The Subway

Red Rock Rangers

hiker-trash extraordinaire!
Sep 6, 2015

Now that I'm gainfully employed again, my husband and I don't have the same days off. It's definitely a bummer not going on weekend adventures together, but hanging out with my new coworkers is a pretty solid consolation prize! This weekend we cinched up our harnesses and went on a canyoneering expedition through 'The Subway' in Zion National Park.

The Subway is a dark, sinuously carved canyon of sandstone. You'll splash through fa-reezing milky-blue water until you reach a tunnel-shaped chamber. Light and shadow play off each other, dragonflies flit around natural springs, and your loud yelps (unavoidable when you plunge into the icy water!) echo off the canyon walls. It's a seriously cool place.


The Subway is the most popular technical canyon in Zion's backcountry, which means that permits are tricky to get. The NPS sets an 80-person cap each day. I lucked out -- one of my coworkers had applied for permits months ahead of time. If you do the legwork yourself, check out Zion's Permit Page and apply for the Advanced Lottery three months in advance.

When you're packing up for your expedition, make sure to grab a harness, 60ft. rope, and ATC/Figure 8. All the rappels are bolted, so you don't necessarily need to bring webbing (although it's always nice to have extra.) You'll be swimming in chest-deep water, so toss everything important into a drybag (Ziplocs won't cut it.)

Also, wear a wetsuit and neoprene socks! I was a dumbass and left mine at home. My thought process was something like: "Nah. The forecast says 85 degrees, I'm not a cold-blooded person, I'll be fine." DUMB. I'm sure tons of people do the Subway without a wetsuit, and it wasn't dangerously cold, but I definitely would have enjoyed myself more if my teeth weren't chattering!


Get there:
Got your gear and your permit? Great! Now start driving towards Zion with two cars. 12 miles south of Zion's main entrance, turn onto the Kolob Reservoir Road and drive north for 8.0 miles. Stash your shuttle vehicle at the Left Fork Trailhead (this is where you'll finish your hike.) Continue driving another 8.0 miles north to the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead. Park and start your hike here.


Do it:
The route into the Subway isn't totally obvious, so bring a good map and route description. Start by hiking east along Wildcat Canyon for 0.85 mile until you reach the Northgate Peaks Trail. Follow the Northgate Peaks Trail for less than 0.2 mile until you see a Subway Trail sign. From here, the route traverses over slickrock and isn't well marked -- keep a sharp eye out for the occasional cairn or metal post. Head down and right across the slickrock and through manzanita patches. You'll pass a cool sandstone buttress and ascend a small saddle. From here, keep your eyes peeled for the steep 300-foot descent into Russell Gulch. If you see a large cesspool beneath a sandstone pour-off, you're in the right place! Hike downcanyon for 100 yards until you reach the confluence of Left Fork of North Creek and Russell Gulch -- turn right here.

Now the fun really begins. Start hiking down the Left Fork of North Creek. In 300 yards, you'll reach your first obstacle. You can either rappel off this 12-foot boulder or shimmy down a chimney to the right.

Keep trekkin' down the canyon, and get ready to swim! Now is the perfect time to put on your wetsuit (you brought one, right?)


Your next obstacle is Keyhole Falls -- a small 8ft. drop into a pool of water. A bolt on the right lets you either rappell or handline through the crack. (But don't jump! There are definitely some ankle-busting boulders at the bottom.) As you hike down the canyon, you'll go through the Log Chamber. Look up and to your left to see the Subway Arch.

Your final obstacle is just before the Subway. You'll see a double-bolt anchor on the right -- use this to do the 30ft rappel. You'll finish your final quick swim before entering the Subway, where you'll want to spent a lot of time gawking and taking photos. Neat stuff.

After the Subway, it's time to hike 3.5 miles back to your shuttle car at Left Fork Creek trailhead. Pack up your harness and peel off your wetsuit. The canyon opens up, and it's all sunny hiking along the Left Fork of North Creek for the remainder of the trip. Follow the streambed for a couple miles, and enjoy the pretty (but slippery!) cascades. After hiking about 3 miles along the creek, start looking for a big basalt ridge on the right. You'll hike 400ft. out of the canyon along a spur trail, which is fairly well marked with several big cairns.






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