up the canyon. The early-morning air was cold and I found myself growing nervous. Contrary to what my hobbies depict, my body does not do well with the cold. I have Reynaud’s which basically means my body freaks out and excessively decreases the blood flow to my hands and toes at the first signs of cold. It’s not a big deal but it does mean my fingers will stay sheet-white long after the rest of me has warmed up. It’s more of a hassle than anything, and I tend to wear one or two more layers than most people. But because of this, I was a bit apprehensive about the cold day ahead of us. Was I setting myself up for a day of misery?

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Those who hike The Narrows from the bottom up begin at the Temple of Sinawava and do not need a permit. The first mile is a paved, wheelchair-accessible path that runs alongside the canyon. Because it was 8:30 in the morning and the canyon was very shaded, I was immediately chilly. To combat this, Will suggested we power hike/run the paved mile in an attempt to get both my heart rate and body temp up. By the time we reached our entrance to the water, my Gore-Tex drysuit had trapped a ridiculous amount of heat inside. Nice and warm!

Y’all, I think I stared at the water for a solid five minutes before working up the guts to climb in! It seemed so wrong: why was I climbing into frigid water with layers of warm clothing on my body?! Nevertheless, I finally battled the mental demons and waded into the chilly water. And, surprise! I couldn’t feel anything!

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This is the face of someone who is trying to work up her courage!

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Yay! I’m in the water!

Once I realized that the drysuit did, in fact, keep water out, I grew more comfortable in the water. I gave Will the thumbs up that I was okay, and we began our trek upstream.

The beginning of the canyon was immediately spectacular. The water was shallow–maybe shin deep– so we barely had to use our walking sticks for solid footing. Instead, we admired the frozen waterfalls cascading down the canyon and the intricate snowflakes that stuck to the sandstone. Portions of the river had glass-like ice floating along the surface; I watched a few pieces lazily float downstream before smashing into submerged boulders in the water. I don’t have anything to compare it to, but truly: The Narrows are a special place in the winter.

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Our original plans were to make it at far as “Wall Street,” arguably the most scenic portion of The Narrows. This is where the canyon considerably narrows, creating a incredibly dramatic scenery. The guy at Zion Adventures had told us that Wall Street would be about 30 minutes after Orderville Canyon, so we kept that in mind as we continued our upstream trek. We passed the Orderville turn at 1:30, putting us a bit ahead of “standard” pace, so we figured we were almost there. But after hiking for another hour, we grew confused. Where in the world was Wall Street?!

At this point, I wasn’t comfortable. The drysuit worked as promised; my body was toasty warm inside my down jacket. Unfortunately, my feet were not faring as well. The drysuit rental did not have feet so instead, we were wearing thick neoprene booties inside our canyoneering shoes. And while the neoprene did the job for the first two hours, my poor circulation couldn’t keep my toes warm forever in the 38 degree water. They got painful around 1:30 and both of my feet went numb at two hours.

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Showing off my dry suit while thinking about my frozen toes

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But here is the thing: the rest of my body was totally warm; sweating even! I knew I couldn’t be causing any real damage if the rest of my body was hot, so I simply dealt with the discomfort. But as the hike upstream grew tougher with waist-deep water and stronger currents, it got more difficult to manage. I stumbled on a few rocks that my feet couldn’t feel and found myself wondering what else I was smashing into below the surface. But the scenery was so beautiful! And couldn’t I just make it to Wall Street?! My stubborn nature wouldn’t let me turn around until I got to see the best part of the hike!

Finally, Will called an audible. We’d been hiking upstream for 3.5 hours and I hadn’t been able to feel my feet for half of that time. Once the concern for my feet trumped the absurdly beautiful scenery, we knew it was time to turn around.

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We hiked an hour back, trying our hardest to pick up the pace to get out of the water as quickly as possible. But lo and behold, what did we find—Wall Street!

Somehow, we had *completely* missed Wall Street while hiking upstream! I think we had been focusing on our footing and chit chatting and strolled right through the narrow canyon. And truthfully, I still can’t believe we did it. Wall Street in the winter is one of the most stunning outdoor landscapes I’ve ever seen!

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With that silver lining added to our day, my spirits lifted. Numb feet or not, at least I had seen Wall Street! And even better: as we continued trekking downstream, my feet gradually regained feeling. As the water grew shallower, it also got warmer. By the end of our six hour excursion, I had fully regained feeling in my right foot and partially in the left.

Overall takeaway: I’d do this hike again in a heart beat!

The Narrows

Map thanks to Zion Outfitters

Postscript: When we returned our rental gear, we looked at the map of The Narrows on the wall. Turns out, we had hiked the full distance allowed for bottom-up hikers! {All the way to Big Springs.} No wonder we were in the water far longer than planned!

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22 Comments

  • Reply Joan March 23, 2016 at 12:51 pm

    Spectacular! Love your posts.

    • Reply heather March 25, 2016 at 3:09 pm

      Thanks Joan!

  • Reply Caryn March 23, 2016 at 10:25 pm

    Awesome replay! Thanks for the virtual tour with beautiful pictures. You’re a trooper in that freezing water – not sure I could do it.

    • Reply heather March 25, 2016 at 3:09 pm

      Don’t doubt yourself so much– you would’ve loved it 😉

  • Reply Katie @k8tlevy March 24, 2016 at 9:19 am

    Well jeez, I’m DEFINITELY adding this to the list for Dan and I! I love going to popular places in seasons when no one else is there, like we did with Yellowstone 🙂 So cool! Love the shots, and so glad your feet fared well enough!

