Zion National Park reopens the Narrows, but risks remain

Spring closure, caused by the melt of a record snowpack, was the second longest on record

After the second-longest closure in recent history, the Narrows hike at Zion National Park has finally reopened — just in time for monsoon season.

One of the most popular hikes in one of the most popular national parks, the Narrows follows the path of the Virgin River through the vibrant red slot canyon for which the park is named. It has been closed since April 8, however, as the runoff from this winter’s record snowpack rendered the river’s water levels too high to safely wade through.

At its peak in early May, the river was running at more than 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). Not until June 19 did water levels settle below 150 cfs for at least 24 hours — the standard park managers use to determine when to open the trail in the spring. According to park records, which date back a dozen years, that 72-day closure is second in length only to the 77 days the Narrows was closed in 2019.

That year Utah also saw a high snowpack. The difference, according to Nick Whittier, the supervisory hydrologist for the United States Geological Survey’s Cedar City field office, was that May 2019 was colder than this past one. So, the river flow stayed high longer.

Whittier said snowmelt shouldn’t cause the park to close the Narrows again this year, but something else might.

“It’s been a pretty steady decline just over the last month, generally speaking,” Whittier said of the water levels. “And it should do the same until we start having monsoons. July and August are notorious for monsoons, and that’s when they start to close the narrows again.”

The Narrows closures during Virgin River high water flows in Zion National Park

In 2019, the Virgin River peaked during a monsoon, not during the long spring runoff. In 2021, flash floods tore through the park as early as June 30, causing damage to roads and trails. Last year flooding didn’t begin until late July. A woman died in August, however, after she and several other Narrows hikers were caught in a monsoon. During that storm, between a half inch and 1 ½ inches of rain fell in the park within a short period of time.

In a blog post Wednesday, OpenSnow meteorologist Alan Smith indicated visitors may have up to another month before they have to worry about monsoons.

“Confidence is high that the monsoon will be arriving later than usual this year,” he wrote, “possibly not until late July.”

Zion spokesperson Jonathan Shafer said protocol is for park managers to close the Narrows whenever the river goes over 150 cfs and whenever the National Weather Service issues a flash flood warning for the area. The trail will remain closed for two hours after the river hits that high-water threshold and/or until the flash flood warning expires.

“Every year and every day the Narrows can change,” Shafer said. “That’s why it’s so important for folks to plan ahead and know what to expect.”

Even without the risk of flash flooding, Shafer warned the hike can be perilous. He said river temperatures have been in the 50s. Plus, while flow levels have been well below the threshold for opening the hike, they are not low.

“Even though where you start the hike the water may be relatively shallow, there are areas where you’ll go, especially farther upstream, where you may end up in water up to your chest,” he said. “Keep in mind that the river is going to be pushing back at 80 cfs or 100 cfs. It’s easy to get tired quickly.”

The website ZionGuru.com notes it takes an “athletic” effort to get through the hike when water levels are close to 90 cfs. It recommends no one under 4-foot-6 and 80 pounds attempt the hike at current conditions.

Shafer also advised Narrows hikers to bring plenty of food and water. The Virgin River and other streams within Zion are currently carrying significant levels of toxic cyanobacteria, which cannot be easily or reliably filtered out of water. If ingested, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the bacteria can cause stomach pain, headache, dizziness, diarrhea, vomiting and other issues.

(Ally O'Rullian | NPS) Search and rescue team members wearing bright colored dry suits, gloves and helmets hold a yellow rope on both sides of the Virgin River while participating in swift-water rescue training in Zion National Park. The Narrows reopened June 19, 2023, after being closed since early April because of high water levels.

“Because there’s no known treatment to remove that from water, we recommend that you carry your own, " Shafer said. “You can fill up at the free water bottle filling stations throughout the park or come prepared.”

Perhaps also come prepared for increased crowds. The bridge that provides easiest access to one of the park’s other most popular trails, Emerald Pools, has been closed since mid-May. Though two other routes to that attraction exist — one from shuttle stop No. 4 and one from stop No. 6 — that closure combined with the recent opening of the Narrows could push more visitors to that hike.

Those who decide to venture into the Narrows from the bottom of the canyon can go up as far as Big Springs, a roughly 9-mile round-trip excursion. Trips can also be taken down from the top of the canyon, from Chamberlain’s Ranch to the Temple of Sinawava. That roughly 16-mile hike requires a wilderness permit and can be done as an overnight trip.

Waterproof shoes or water shoes with closed toes are recommended, as are warm clothes. Shafer said some visitors also wear wet or dry suits and carry walking sticks. He stressed that Narrows hikers should check the forecast for any signs of rain before entering the slot canyon. He also advised touching base with a park ranger to get more information.

Considering the amount of water that has rushed through the canyon this spring, some of the canyon’s features may have changed. Shafer said that’s to be expected.

“The flow of the Virgin River is one of the forces that created Zion Canyon,” Shafer said. “So anytime that the scenery here changes, that’s a normal part of Zion being Zion.”