The Subway, June 2011

Posted by on Jun 29, 2011

After my solo backpacking trip in Kolob Canyons, I made my way over to the main area of Zion National Park for the next item on my weekend agenda: The Subway. I was really lucky to snag the last slot on the 12-person permit that Paul had picked up in the lottery and even more lucky that the park service had just reopened The Subway 6 days earlier after being closed for more than a month. The runoff from the big snow year has been so severe that several people became stranded for days. Read all about that here.

As I mentioned in my Kolob trip report, I had planned on getting into Zion in time to do Keyhole Canyon with some friends but the hike out was more strenuous than expected and I needed a bit of down time. After stopping in Hurricane for lunch, I made it into the park late in the afternoon and checked into my campsite in the Watchman Campground. I don’t remember the last time I camped in a paid campground like this but I was quickly reminded that I hope to never do it again. To make things worse, I had booked two sites and sold one to Dave. I looked on the map and picked the one that was closer to the river thinking the sound of it would be nice. Unfortunately in doing so I gave up the site on the tents only loop and took the site on the RV loop. Ugh! Here’s a shot from my site, what a way to spend a Saturday night!

Later that evening Don showed up and we spent a couple hours chatting around the fire before retiring for the night. The next morning I was up at 5:15 before the sun and getting things packed up and ready to go for The Subway. We all met up at the Left Fork Trailhead on the Kolob Terrace Road where we consolidated into a few cars for the shuttle up to the Wildcat Trailhead where the hike from the top down begins. This is where things went off the rails a bit. I was the third vehicle in the convoy up to Wildcat, after a bit of driving I started wondering how everyone got so far ahead of me. It’s a winding road so I had lost site of the car in front of me a couple of times but now I was hitting straight stretches with no one else in site. After a few minutes we were able to ascertain that we had indeed missed the trailhead so I flipped the truck around and started heading back down the Kolob Terrace Road. After a few minutes of backtracking we found the Wildcat Trailhead where we found the rest of the group waiting.

But the confusion continued. Literally 15-20 seconds before we came around the corner and turned into the trailhead, Alison and Chere had turned the corner the other direction. They were going to drive back down to the lower trailhead to see what happened to us, thinking that perhaps we broke down or something. What timing! Cel service up there is poor at best and so we just had to wait for them to get back from searching for us. It took at least a half hour or so. While waiting we decided that part of the group should get going down the trail and the rest of us would catch up. A while later our search team made it back and after a few laughs over the poor timing, we were on the trail.

The trail starts in a very nice forest setting high above the wet, narrow canyons below. There was a low chance of precipitation in the forecast but the skies were dark and ominous, adding a feeling of adventure to the experience. After a mile of hiking we hit the first of two trail junctions. This is where things once again went of course. Three of the people in our half of the group had done the Subway before so no one really thought to bring the route description. So when we got to this first junction, no one could quite remember which way to go. After a quick stufy of the map, we decided to keep heading down the trail past the Hop Valley connector trail and the Northgate Peaks trail. About a mile past the Northgate Peaks junction and a good amount of elevation gain, Chere stopped and brought up the fact that she didn’t remember having to gain any elevation on her last trip to the Subway. Don and Dave both seemed to agree. After another look at the map we decided that we had gone off course and needed to head back towards the Northgate Peaks junction. What a morning! First we kill 45 minutes because of my navigational error and now we hiked a whole mile past our turnoff adding 2 miles to the approach. And they weren’t the easiest of miles, it was a steady uphill and we were hiking fast to catch up with the rest of the group.

Finally we made it back to the Northgate Peaks junction and after walking a hundred feet down the trail, we found a sign that would have been a lot more helpful back on the main trail. It was clear and concise “SUBWAY ROUTE PERMIT REQUIRED”. Son of a….

The descent from here winds down across Russel Gulch and then back the other side to a steep descent gully. I’m not sure how many feet this descent is but it felt like a lot, especially in neoprene socks and that extra 2 miles behind us.

The skies continued to look threatening throughout the descent. Aside from the strong wing it did make for some nice hiking conditions.

Our first view of the Left Fork before entering the descent gully.

Descending the gully into the bottom of Russel Gulch. This is only a notch or two away from being a rappel in my opinion. Very steep.

Alison and Erik at the last little drop in the gully.

