Zion Narrows Photography Tips
Considered one of the greatest day hikes in North America, the famous Virgin River Narrows in Zion National Park (Zion Narrows) is a photographers playground. Southwest USA is littered with slot canyons to explore, however the Narrows is somewhat unique owing to the fact you spend the majority of the time hiking through a river. The Virgin river creates some amazing photography opportunities, however water and cameras don't really mix to well so it's fair to say it adds an additional layer of complexity to this exciting slot canyon that the photographer must take into account.
This article will focus on the Narrows from the "Bottom Up" approach; the alternative "Top Down" route requires a backcountry permit, an overnight stay in the canyon and additional gear such as ropes. While it is no doubt an amazing experience, from a photography point of view, Bottom Up is the way to go.
When to go
The Narrows is open most of the year, however certain times will be best for optimal image making. The Narrows is closed for most of the spring months due to run-off from the snow melt, and while possible to hike in winter it will be very cold. Summer and autumn are the best times to visit the Narrows; summer being warmer but more crowded, and autumn being chillier but quieter. Autumn has the added advantage of fall colours on the limited trees within the Narrows, if you time your visit right. Personally, I visited in late September before the autumn colours hit.
Flash floods are a risk year-round but particularly in summer and the first half of September. The Narrows will be closed if there is a risk of a flash flood, so always check the weather forecast and with the park visitor centre before setting off. Flash flooding can cause the water flow to spike to perhaps as much as 1000% the flow levels before the flood hit. A few days before I arrived in Zion, severe flash flooding occurred in many parts of Southern Utah including Zion. The flow of the Virgin River spiked from a relatively gentle 40-50 cfs to almost 3000 cfs. The Narrows is closed to visitors when water flow exceeds 150 cfs. Flash floods are no joke; they can and do kill - pay attention to the forecast and listen to the warnings of park rangers. Typically it will not take long for water levels to return to normal - in my case the Narrows flooded on a Tuesday and was open again two days later. It may be a good idea, particularly if visiting in the summer months which carry a higher risk of thunderstorms and flash floods, to allow several days of buffer if you consider the Narrows to be an unmissable experience.
Clothing / Accessories
It can get cold in the Narrows as it does not receive much direct sunlight, and this is true even of summer. In the warmer months you will likely be fine hiking in quick-dry shorts and a quick-dry shirt, however you should bring a fleece with you just in case. Fleece will stay warm even when wet so it makes an ideal insulation layer in here. Do not wear or bring any cotton garments, stick to quick dry synthetic fabrics. In the cooler months you may require a wet suit or even a dry suit to stay warm; these can be rented from several outfitters in Springdale. These outfitters can also rent neoprene socks to help keep your feet warm, as well as canyoneering shoes, walking sticks and dry bags. Footwear is a very personal choice; you should wear something comfortable that won't give you blisters, however I found the Five Ten Canyoneer shoes I rented in town to be quite comfortable and incredibly grippy on the slippery rocks in the river. I wore these with regular socks, as I did not find the neoprene ones comfortable. A walking stick is an essential - this will save you on many occasions from taking a fall into the river, and help you keep your balance as you navigate the slippery rocks underneath the water and to prod and feel for unexpected deep sections as you advance. You can use a hiking pole you already own, or rent a large wooden stick in town. Finally - dry bags, bring enough of these to keep everything you want to stay dry, dry. Double-bag anything particularly valuable or sensitive, such as electronic car keys, wallets, mobile phones etc.
Water depth / terrain
The depth and flow of the water will vary by season, however in late September I found that most of the time I was hiking in water that was little more than knee-deep. The deepest section I encountered was not far from Big Springs, at which the water came up to my armpits. I am rather tall at approximately 6'1" so for a shorter person, this may have been a swim rather than a walk as it was in my case. From time-to-time there would be sections of dry riverbank and high ground you can walk on, however for much of the time there is no choice other than walking through the river. When I visited, the flash flood from a few days earlier had left the water browner than usual and far more opaque - as a result I could not properly gauge depth purely by sight and relied greatly on my walking stick to help navigate the deeper sections. Earlier in the year, particularly just after the Narrows has reopened after the spring run-off, water levels may be significantly higher and require more swimming as well as much more care in walking and crossing, lest you be overpowered by the current and slip into the river.
The following items are essential for getting the most out of your trip through the Narrows:
- A DSLR or digital or film medium format, or large format
- Sturdy, reliable tripod
- Polarising filter
- Wide-angle zoom lens (Eg 16-35, 14-24, 24-70 or similar, FF equiv.)
