Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Subway, UT

Hiked: 7/31/2017
Distance: 10.1 miles round trip on trail, use trail, and cross country
Summit Elevation: 5350' (The Subway)
Elevation Gain: 1150'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 0.92
Round trip time: 5 hours 50 minutes
Recommended water: 80 oz.
Parking/Fees: $30 National Parks (per vehicle, one week pass) + $15 permit fee
Difficulty: Moderate

Subway Permits - Zion National Park

An unexpected lottery win gave us a permit and a chance to hike The Subway. This is a popular canyon hike in the Left Fork of North Creek in Zion National Park, UT. Currently, 80 permits are issued per day, mostly through a lottery three months in advance. Walk up permits are sometimes available. It can be done top down or bottom up to an oval shaped section carved out of the canyon resembling a subway tunnel. My wife and I opted to do the non-technical bottom up hike. Our adventure started the day before when we stopped at the visitor center to pick up the permit. The ranger grilled us on canyoneering risks, flash floods (a real danger this time of year), and had us complete a form with 8 check boxes confirming that we understood what the trip entailed. She also told me my GPS would not work in the canyon, but it worked great except for the last half mile where the canyon got too narrow. There was an additional $15 fee for the permit.

For safety, we double checked the weather forecast and there was a very low chance of rain all day. We drove at dawn to the Left Fork Trailhead and began the steep 450' descent into the canyon. A sign was placed at the bottom to show people the way out. I had a waypoint for the exit and confirmed it was accurate. We started upstream on the left side of the creek along a solid use trail. I expected the trail to fade out quickly, but it continued close to a mile before we had to start picking our way around boulders and debris. In fact, the only section where we couldn't find some semblence of a use trail was a half mile stretch roughly one mile upstream from the drop in point. Other than that, we were able to find use trails on one side or the other, sometimes both. We needed to cross the creek frequently and sometimes going straight up was the path of least resistance. There is no way to do this hike without getting wet. However, we never had to cross water deeper than our knees. About half way to the Subway, there are two gray slabs on the left side with petrified dinosaur prints. A nice bonus. I had a waypoint marked for the dino prints, but there was also a small cairn with a stick set up next to it to point it out. On the topo map, the South Guardian Angel sits along the right edge of the Left Fork, but the canyon walls were too steep for us to see it.


Hiking down into the canyon

Working upstream

Leisa leading on the use trail

Dino prints

Red walls

Past the dino prints, the canyon started to get narrower. Another mile upstream, we ran into the first cascade. These are gentle shelves of red rock with sheets of water washing over them. The whole canyon was picturesque. We walked up the cascades and learned to avoid the black algae growing on the rock. It was less slippery to stay on red rock, even if there was more water flowing over it. After a longer set of cascades, we came to a 10' waterfall. It was easiest to go up on the right side of the waterfall. A few more twists in the canyon and we arrived at The Subway. The curved walls start wide, then close in, maybe 20' apart. Pools were carved out of the floor creating some interesting effects. The early morning lighting wasn't ideal, and I have low end photo gear, so my photos don't look much like those taken by professionals. We hung around for a while and had the whole place to ourselves. I expected to see some people there from the top down route. We continued further until we ran into a pool that was too deep to get over without swimming. I wanted to continue up to the next waterfall, but didn't have extra dry clothes with me. An oversight. We turned around and started back, looking for a place to rest and refuel. We soon ran into three other parties doing the bottom up route. We had no trouble finding the exit point, but it was a hot climb out. My GPS clocked just over 10 miles for the round trip. Most sources list the round trip as 8-9 miles, but we did quite a few boulder bypasses on the sides of the canyon and some general wandering around. I did have to delete some random error points in the track so it's possible the GPS distance was off. In any case, it was a great hike to one of Zions many attractions.


The 10' waterfall

Approaching the Subway

Leisa at one of the main pools


Swimmers only past here


I tried to clean up the track near the top,
send me an email if you want the GPX


  1. Wow, what a beautiful canyon! Why are the pools green? Algae?

    1. Sean,

      You got it. From the Internets: "Deep inside the tubular tunnel glimmers of sunlight trickle into the darkness, allowing algae to grow in the water filled potholes. The green flora creates an eerie turquoise glow that radiates throughout the spectacular chamber."

    2. I love Utah, been there many times. Just went in May, we were able to get permits , but too late in the day to make the hike. On my list for next time. Are you on Instagram?

    3. Arturo,

      Utah is very beautiful, lots more to see. I am on instagram @ironhiker, but only occasionally post.