Zion National Park is certainly famous for many special attractions, many of which are only accessible through quite difficult trails including passage through cold and waist deep water or significant rock climbing. To get to a place called ‘The Subway’ this is exactly what you will need to do. However, at the end of your hike a surreal sight will compensate all your efforts.
For those without any experience with canyoneering some special advice is to be followed. Know the weather forecast before you start with your hike and do not (!!!) engage in a hike if there is rain on the menu. This is valid for rains as distant as 50 miles away from the Subway area. The creeks fill up with water extremely fast and a gentle water trickle transforms into a deadly experience in less then a minute. Do not underestimate it. Several people already died in such circumstances. Besides, once the waters swells it also gets murky and the transparent and turquoise colored water pools at Subway will be all gone anyway.
Getting to the Subway:
You will need a permit to visit the Left Fork of North Creek, where the Subway is located. Due to the high volume of interested people to get there the National Park Service started to give permits through a lottery system. You need to apply for a permit 3 months ahead. 20 of the 70 daily permits can be acquired as a walking-in permit a day prior to the hike. To get one of these you will need to be at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center (west entrance, passing the town of Springdale) as soon as it opens its doors in the morning.
To apply for the lottery system you will need to go to https://zionpermits.nps.gov/lotteryapply.cfm and pay U$5. This is just to participate at the lottery. Once you won your ticket you will have to pay for the permit.
There are two different trailheads to reach the Subway. By far the easiest way for a photographer carrying its equipment, is to go from the ‘bottom’. This trail starts about 8 miles north of the Kolob Terraces Scenic Byway turnoff in the town of Virgin. The parking area for this trailhead is marked ‘Left Fork’. Half mile into the hiking you will face a steep descent into the Left Fork canyon. Once you reached the bottom of it the hike will follow the creek upstream. There is not a real trail and you will cross and re-cross the creek numerous times. A pair of water-shoes works extremely well. I even used a wet-suit for this hike which saved me from the water’s freezing temperatures. This ‘easy’ way is a compromise which allows you to see the lower part of the Subway, which is also the most spectacular one. I also carried a rope with me and was able to access the upper part of the Subway.
The other way to visit the Subway is to come from ‘the top’, parking at the Wildcat Canyon trailhead, which is 7 miles past the ‘Left Fork’ car parking area. I never did this route, but if that is your intention make sure that you are prepared to wade and swim in chilly waters und rappel your way down several cascades and choke-stones until you reach the Subway. You will then head toward the bottom trailhead. To do ‘the top’ hike you need a partner or two to make this trip safe and have a second car waiting at the ‘Left Fork’ parking area to get back to where you left your car in the morning at the Wildcat Canyon trailhead.
A round-trip from the parking area, including the shooting, takes at least 6-8 hours from the bottom trailhead. It takes at least 2 1/2 hours to get to the Subway from the bottom trailhead.
This is a hike where you certainly do not want to forget your tripod at home or in the car. The light in the Subway is so dim that you will find yourself working with exposure times ranging between 8-30 seconds. Another little tool that is almost mandatory at the Subway is a polarizing filter to avoid the glare from the water reflections.
In summer, you will need to be there at mid-morning or mid-afternoon to avoid the pools in full sun around midday. In fall, there is no need for a crack-of-dawn departure as you will want to arrive around midday.
Last update: Feb. 26, 2011