- Cleaning cloths
- Memory cards
- Spare batteries
- A pack capable of keeping the camera bone-dry
A number of options exist to satisfy the final point on that list. Waterproof bags designed specifically for cameras are available on the market from several manufacturers, although the other option (and the one I used) is to simply use a regular dry-bag to store the camera inside a regular backpack. Even if water got into the backpack, the dry bag housing the camera would keep it dry. I took an f-stop Satori EXP backpack into the Narrows with a Small Pro ICU. With my camera inside the ICU, I was able to buy two dry bags large enough to double-bag the ICU giving it totally waterproof protection within my backpack.
The disadvantage to this setup is obvious: compared to a dedicated waterproof camera bag, this was slow and cumbersome to access the camera. Accordingly, I quickly resorted to simply carrying the camera over my shoulder or under my arm, still attached to the tripod, as I moved through the Narrows. In the event of a slip or fall this would have been catastrophic as the camera would likely have gone for a swim, however it was a big time saver. When crossing particularly deep sections I would return the camera back to it's dry bag solution before attempting to cross. Ultimately it's up to you how you decide to approach it, as long as you have a means of keeping the camera dry for sections that require chest-deep wading or even swimming, you can choose how accessible you want the camera to be for the rest of the hike.
Getting the best photos
The aforementioned wide-angle zoom lens will be needed to give you the greatest flexibility in your images. Although you could choose to shoot this place with a prime (or primes) I wouldn't recommend it - not only will you be limited in focal length options, changing lenses in here is less than ideal. There won't always be a convenient place to set your bag down to access each lens, and the more lenses you bring, the more you need to keep dry. Zooming is also useful to eliminate any 'hotspots' in the canyon - these being areas receiving direct sunlight, typically higher on the canyon walls. As most of the canyon is quite dark, areas of direct sunlight will almost certainly blow out on your exposure. Try and stick to bringing one lens - ideally I'd recommend a 16-35 or similar; personally I found most of my shots were taken between around 18 and 28mm, however your mileage may vary. A polariser for this lens is essential, as there are reflections abound in the Narrows and you want to ensure you can cut through as much glare as possible.
At certain time of day, the walls of the canyon will take on a brilliant glow caused by sunlight reflected through the canyon - assuming you are visiting on a clear day. This is what you want to concentrate on shooting if possible. Throughout the day the areas subject to glow will change; I remember shooting some areas as I walked up-stream and seeing no glow, then as I headed back downstream in the afternoon, the walls were glowing brightly. Typically, late morning and early afternoon will provide the best chance of glowing light. Make sure you turn around and look behind you regularly - I often found that while looking straight ahead the light might be flat, right behind me the wall was glowing.
It does go without saying but be prepared to get wet. Aside from the fact that navigating the Narrows can mean anything up to and including swimming, some of the best compositions will require you to set up your equipment in the middle of the river. Don't just hug the shoreline; you will miss out on many good shots. In times of higher water flow, you may be a little more limited in this regard however.
Try and shoot a variety of compositions - low down, close to the river using the rapids for foreground interest; incorporate rocks or canyon walls into your foreground; and make sure you take plenty of shots in both portrait and landscape orientation. The shot to the left is one of my favourites from the Narrows; featuring rapids to lead you into the scene, a strong and beautiful orange glow on the canyon walls and a large boulder that is framed between the darker side walls of the canyon with the glow sitting above it. This was captured in the early afternoon as I was heading out of the Narrows - when I first passed this boulder in the morning, the light was flat and dull!
Certain areas of the Narrows are naturally more photogenic than others; these are the spots you will want to concentrate on. If you have the time (and energy) it would be ideal to devote two or more days to the Narrows; spend the first walking through scouting locations and noting the best times of day for the light in each spot, and revisit armed with that knowledge the next day. This was my original plan; unfortunately the flash flooding I discussed earlier meant that the Narrows was open only one of the days I had booked in Zion. If you only have one day, don't worry - this is still plenty of time to complete the entire bottom-up hike and come home with plenty of great images. You'll want to start very early to get ahead of the crowds as well. The section so-named "Wall Street" is probably the area with the nicest photography opportunities - and specifically, the section between the Orderville Canyon junction and perhaps one-mile away from the end of the hike (Big Springs) is where I spent most of my time. Although not a particularly long hike from a distance perspective at only 10 miles return (to the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop) the regular photo stops and slow pace through the river means that it will consume most of your day. I started the walk at around 7:45am and got back to the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop around 4:30pm, however I did spend a lot of time photographing.
I hope this has been useful. The Zion Narrows truly is an amazing place to visit and I would have no hesitation going back again and again. Feel free to jump over to my galleries page to check out some additional photos shot on my visit to the Narrows.