Rivers and Streams

The Virgin River in The Narrows.

"In the desert, the two primary elements are stone and water. Stone comes in abundance, exposed by weathering and a lack of vegetation. It is a canvas. Water crosses this stone with such rarity and ferocity that it tells all of its secrets in the shapes left behind.” -Craig Childs, The Desert Cries

The Virgin River

The Virgin River and its tributaries run through Zion National Park. This water is the primary agent of erosion that continues to carve and shape Zion.

The North Fork of the Virgin River begins north of Zion at Cascade Falls, where it drains out of Navajo Lake at 9,000 feet above sea level. The East Fork of the Virgin River originates above Long Valley. Both the North and East Forks of the Virgin River run through the park and empty into Lake Mead at about 1000 feet above sea level, where it joins the Colorado River.

Though the Virgin River is relatively small, it is incredibly steep. The river drops roughly 7,800 feet in the 160 miles it travels. In the park, the river drops an average of 71 feet every mile. In comparison, the Mississippi River drops about one inch every mile. This steepness, caused by the uplift of the Colorado Plateau, has given the Virgin River the ability to cut through sandstone and carve canyons.

Though most of the year the Virgin River runs an average of 100 cubic feet per second, it transports about one million tons of sediment every year. Most of this sediment transport occurs during floods, when the river can swell to thousands of cubic feet per second. These flood events can carry large boulders and rip cottonwood trees out of the ground. It is this powerful force of water that continues to carve the canyon.

On March 30, 2009, the upper section of the Virgin River and its tributaries were designated as Wild and Scenic Rivers. What is a Wild and Scenic River?

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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Zion National Park
1 Zion Park Blvd.

Springdale, UT 84767


If you have questions, please email zion_park_information@nps.gov. Listen to recorded information by calling anytime 24 hours a day. Rangers answer phone calls from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. MT, but a ranger may not answer if they are already speaking with someone else.

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