By Michael Lanza
In the refrigerator-like shade at the bottom of a fissure hundreds of feet deep, somewhere in the labyrinth of sandstone canyons that dice up the backcountry of Zion National Park, our keyhole-shaped passageway narrows to the width of a doorway. A shallow, ice-water creek pumps along this slot canyon’s floor, which drops off before us about four feet into a pool extending some 30 feet ahead of us. We’ve been informed the water temperature is around 51° F. And it looks deep.
We’re going for a chilly swim.
But we came prepared for it. My friend David Gordon and I pull dry suits from our packs and slip into them, tugging the heavy zipper tightly closed and sealing the suit’s snug gaskets around our necks, wrists, and ankles. Then I relax and watch as David, my willing and able guinea pig, hoists his pack overhead and slides over the edge into the pool.
David and I are a few hours into a one-day, top-to-bottom descent of The Subway, more properly identified as the Left Fork of North Creek. A well-known, technical slot canyon in Utah’s Zion National Park, The Subway takes its name from its most-photographed corner, a bend where floodwaters have bored an oval passage that, you guessed it, resembles the most strikingly colorful subway tunnel you will ever see (lead photo at top of story).
Ironically, David and I are here out of sheer luck blended with a bit of good timing.
Because of this route’s popularity, and the park’s twin objectives of protecting the canyon from overuse and protecting a wilderness experience for visitors, Zion limits the number of permits issued each day for The Subway to 80—and they’re hard to get via the park’s lottery system. (See Permit info in the Make It Happen section at the bottom of this story and my story “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”)
That quota includes last-minute Subway permits, which you can obtain between seven and two days in advance. David and I saw a forecast for unusually warm, sunny weather in early November, and we both had time to take a short trip. So I rolled the dice and put in for a last-minute permit to dayhike The Subway top to bottom—and scored one. Then I hit the jackpot a second time, drawing an equally hard-to-get permit just days in advance for a two-day, top-to-bottom hike down Zion’s world-famous Narrows. (See my story “Luck of the Draw, Part 2: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows.”)
Because we had the flexibility to make last-minute plans during a good weather window in November, David and I were on our way to tick off two of the most coveted national park hikes in America.
I’m not normally one to seek out the most popular outdoor adventures. Although I enjoy the company of my family or good friends in the outdoors (and making new friends), like many wilderness lovers, I don’t love seeing hordes of other people out there. For me, solitude magnifies the emotional power of wild places. In my opinion, any outdoor experience becomes entirely transformed by crowds of people—it becomes diminished.
In both The Subway and The Narrows, David and I will definitely feel our perception of each place downshift abruptly as soon as we reach at the point in the lower canyon of each where we merge into the flow of dayhikers coming up from the bottom (more so in The Narrows, where bottom-up dayhikers are not controlled by a permit system, as in The Subway).
But we will also discover an unexpected degree of solitude during most of our time in The Subway and The Narrows. Despite their fame and the hype surrounding them, both hikes eclipse all expectations.
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The Left Fork of North Creek
The warm sunshine and made-to-order breeze didn’t feel like the first week of November as we set out on the sandy Wildcat Canyon Trail this morning. Mesas and cliffs of chalk-white sandstone capped by green wigs of forest gleamed in the distance. Within 30 minutes, we turned off the Northgate Peaks Trail at a sign marking The Subway route.
We followed occasional cairns across sharply angled slickrock and descended steeply into Russell Gulch. Crossing its sandy bottom, we picked up a faint trail climbing onto a ridge and walked to its end. There, it looked like we’d hit a dead end of sheer cliffs falling away beneath us—until we discovered a very steep gully splitting the cliff like a bombed-out elevator shaft. We scrambled carefully down that chimney of loose rocks and found ourselves standing in the Left Fork of North Creek.
Embraced by the startling quiet, we walked down a canyon spanning 50 to 100 feet or wider across, where trees dwell mostly in the shade of walls hundreds of feet tall. We clambered cautiously over great boulders piled up in the canyon bottom, imagining the noise and destruction created when they cleaved from the cliffs overhead. When a loud party of five approached from behind us, we stopped to eat and let them get ahead of us; we didn’t move on until the last echoes of their boisterous conversation had faded away. For the next two hours, through the heart of The Subway, we would see no one else.
The Left Fork of North Creek carves a deep canyon between the monolith called the North Guardian Angel and Guardian Angel Pass, roughly between Zion National Park’s Kolob Canyons area to the northwest and Zion Canyon to the southeast. Most of this 9.5-mile hike—which starts and ends at trailheads more than seven miles apart on the gravel Kolob Terrace Road—involves navigating a desert-topography smorgasbord of slickrock, sandy or rocky gullies, and the broad, open lower canyon of the Left Fork.
All of that’s incredibly scenic. But The Subway has risen to the level of iconic hike because of a segment comprising just a fraction of these 9.5 miles: a roughly one-mile section of the Left Fork’s twisting canyon with wildly sculpted, kaleidoscopic walls. In some parts of it, the canyon expands to broader than a soccer pitch; in others, it narrows to a slot barely more than shoulder-width across. Descending this stretch of the Left Fork demands a time commitment—a couple of hours or more—disproportionate to its modest distance. That’s because it requires scrambling over and around boulders and up and down steep, often wet slabs, frequently walking through shallow water, occasionally swimming deep pools, and rigging three rappels (the longest of them 30 feet).
Plus, it’s so damn amazing that you may just spin around in awe. And that takes time, too.
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The Three Pools
Now, as we’re putting on our dry suits at the first pool we have to swim, a thought hits me and I say it aloud: “That group ahead of us didn’t bring dry suits. We would have caught up to them while they were putting them on.” David just shakes his head, both of us contemplating how cold they’ll get swimming a succession of frigid pools, then hiking, soaked, through this shaded canyon’s cool air. (We’ll later hear from another hiker who ran into them that, in fact, they did not have dry suits and had described the pools and The Subway in general as “miserable.” If you descend The Subway top to bottom, bring a dry suit. See Concerns in Make It Happen section below.)
After David swims across the pool, I follow, pushing my floating dry pack ahead of me, feeling the water’s bracing chill through my dry suit.
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We soon encounter a second pool that we have to swim, and then a slot where the water rises to chest-deep. The canyon widens again briefly, as if taking a deep breath before narrowing again. Trees blaze with yellow leaves—one more benefit of our late-autumn timing. At yet another tight constriction, we make a second rappel of only eight feet over Keystone Falls, easing down into a pool that our route description says is often waist-deep, but today, in low-water conditions, is just ankle-deep.