    • Reply heather March 25, 2016 at 3:09 pm

      Oh man, you two would absolutely love The Narrows in the winter! Add it to the list!

  • Reply Friday Favorites: The Links I Love - March 25, 2016 - Nymph In The Woods March 25, 2016 at 9:05 am

    […] Hiking the Narrows in the Winter {Zion National Park} from Just a Colorado Gal – This sounded amazing! The pictures are gorgeous and I can just ALMOST imagine being there. Maybe someday! […]

  • Reply Liz March 25, 2016 at 2:32 pm

    Great write-up! I hadn’t heard of anyone hiking The Narrows in winter, but those are some great views. I’m pretty sure I make that same face trying to work up my courage all the time. Glad to hear your toes made it through the cold water okay 🙂

    • Reply heather March 25, 2016 at 3:10 pm

      Hahah they survived the torture 🙂

  • Reply The Padre March 25, 2016 at 2:37 pm

    Epic And Very Well Done!!

    Cheers

    • Reply heather March 25, 2016 at 3:10 pm

      Thanks friend!

  • Reply Jessica April 28, 2016 at 6:52 am

    I’ve been to Zion twice. The first time was literally a drive-through and the second time was a short day stop. I would like to go back and explore more someday. Although it looks awesome, I’m not sure I would like hiking in the water though since I have an irrational but complete fear of being in it. You overcame a challenge though too so maybe…. 🙂

  • Reply nigel September 5, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    Hello,

    I am dieing to go here and take my family. Would you recommend this hike witha 15 yr old girl in tow? How long is the hike and how long did it take? thanks and great pics.

  • Reply Kim January 6, 2017 at 10:25 pm

    Wow! The photos are amazing! Thanks for posting this– I’m going in a few weeks and considering whether or not to rent all the gear and muster up the courage to do the hike in the frigid water!

    • Reply Heather January 7, 2017 at 7:55 am

      Definitely do it. It was absolutely beautiful!

  • Reply Logan January 17, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    Well I’m sold!! Just asked Cody if we could do this over Pres. Day weekend. Any suggestions or tips that weren’t already on this post?

    • Reply Heather January 17, 2017 at 2:19 pm

      If you can find some type of dry suit for feet (if that is even a thing? Maybe a full-leg/toe dry suit), I’d go that route. The neoprene kept my feet warm for awhile but my toes were freaking freezing. And definitely do the dry suit route. Will did it in a wetsuit the first time he went years ago and the drysuit was much more pleasant!

  • Reply Tyler Dec January 30, 2017 at 2:56 pm

    Hi Heather,

    I am going to hike The Narrows this coming Friday and am planning on bringing a DSLR camera. Will I need a special bag to protect it from the water or will it never really rise up that high?

    Also, based on your Map it looks like it would take 9-10 hours round trip to hike up to Big Spring. We only have two days and are hiking Angels Landing on Thursday and Narrows on Friday, if we started at the trailhead around 630 or 7 am, would you suggest going all the way there in February or turning back around Floating Rock and using the rest of the day to see the other viewpoints in Zion?

    Glad I read your post! I was thinking of just hiking in water proof pants but now I am renting a dry suit from Zion Adventure Company.

    • Reply Heather January 30, 2017 at 3:18 pm

      Hey Tyler! YES! Rent the drysuit! Good choice 🙂 As for the rest: my husband carried his DSLR (hence the photos in this post) and did not have it in a dry bag. He carried it in a chest-mounted case that sits right on his sternum. When we were there, the water never got higher than my hip bones, and probably max of mid-thigh on him (He is 6 foot). Just make sure you also grab a walking stick from Zion Adventure. It sounds silly but poking that stick around will help you gain solid footing and make it less likely that both you and the camera go in the drink.

      Regarding your schedule: that depends. We did something similar to you (The Narrows on one day, Angel’s Landing the next day) and did the full hike to Big Spring. It got pretty darn cold and we hiked it quicker than the suggested 9-10 hours. That said, the cold *really* took it out of me and I was cashed for the rest of the day. I just wanted to warm up rather than spend more time outside. I do think hiking through the entire Narrows is worthwhile but I’d hit “pause” and see how you feel afterwards before planning too much else that day.

      Also: don’t forget some type of traction devices for Angel’s Landing! It’s covered in ice in the winter and can be quite dangerous without them. If you have them, no problem!

  • Reply Sandy Ervin February 11, 2017 at 3:29 pm

    Thank you for this story!!! My husband and I are going to do the narrows this month or early next month and I have been kind of dreading it due to the fact being cold and wet are not some of my favorites!! After reading your story I feel I am much more prepared mentally for it and can’t wait to do it!!! I am almost 50 and just have started my hiking life, tired of being a spectator in life and ready to really participate!! I have a pretty healthy fear of heights, one of my first hikes was Angels Landing in Zion…what a way to get our of your comfort zone and fight those fears!! I am gobbling up your stories…thank you for being such an inspiration!!

    • Reply Heather February 12, 2017 at 7:32 pm

      Hi Sandy! Feel free to email if you have any additional questions about The Narrows!

  • Reply Eleanor February 17, 2017 at 8:22 am

    Heather- what a wonderful and informative post! I’m heading to Zion next Thursday and will hike The Narrows. It’s my first trip there, and after reading about your adventures, it has me even more excited!! Thank you for sharing!

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