The Whole Enchilada: Zion National Park’s Subway from the top
The Subway is a superlative backcountry area in Zion National Park which has become world-famous. The common way to visit the formation is via a hike from the bottom of the canyon. However, this approach misses some of the most beautiful sections of the canyon. In this post, I’ll take you through the entire length of the Left Fork: there is much more to it than the famous curving section reminiscent of a underground train tunnel.
I had my sights on the route for a while, but my wife objected to me going canyoneering solo. Last year, a small group of family and friends gathered, and we descended a few canyons. Due to the popularity of the Subway, by far the most sought-after backcountry outing in Zion, permits are difficult to obtain. They are distributed by a complicated lottery system which opens several months in advance. We had secured spots, but threatening weather compelled us to abandon our plans. Instead, I hiked to Observation Point, and on the way was caught in a hailstorm. You do not want to be in a canyon when there are risks of flash floods!
This year, instead of the regular start of the Subway, we opted to reach the Left Fork about half-a-mile upstream, adding to the itinerary the section of canyon known as “Das Boot” (story of how it got its name). The last of the four miles of approach was entirely cross-country, with only a few very faint and short sections of user trails. I marveled at the fact that we were able to get exactly to the start of the route based on a topo map, and a few paragraphs of textual description amongst terrain which essentially all looks the same.
Das Boot turned out to be an impressive canyon, dark, narrow, with tall sculpted walls which make you feel you are moving deep in the earth, in serious and committed-looking canyoneering territory. There was quite a bit of water, and it was cold, so cold that my hands hurt, although a 4/3 wetsuit kept my body warm enough. I swam on my back so that I could keep them out of the water. The subterranean conditions favored growth that colored the walls with an exquisite green. The canyon is full of obstacles such as chilly pools and logjams. By keeping eyes fixed on them, it would have been easy to miss looking upwards to see an amazingly lighted wall near the end of the narrows.
By contrast, in the first part of the Subway, the canyon is open and enlivened by lush vegetation. The progression consists mostly of hiking, with a mix of short swims (doable without a wetsuit in summer), three very short rappels, and even a jump into water that make for a fun outing. That section would be accessible to any adventurous hikers in good physical condition and with proper equipment, provided that someone in the group is knowledgeable with rappelling – note that it would have to be friends, since guiding is not allowed by the NPS in Zion. The water in the canyon, fed by springs, is amazingly clear and not tool cold, as opposed to the potholes usually found in deep canyons, which can be murky and frigid.
Soon, the canyon becomes a narrow corridor of otherworldly beauty, full of alcoves and pools. After a sharp turn, you come to view of the “North Pole”, a log curiously propped against the canyon walls. It was carried by a flash flood a long time ago, which should give you an idea of their power. That section is only a few hundred yards long, but it is several times the length of the “Subway” proper! Regardless of the way one travels the Subway, there is much more approach than canyon hiking, but the narrow parts of the canyon makes it well worth it.
A final rappel down a cliff brings you into the “Subway”, and after crossing a deep pool, you join the site that is reached by the popular (8 miles RT) hike from the Left Fork trailhead. That cliff is what makes the upper part of the Subway unreachable from the bottom. The “Subway” may indeed be the most beautiful section of the Left Fork, but having now traveled the canyon both ways, I feel that the traverse from the top is much more varied and satisfying than the hike from the bottom. If you want to experience it yourself, I highly recommend the book by Tom Jones.