top of page
Search

Packrafting the Zion Narrows: A 1-night trip on Utah's North Fork of the Virgin River


Why Packraft the Zion Narrows?: Flowing through the heart of Zion National Park, the Zion Narrows section of the North Fork of the Virgin has long been a popular backpacking route when the water levels are low. During a short window each year during the spring snowmelt, the Narrows has paddleable flows. There are very few rivers on earth with such sheer-walled and dramatic canyons that remain accessible to the intermediate-level paddler. Either as a long day trip or an overnight trip, the Narrows is worth catching for those seeking a unique desert canyon paddling experience.


Route Overview:


The Hike (Upper N Fork Virgin to Deep Creek): Much of the water passing through the Narrows is contributed by Deep Creek, a tributary that joins the Virgin 9 miles downstream of the trailhead. Most parties hike to the Deep Creek confluence before putting on, though on occasion this section has enough water to paddle. It is a stunning 5-hour hike to get to Deep Creek, so give yourself enough time to enjoy the walk. From the trailhead at Chamberlain Ranch, cross the river and continue along the road. The road will eventually transition to a trail before that dissipates. Follow the river downstream as it is squeezed through increasingly narrow canyon walls. Due to the frequent wadding on slippery rocks and through silty water, a one-piece paddle or trekking pole is useful. Most of the wading is short and less than two feet in depth. Near the confluence of Deep Creek, you will encounter a river-wide waterfall. A crack in the canyon wall on the left offers an easy route around or a portage option. The falls have been paddled, but current wood in both the lip and the runout is worth a scout before committing. After one final narrows, the canyon opens at the confluence with Deep Creek which offers a fantastic spot to transition to paddling.


The Paddle (Deep Creek to Temple of Shinawava):

From the confluence, the Narrows maintains a quick pace with frequent class II, occasionally interrupted by class III boulder gardens formed by rockfall debris. Eddies exist throughout but would become cluttered with a large group. Most of the whitewater consists of simple cross-current moves away from canyon walls and outside bends. The first few miles go by quickly, so catch lots of eddies and keep track of the campsite markers labeled on posts during the first 2.5 miles of the run. These markers also are not only helpful if you plan to camp, but they also help identify upcoming hazards. As of April 2024, the are 3 rapids that deviate from the largely II-III character of the run, with the first two located just below campsite 10 and then immediately adjacent to campsite 12. The first of these is a fresh and sharp but paddleable (or portagable) class IV drop and the second is definite portage that would be very dangerous to float into unprepared. Keep your eyes peeled for the campsite 12 sign on river left and portage through the site. After the campsites, Big Springs gushes in from river right and marks a shift in character to a lower gradient but mind-numbingly dramatic canyon. There are a few narrow sections that can trap wood, and we did one portage of a river-wide log just below Orderville Canyon. The last rapid of significance is a III+/IV- series of ledges that comes right as you emerge from the canyon and become the main attraction for hundreds of tourists along the riverside walk. Smile! The common takeout is at the Temple of Sinawava trailhead which offers some grassy places to dry out and pack.


Difficulty/Hazard:

I wanted to share a few thoughts about the difficulty of this run given it is hard to capture the character in a short paragraph. American Whitewater gives this section a III-V grade and Zion National Park documentation suggests this section should only be attempted by class V paddlers. This rating simultaneously reflects the serious nature of this run while also inflating the actual difficulty of whitewater within the Narrows. This paradox exists because a run like the Narrows highlights the limitations of the International Rating systems. The majority of the Narrows could be described as grade II-III (with a few exceptions). The reality is that the rating is not just a reflection of the difficulty of the paddling but also the consequence and exposure (remoteness) of the run. So while this is very much a section that could be paddled by beginning to intermediate packrafters with good leadership, the consequence of a swim or an injury in this location could be severe. There is no hiking out of the Narrows. Even though this trip is frequently done as a day trip, a robust repair kit, extra paddle, emergency communication device, complete med-kit, and contingency plan are essential. Unlike some National Parks, Zion has granted paddlers access to this incredible resource and it is critical that we treat this run with respect to ensure access for future paddlers. If class III is at the upper end of your ability, consider doing this with more competent peers, at the lower end of flows, and as an overnight trip. Someone in the group must have competence catching micro eddies to boat scout for wood. The below photos highlight the rockfall portage, some of the tight passages that can collect debris, and a recent wood hazard.