At the bottom of the gully there is a nice big pool. For those that do the very difficult Russel Gulch entrance, the final rappel is into the pool. For us it was a nice place to sit and take a break after the longer than average approach hike. From here it is just a little further to the first technical obstacle in the canyon where we put on our wetsuits and my camera went into the dry bag. Unfortunately my camera stayed in the dry bag for the next couple of hours of amazing canyon. This experience taught me a couple of things. First, I need an awesome point and shoot camera that is easier to get in and out of a dry bag, maybe even one with a waterproof casing. And second, I have to come back here soon with a smaller group of photo-centric people so that I can focus on taking some nice photos through the really wet section of the canyon. In lieu of my own photos I’m going to borrow some from the rest of the people in the group. So the next handful of pictures were all taken by others, I have cited the photographer beneath each photo. Thanks everyone for allowing me to post them.

This is our group taking a break at the pool in Russel Gulch. That’s me over there in the grey shirt munching on some snacks. Photo by Alison B.
Photo by Alison Birkenfeld

Don and I swimming. I was stuck with that perma-grin the whole day. This was SO much fun! Photo by Alison B.
Photo by Alison Birkenfeld

There is a cool underwater arch in one section. It’s kind of deep and hard to identify so everyone was a little hesitant to swim through it. But I was all over it, after going back forth through it a couple of times, the others were right behind. This is me popping up into the pothole after swimming through the arch. Photo by Alison B.
Photo by Alison Birkenfeld

And this is me coming out the other side of the underwater arch into the pool downstream. Photo by Alison B.
Photo by Alison Birkenfeld

Photo by Paul S.

Myself and Paul’s wife, Robin in between swims in a beautiful section of the canyon. Photo by Paul S.

Dave just below Keyhole Falls. Photo by Paul S.

Don in his Flash underpants. Canyonman!!! Photo by Paul S.

Dave swimming through a pool. Photo by Paul S.

So after swimming and hiking through some of the most beautiful and fun terrain I’ve ever seen, I was finally able to break out my camera again just in time for the classic Subway shots. This one is looking back up at the 2nd of two down climbs/raps into narrow slots full of water. The one before this was down into a swim and a big pool that was probably my favorite part of the canyon.

The Log

Selfie under the log. I thought black was supposed to be slimming!?

Paul getting his shot.

Heading on down the canyon

The fourth obstacle was the only one that we setup a proper rappel for. While the group worked on that, Paul and I took photos just upstream.

The final obstacle. This is what keeps folks from hiking in from the bottom away from most of the good stuff.
Last Obstacle

The lighting was tricky in this section and the asshat ‘photographer’ that was there before we showed up was not being nice about sharing so I didn’t get the shots I’d hoped for.

Shootout in the Subway!! That’s me taking a picture of Paul taking a picture of me. Photo by Paul S.

That’s me coming out of the Subway after trying to get a few shots. That’s our unfriendly ‘photographer’ behind me. Photo by Paul S.

After the classic subway section we took of our wetsuits for the remaining miles of the canyon. But there were still some goodies around the bend.

Red Falls

Too much!

The lower section of canyon is a little tricky to hike through. Some of the time you can hike in the river like you see Paul and Don doing here but much of the time you’re scrambling over and around boulders and trees.

There is an excellent slab of great dinosaur tracks along the river. Best tracks I’ve seen.

Me with a mouth full of apple, taking a quick break at the dinosaur tracks. Photo by Dave P.
Nick Woolley hiking break time

Lower Left Fork

The steep hike out to the Left Fork trailhead. Lucky for us it started to rain right as we started the climb. I would hate to do this when it was really hot and sunny. Look closely and you can see a few people hiking. Photo by Paul S.

After the steep hike out we had to do a little shuttling to pickup the cars up at Wildcat and then we were done. Most of the group went back to Zion to the Bogley-Q but I had to head home. I really wish I could have gone, aside from the obvious fun of eating and drinking with a bunch of new friends, driving home after the long day in the Subway sucked. Luckily I had an incredible sunset along the way. I took these two shots out the window of my truck on I-15 near Scipio.

The Subway lived up well to the hype. The classic subway sections were much shorter than I had imagined but there was so much more fun to be had in the narrow sections of swimming that I actually liked a lot better. Now that I’ve done it once I’m really excited to get back and do it again with an emphasis on photography. I’m thinking some yellow leaves in the fall might make for some excellent photo ops.

View the full set of photos on Flickr.

See more of my trip reports to the Zion area.

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  1. avatar
    July 18, 2011

    Which did you like better, the Narrows or the Subway? I’m thinking for fun as well as photography…..

    • avatar
      July 19, 2011

      Tough to say. The Narrows were a lot more difficult, especially since we camped at site 12 so we had a really long first day. We also had big overnight packs for it. So I probably had more fun in The Subway. I’m going to go do both again this fall and then I’ll really know.

      • avatar
        July 19, 2011

        Yeah, I’ll be doing one or the other in October. The subway photos you took are gorgeous!


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