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Virgin River, Utah
Report by Marc W. McCord

North Fork of the Virgin River
Sinawava to South Campground
~ 8.5 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Virgin River forms as several forks in Kane and Washington Counties of far southwestern Utah in and around Zion National Park, then converge into the mainstream that flows down into Arizona in far northwestern Cococino County before flowing under IH 15, into Nevada and to its end at Lake Mead. The forks are the East Fork, North Fork, Right Fork, North Left Fork, South Left Fork and one or two others that apparently are nameless because they ran out of forks. None of the forks or the mainstream is lengthy, but they do pack a wallop into the short distance they flow.

The North Fork of the Virgin River forms within the boundries of Zion Natonal Park in Washington County of extreme southwestern Utah, then flows through the park past its southern boundry to its confluence with the mainstream of the Virgin River just south of Springdale and east of Rockville. Its total length is about 33 miles, though this description is limited to about 8.5 miles within the park boundries. Private property lies beyond the park, but boating can be done as long as paddlers are aware of where they are and where they may legally depart the river.

All around the North Fork is a scenic wonderland of immense natural beauty. Forested mountains and a very remote location are special added attractions to this awesome river that might rate high on any whitewater boater's list of favorite paddling destinations if not for the very short and unreliable season coupled with the long driving distance required to get here. Towns around the river are very small, very few and devoid of any big city problems or conveniences. However, none of that really matters when you are on the river. This reach begins on easy Class I to II water at the Temple of Sinawava and remains that way for about 5 of the total 8.5 miles of this reach, though peak season flows can raise the difficulty factor to class III status. The "easy" section ends at Birch Creek bridge near the Court of the Patriarchs, with an easy take-out for those not wanting to run the bigger stuff below. The next couple of miles is a wilderness thrill ride on Class III to IV whitewater that can reach Class V to V+ status on the larger drops during high flow periods, which usually occur right around the first of May. For this reach, runs end on about 1.5 miles of Class II to III whitewater down to the take-out bridge near the Zion visitor center where the Watchman and South Campgrounds are located. Shuttles are a breeze - you are required to utilize the park service's buses to reach the put-in, and your vehicle will be waiting there for your return. If you need a little more river time, then let it wait as you grab a shuttle back to the top and do it again!


Washington County in far southwestern Utah near the Arizona and Nevada borders. Las Vegas is about 2 hours to the southwest and Salt Lake City is about 5-6 hours to the north.

Distance from major cities

Salt Lake City 300 miles; Las Vegas 140 miles; Phoenix 318 miles; Flagstaff 180 miles; Albuquerque 594 miles; Durango 500 miles; Grand Junction 367 miles; Denver 613 miles; Oklahoma City 1,238 miles; Dallas 1,346 miles; Austin 1,336 miles; San Antonio 1,363 miles; Houston 1,522 miles; Little Rock 1,514 miles; Kansas City 1,500 miles (all distances are approximate, depending upon starting point, destination point at the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Water quality is usually very good to excellent during the short season of navigable flows. The river needs a flow of at least 140 cfs for boating without dragging, and flows above about 400 cfs become dangerously high for the obstacles to be encountered. An optimum flow would be about 250-350 cfs.

Best time to go

As a rule, mid-April through the end of May is the season of navigable flow on the Virgin River. It is also the time of year when weather conditions are most favorable, leaving behind the cold winter, but not yet into the hottest part of summer.

Hazards to navigation

Most of the North Fork run within Zion National Park boundries could be considered hazardous for boaters without sufficient whitewater skills, or who are careless and lazy. At high flows this entire run could be hazardous for anybody with the possible exception of expert whitewater hairboat kayakers who thrive on steep creek descents. The meat of the run comes below Birch Creek bridge, at about 5 miles below the put-in at the Temple of Sinawava, with Corral Falls that is quickly followed by Satan's Staircase consisting of over a mile of truly exciting rapids and drops through boulder garden rapids that can be choked with dead-fallen trees and tree debris. Though normally Class III to IV on the International Scale of Difficulty, this section has drops that can have Class V to V+ characteristics and/or consequences when flows approach 350-400 cfs. Over about 400 cfs, you had better be prepared for a fast and furious ride that leaves little time for decisions and no time for mistakes. Dead-fall is a potential problem along the entire run, so keep your eyes open for obstacles, as well as places to avoid them. If you have a problem and fail to return, then park rangers will probably notice your vehicle, with the canoe or kayak rack on top, sitting in the parking lot and unmoved for a few days after which time they will probably send out a search party to find out what happened to you.

River Access Points

Temple of Sinawava access in Zion National Park at 0.0 miles (park entrance fees and a free backcountry permit are required); Birch Creek bridge at about 5.0 miles; Court of the Patriarchs parking lot adjacent to the park visitor center at about 8.5 miles.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Watchman and South campgrounds, with excellent facilities and amenities, are available within the boundries of Zion National Park near the south entrance close to where the Virgin River flows. Quail Creek State Park, between SH 9 and IH 15 just below Hurricane, offers excellent campsites with and without water, restrooms, showers and other amenities. Snow Canyon State Park is located a few miles off the river northwest of St. George, offering excellent campsites with amenities; Gunlock State Park is just west of Snow Canyon State Park, and offers similar facilities. There are no public campgrounds located along or near the river below St. George. Natural campsites are available all along the river, but beware of camping on private property.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no known liveries or outfitters located on or near the Virgin River. Bring everything you need and run your own shuttles. Depending upon the length of your trip, shuttles can take from a short time to several hours, Plan your schedule accordingly.

Reviewer's comments

Paddling in a national park is always a grand experience. As a rule, vehicles are usually safe where you leave them, and in this case, they are close to where they will be observed. The surrounding area is drop-dead gorgeous, and accents an equally pretty river that offers excellent, yet moderate, whitewater thrills. There are many places to visit and things to see within and around the park boundries in an area that is extremely remote, though a few small towns are not far away. Beware the North Fork of the Virgin River at high flows, because it can and will be dangerous regardless of skills or experience. Nights will be cool to cold, though daytime temperatures will be moderate, usually in the 60's to 70's during the normal season of mid-April through May, so be sure to bring clothing for all climate and weather conditions. The water in the river will be snowmelt cold, so wearing a wetsuit or drysuit with a water-repelling base layer might be a good idea. Bring your camera, because this is a place to capture some truly once-in-a-lifetime photos of Mother Nature's finest hour.

Technical Data
Class Rating I to V (V+)
Length 8.5 miles
Minimum Flow 150 cfs
Optimum Flow 250-350 cfs
Maximum Flow 400 cfs
First Put-in Sinawava
Lat/Long 37.2846985 / -112.947998
Last Take-out South Campground
Lat/Long 37.201519 / -112.9866257
Elevation msl
Gradient 55 fpm av. / 110 fpm max.
USGS Gauge Web: Springdale
Boats Canoes w/ flotation, Kayaks, Rafts
Season mid-April through May
Permits Yes, Zion N/P.

Canoeman River Guide Service - Guided river trips in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

Lone Star Paddler - the paddlesports web site of Marc W. McCord

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Virgin River and its tributaries where you want to paddle.

[ Virgin River Homepage ] [ Virgin, UT to Littlefield, AZ ]

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