Water Levels

Zion National Park opens the Narrows to paddling at flows of 150 cfs so long as the levels have remained above that threshold for 24 hours. Depending on the year, April through early June tends to be the best time to catch the river with water. At the start of the season, it is common for this run to have a large diurnal fluctuation and run brown. It takes a while for snowmelt from the high plateaus at 10,000 feet to hit the Narrows which means this peak often comes in the evening or early morning. It was fun to watch this big fluctuation from our campsite during the evening. Later in the season, these big diurnal swings moderate and the river tends to run clear with a more predictable flow regimen. If you are hoping to paddle the section from the trailhead to Deep Creek, you will need at least 400 cfs on the gauge and to be in tune with the diurnal fluctuation of flows. Hitting the peak during daylight hours can be the trick. Another access consideration is that in some years the lingering snow on the road to Chamberlain Ranch will prevent early season access, even when the Narrows is flowing.


The dashed lines on the hydrograph below reflect our put-in times on each day of our trip. The gauge was reading 265 cfs when we put in at Deep Creek on day 1 and 320 cfs when we launched from campsite 12 on day 2. We found the river to be filled in nicely but not pushy. If you are an intermediate paddler, I suggest 150-300 cfs for your first Narrows trip. If you are an advanced paddler, don't be picky with the flows. This run is about the scenery and not the whitewater, so low flows are no less magical.



Permits:

If flows have held over 150 cfs for 24 hours, Zion Nation Park closes the Narrows to backpackers and opens it to paddlers. Permits can issued in person at the Wilderness desk of the Zion National Park Visitor Center between 8 am and 5 pm on the day prior to your launch. This is to make sure those who are doing this route give themselves adequate time (including the shuttle) to make it through the Narrows before dark.


Camping:

While it is quite possible to paddle the Narrows as a full-day trip, this experience is worth savoring. For day trips, get a 6 am shuttle to the trailhead to ensure enough time and daylight. For overnights, there are 12 campsites between Deep Creek and Big Springs to choose from (numbered from upstream to downstream). I'm glad we did our first trip as an overnight which allowed us to be less focused on making miles and more focused on taking in the scenery. We liked camping at site 12 given it splits up the canyon nicely and also is the portage location.


Transportation:

Shuttle Services:

This run requires a 1.5-hour shuttle (one way) between the Visitor Center and the trailhead at Chamberlain Ranch. Road conditions can vary but 4WD is preferred and often necessary in the mud season during snowmelt. There are a few shuttle companies that routinely drive this route throughout the backpacking season and have become accustomed to shuttling paddlers as well. The company we used, Red Rock Shuttle, charges $60/person, but requires a minimum payment for at least 4 passengers. Call to see if other paddlers have booked, go with a group of 4 or be prepared to pay for 4 seats. They offered shuttle departure times of 6:00 am and 9:30 am from the Zion National Park Visitor Center. The Visitor Center offers overnight parking for your vehicle.

Park Bus

To minimize the impacts of congestion and excessive parking within the narrow confines of the park, Zion does not permit personal vehicle travel into the park beyond the Visitor Center without a special pass. While it might be an unpopular opinion in the U.S., I hope more parks adopt this model. Zion offers a reliable and complimentary bus service that was simple to use. The takeout, at the Temple of Sinawava is at the end of the line with buses departing every 5 minutes and making stops at each trailhead before returning to the Visitor Center (~45 minutes).


21 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page