Luck of the Draw, Part 1: Hiking Zion’s Subway
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
A new wonder meets us around every corner. A tree twice as thick as my torso, shorn of its bark and branches, leans against one wall in a narrows—deposited there, standing upright, by flash-flood waters. We wade another thigh-deep pool and scramble around a three-foot waterfall. Leaves dapple the creek and pools, appearing to almost glow in the muted light, against a backdrop of rock in hues of salmon, gold, and red wine, with vertical streaks of black and white.
Some two hours after entering the Left Fork, we take a long stride across a gap maybe 20 feet deep—heartbeats quickening briefly—and reach the final rappel of the route. We drop 30 feet into the much-photographed, subway-like passage that marks the bottom of the narrows. There, we encounter about a dozen people, many with cameras mounted on tripods, who hiked up from the bottom and will turn around from here.
Standing in the fast-moving, ankle-deep creek rushing over sandstone smoothed by eons of running water, we stare at the tunnel bending around a corner ahead of us. I try to identify all the colors in the walls, then give up. An emerald pool spans part of the tunnel, a swirl of golden leaves floating on its surface. Even after all that came before in the Left Fork, this scene stops us—it’s like the all-out, grand finale of a Fourth of July fireworks display, but one conducted in silence. Everyone speaks in hushed tones, as if merely talking normally might despoil this place.
After lingering a bit and taking photos, David and I start the day’s final leg. Beyond the tunnel, the canyon widens again. Leaves still clinging to trees shimmer in the sunlight. We take off our dry suits for the warm, last few miles hiking down the lower canyon of the Left Fork, mostly walking in the ankle-deep creek, weaving around or strolling right over a series of gorgeous cascades and waterfalls. In late afternoon, with temps in the 60s, we’re barely breaking a sweat on a trail that’s baked by the sun earlier in fall or in summer.
As we watch the late-day sunlight imbue the burgundy- and cream-colored walls of the canyon with a warm glow, I think I’ve discovered a new, favorite time of year to hike in the Southwest.
Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to get email updates about new stories and gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box at the bottom of this post, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.
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See all of my stories about Zion National Park, including my stories about a family backpacking trip through Zion and a 50-mile dayhike across Zion, as well as all of my stories about hiking and backpacking in southern Utah at The Big Outside.
See also my story about backpacking in the Grand Canyon in early November and my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR fit, experienced hikers, including families, with basic off-trail hiking, scrambling, and canyoneering skills and gear, including the ability to rappel safely, and the stamina for a moderately strenuous day hiking almost 10 miles. The trail to the point where you enter the Left Fork of North Creek canyon is not easy to follow; bring a good description with you (see The Itinerary below). Previous experience canyoneering or rock climbing is helpful but not mandatory if you’re with an experienced leader.
Make It Happen
Season Summer and fall are the prime seasons for hiking The Subway, which is frequently unsafe because of high water levels during the spring runoff of April through June.
A one-day hike (backcountry camping is prohibited), The Subway is hiked either from the top down, 9.5 miles from the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead to the Left Fork Trailhead, or from the bottom up, an out-and-back hike of nine miles round-trip from Left Fork Trailhead. The bottom-up hike ends at the tunnel-like feature from which The Subway draws its name (you do get to see and walk through it), where you’ll run into a dead-end of walls (the spot where top-down hikers make their final rappel). Hiking from the top down require rappels, technical gear, or a dry suit; hiking bottom-up does not.
We started from Wildcat Canyon Trailhead at 10:30 a.m. and finished at Left Fork Trailhead at 4:45 p.m., under seven hours for a hike described as seven to nine hours, without ever feeling rushed. That was with one wrong turn that got us briefly off-course on the approach hike, but also without ever stopping for a long period of time all day. Larger parties will tend to take longer because of natural group dynamics and having to wait for more people at each rappel station.
There are several detailed descriptions online for The Subway route. The best I found are at:
Getting There The Left Fork Trailhead, where you begin and end The Subway bottom-up hike or finish the top-down hike, is 8.2 miles up Kolob Terrace Road from UT 9 in the town of Virgin. The Wildcat Canyon Trailhead, where you begin a top-down hike of The Subway, is 15.5 miles up Kolob Terrace Road from Virgin. Early in the morning, it’s fairly easy to catch a ride from other hikers from Left Fork Trailhead to Wildcat Canyon Trailhead, if you only have one vehicle.
Guide Services/Gear Rentals/Shuttle Services
Permit The Subway, a one-day hike, is very popular and permits are difficult to obtain; only 80 per day are issued by the park. A permit is required regardless of whether you’re hiking from top to bottom or from the bottom up. Apply for a permit up to three months in advance at nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/subwaypermits.htm. Permit cost depends on group size. There’s also a last-minute drawing for unclaimed permit spaces two to seven days in advance. See nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/thesubway.htm for information.
Map Trails Illustrated Zion map no. 214 ($11.95; 800-962-1643, natgeomaps.com).
• Water levels dictate when hikers are allowed into The Subway. Flash floods can be deadly. There is no stream gauge in The Left Fork of North Creek for The Subway, and park rangers may not know current conditions. Check the forecast with the park backcountry office and only hike The Subway with a forecast of dry weather. The useful website canyoneeringusa.com warns that any flow in the lower Left Fork canyon signals serious technical canyoneering conditions in The Subway—suitable only for expert canyoneers. If rain threatens during your hike, avoid slot canyons and immediately seek high ground and stay there until the creek level drops.
• In The Subway, you are walking in water much of the time—don’t entertain any illusion that you can keep your feet dry. Wear boots that provide good traction on wet rocks and drain water efficiently, like the Five Ten Canyoneer 2 boots, which I used and are available for rental from some local outfitters. Wear neoprene socks for warmth; I like the SealSkinz Mid Weight Mid Length Sock ($50), which I used on this hike, in Zion’s Narrows, and in Paria Canyon.
• The water is also cold. Except in really hot summer temperatures, a full dry suit (which can be rented in Springdale; see Gear Rentals above) is needed in The Subway, where you must swim some pools and where you will receive very little direct sunshine. Bring clothing for much colder conditions than temperatures in Springdale or Zion Canyon indicate.
• Carry out solid human waste. Blue bags are available at the park backcountry desk.
• The top-down hike of The Subway requires rappelling skills and equipment, including 60 feet of rope (the longest rappel is 30 feet). The rappels all have bolt anchors.
• Other critical gear: dry bags and/or a dry pack for your gear, food, and extra clothes, plus a reliable headlamp.
• Lower-leg fractures are the most common injury suffered in the wilderness. Rappel rather than trying to handline or jump a short cliff.
• Most people carry enough water (three liters) for the full day hiking The Subway.
Contact Zion National Park, (435) 772-0170, nps.gov/zion.