The moment we decided we were driving to Denver for this year’s GABF, I decided that I would determine our route home through Southern Utah based on one factor: where can I get a permit? There are two places on my desert bucket list that have access restricted by permits, so I applied for them both. If I got one, that would determine our route. If I got none, well, we’d figure something else out. If I got both? I would be very fortunate and would make it work somehow.
The first permit lottery to be drawn was for the Wave, something I have tried for (and not gotten) in the past. Unfortunately, I wasn’t selected. The second was the Subway in Zion National Park, and I got my second date choice. Woo hoo! Once that was on the calendar I was able to plan out the rest of the week that you’ve been reading about up until now.
The Subway is an incredibly unique and beautiful canyon in Zion. The characteristic shape is probably familiar to anyone who has had a nature photography calendar in their lifetime since it is a popular subject for professional photographers. It is obvious what inspired the name. It is the size and shape of a Subway tunnel, but far prettier!
We had arrived in Zion too late on Wednesday to pick up our Thursday permit for the Subway, so our first stop of the day was the permit desk in the visitor center. There was a line of folks picking up their various permits and the line moved slowly, slow enough that David walked out of the park and picked up a coffee for me while I waited.
Eventually we had our permit in hand and we headed out to Kolob Terrace Road to the Left Fork Trailhead. There are a couple of ways to do the Subway, and the Left Fork Trailhead is either one end of a one-way/shuttle trip, or the single trailhead for an out-and-back hike to the Subway. The permit does not specify which route you take, it just limits the number of people in the canyon to 20 a day.
The one-way/shuttle option requires some technical canyoneering and we hadn’t come prepared for that, so we did the in and out hike from the bottom. It is approximately a 9 mile round trip hike to the Subway with roughly 1500 ft of gain each way. There is no maintained trail and a bit of scrambling and wise route finding is required.
From the trailhead, a well worn path passes through the forest before dropping over the side of the canyon wall. Some very steep switchbacks get you quickly to the canyon floor below, but be careful – there is no nice trail engineering here and many rocks were loose. Careful foot placement was necessary – the ball-bearing like gravel nearly caused my feet to slide out from under me a few times.
At the bottom of these annoying switchbacks you’ll see a large cairn. If you have a GPS, MARK THIS SPOT! Look around, remember the scenery. Memorize the terrain as you turn northeast up the canyon. Although there are a lot of cairns to mark the way, if you’re not paying close attention on the way back it would be easy to miss this trail out of the canyon.
Initially, the path leading up the canyon was nice and easy hiking. For the next ~three miles we’d have intermittent stretches of nicely worn trail, but the hike was primarily an exercise of cairn-spotting and route finding. The Left Fork North Creek flows through this canyon and the best route wiggles back and forth across the creek so there is a lot of rock hopping and water-avoiding.
Several jumbled piles of boulders required scrambling skills. I, of course, thoroughly enjoyed it. I love this stuff!
Unfortunately it was in the low 40s while we were hiking, so initially I wasn’t too keen on getting my feet wet. I was wearing my favorite water shoes, the Columbia Power Drains, with some neoprene socks to keep my feet warm despite being wet. I decided early on that it was easier to just splash through the water from time to time, whereas David was careful to avoid it as much as possible.
After picking our way up the pretty canyon for three miles we found the terraced waterfalls that mark the start of the Subway area. The cameras came out and the water shoes were on. From here, it was mostly walking in the creek all the way to the Subway!
The different waterfalls were beautiful!
Soon we came across the crack in the rock floor of the creek that was channelling mini waterfalls and potholes.
We came around a curve and saw what was unmistakably the Subway ahead. Some other hikers were leaving the area, and after chatting with one guy he decided to run back in for more pictures. I can understand why!
Inside the Subway were some gorgeous turquoise pools. The sandy bottoms of these pools reflected light through the clear blue water.
The sunlight reflected along the Subway’s walls.
Together they made the tunnel just glow with amazing color and life.
Past the pools the canyon narrowed to a few deeper pools that lead to a waterfall that marks the end of the technical section when coming from above. I didn’t brave the waist-deep cold water since hypothermia was not in my plans for the day.
The return hike was not very different than the hike in, other than that we had to climb out of the canyon at the end instead of dropping in. Remember to look for that cairn/waypoint that marks the trail! Otherwise you could walk down this canyon for miles before realizing you’d gone too far.
It took us about six hours to hike the Subway and that was taking our time and spending quite a lot of time in the Subway itself enjoying the place. It was a casual day where we didn’t feel hurried or pressured to finish before dark. That said, there were two people who started from the trailhead about the same time as us and were only about 3/4 of the way in to the Subway when we passed them on the way out, five hours in to the day. We didn’t think they’d make it out before dark.
So, if you go, consider your rock hopping and route finding skills, how much time you want to spend in the actual Subway, and how long it will take you to trudge up the canyon wall (ugh) in the hot afternoon sun, and plan accordingly!
This is an AMAZING hike and if you have the opportunity to do it, don’t miss it! It’s getting harder and harder to get permits with the lottery as more and more people apply. It’s a photographer’s dream, so if I ever go back I’m hauling more than my pocket-sized camera.