During your road trip through Utah and Arizona, you will make your way to Zion National Park where there are a countless hikes and trials that you can do. While most of them are free and open to the public, there are certain hikes, canyoneering activities, and overnight backpacking treks that require you to obtain a permit in advance. This short article will walk you through the Top-Down Narrows hike available in Zion National Park, what you need to know before applying for a reservation and ways to apply.
Narrows Top-Down Backpacking Trip
Quick Facts About This Hike
Length of Trail: 16 Miles
Hiking Time: 10-12 hours for single day hike and 12-18 hours for overnight hike with gear
When To Hike: During the Summer and Fall seasons. The Narrows is closed from mid-March to late-May due to spring run off from the mountains. If you decide to hike the Narrows during the winter months, be sure to bring waiters, drysuit, or wetsuit as water temperatures can reach near that of freezing.
Gear: Closed toed hiking boots are advised as you will be wading through a river that has a rocky bottom. For clothing, we recommend dry fit hiking pants or athletic gear as you'll be wading through the water. A walking stick is recommended as well if you are looking for stability among the rocks. For overnight gear, the camping essentials such as a tent, sleeping and cooking gear are necessary.
Potential Dangers of the Hike: Flash floods are a potential hazard of the hike. Be sure to check the weather and flood warnings before hiking. If rain is in the forecast, do not attempt the hike.
Time in Advance You Need to Apply For a Permit: 3 months
How to Apply: Either Online through the NPS Website, Online Last-Minute Drawing, or Walk-In
What To Know Before You Go Information
Hikers can obtain a Day-use Trail Canyoneering or Overnight Backpacking wilderness permit which allows them to start from the top of 18 mile Narrows river trail at the upper plateau of the North Fork and hiked down to the bottom. This is the lesser known way of hiking the Narrows (conversely going from the bottom-up) but it is a very rewarding hike that offers a unique experience as you slowly walk through the deep slots formed from the flowing river upstream.
For experienced hikers that are conditioned, they consider this a grueling hike that takes around 12 hours to complete under good weather conditions. If you decide on taking the trail at a leisurely pace, there are 12 overnight campsites available along the way. Many of these campsites have limited capacity (typically only 4-6 people per campsite, with some up to 12 and one that allows 2) and you are not allowed to stay at a single campsite from more then one night. An example a campsite description from the NPS website is shown below:
Water Level's, Flash Floods, and Spring Runoff
Woah, you mean I can't just hike the Narrows without any preparation? I thought Utah was dry and airy during the summer? There are three important things to consider when making your reservation for the Narrows Top-Down.
The first is that the NPS will not issue permits if the water level in the river is too high (over 120 cfs). Typically in the Narrows you will hike in water between 50 cfs, which is considered easy and safe, to 100 cfs, which is difficult and more dangerous. Be mindful and check the cfs at the visitor center to make sure you are comfortable with completing the hike. (CFS - Cubic Feet Per Second. It is the measure of the volume of water passing a specific point each second of time)
The second thing to consider is the risk of flash floods. While it may be clear skies right above you at the time, the risk of flash floods that occur miles upstream is very real. Make sure you check the weather upstream and consider if the hike is do able given the conditions. The below diagram from the NPS Zion Park Newspaper explains more:
The third is to be mindful of the season. The Narrows is closed between mid-March to the end of May due to the spring run off from the snow melting in the mountains up the river. Depending on the amount of snowfall from the winter, the hike may take longer to open so make sure the check conditions before visiting.
Reservation and Permit Cost
When making a reservation, there is a standard $5 cost associated with every application. If you have obtained a permit, the cost depends on the size of your party. As of October 2018, here is the cost of the permit:
Party Size 1-2: $15
Party Size 3-7: $20
Party Size 8-12: $25
How To Make A Reservation
Now that you have some background information about the hike and are ready to take it on, here's how you can apply for a reservation. As stated earlier, there are 3 different ways to apply: Online, Last-Minute Drawing, and Walk-In.
Online Reservation: If you're planning your trip far ahead of time, an online reservation is the best way to take your chances at obtaining a permit. Over half of the permits issued for Top-Down are through an advance online reservation system and reservations available on the 5th day of every month at 10am Mountain Time (that's 12pm EST). In the past years, there has been a heavy increase in reservations so to improve your chances, it is best to log on an apply as soon as the clock strikes 10am. Below is a walk-through of how to make a reservation through the NPS website:
Last-Minute Reservation: Let's say that you have planned your trip, are leaving in the next week, and come across this awesome hike. Thankfully, there is a last minute drawing reservation available that are take 2 days (until noon) and 7 days in advance. The reservation process can be viewed below:
Walk-In Permits: Walk in permits are available one day in advance and can only be obtained at the Zion Park Visitor Center. With this option, we would say that you would have to be very lucky to obtain a permit during the summer-early fall months due to the popularity of the trail. If it's very short notice, it is always worth trying for one! The hours of operation are as followed from the NPS Website:
Hiking the Narrows Top-Down is an experience that is worth the hassle of going through the permit process. While it is difficult to obtain during the summer and fall, we recommend trying for a late September/early October reservation spot because there are more available. Thank you for reading this article and if you are interested in taking a road trip out West for 10 days through our Utah and Arizona, check out our itinerary on the main page!