When you think of Zion National Park, there are a few iconic hikes that spring to mind. The Narrows, The Subway, and Observation Point are the top three. Because I had already done the Narrows two years ago, we decided early in our planning to tackle the Subway on this trip. Both of us have a pretty good bit of rock climbing and rappelling experience, so we felt fairly confident that we had the ability to conquer this canyoneering route successfully.
The Subway can be done three ways: Top down(via Russell Gulch), Top down (via Das Boot), and bottom up. Because the Das Boot route is very technical with long rappels, we opted for the Russell Gulch option. The route is a long strenuous day through over 9.5 miles of rugged terrain including several short rappels and a lot of cold water! We were able to obtain permits (no small feat!) and did a lot of research on the route. We used our InReach Explorer and dropped waypoints to ensure we would not end up lost in the canyon and also so we could alert help if anything went drastically wrong. Please see links at the end of this post for links to GPS coordinates and other planning info.
When we arrived in Springdale, we arranged a shuttle to pick us up at the Left Fork Trailhead, where we would leave our car at the end of the trail, and drop us off at the Wildcat Canyon trailhead where we would begin. The day before the hike, we had to pick up our permits at the Visitor’s Center, where we discovered an error had been made and we only had a permit for 1 person and there were no others available. We decided to stop back at the end of the day and see if any permits had become available. Fortunately, one had, so we were ready to go ahead with the hike!
Because the water in Subway does not see the light of day and is in deep canyons, it is ice cold year round. Even though the temperature the day of our hike was to be in the mid 80’s, we opted to wear wet suit shirts and neoprene socks to help combat the freezing cold water. That turned out to be one of the best decisions we have ever made. We used a static dry rope from Edelweiss and Black Diamond harnesses. We each carried an ATC device (plus carried an extra), extra carabiners, and extra quick links in case of missing hardware at the rappels. The rest of our gear consisted of dry bags, a dry shirt, water, snacks,and the usual- first aid, sunscreen, etc.
The hike to get to the actual Subway part of the route is challenging. Traveling across slickrock with missing or damaged cairns made navigation difficult and frustrating, but as soon as you find your way around that the rest of the hike is pretty easy to navigate. The last part of the hike down into the canyon is a steep downhill scramble requiring a lot of caution.
Once we were down there, we were in a cove like area with a sandy beach. That’s where we opted to change into our wetsuits and harnesses. While down there, a group up above started throwing large rocks into the water, but we yelled letting them know there were people down there and the rock throwing stopped. They turned out to be some sort of youth group of about 12 people (10 kids and 2 adults) and they went on ahead of us while we finished getting ready.
The first rappel we came across was a large boulder. There were ways to avoid the rappel but we felt that it was a good chance for us to make sure we were comfortable with the gear and the terrain and use it as a warm up rappel. It was short and simple and a great confidence booster. After that, we continued down the stream bed until we reached our first swim.
Most of the reviews we read for Subway made it seems as though most of the water could be waded through and that swimming was more or less optional. This was not our experience. There were more than 5 times during the route that we actually had to swim and could not touch the bottom. I am not a fan of swimming even in the best of circumstances, so I was a less than happy camper every time another swim appeared around the bend. To call the water cold is an understatement. It was so cold that it immediately took your breath away and made swimming even more difficult. Fortunately for me, Mike went first most times and scoped out the best and shortest swim as well as the place where I could touch bottom again.
We pretty quickly caught up with the group from earlier, and they were definitely struggling. They did not have any harnesses or ropes and most of the kids were shivering badly. After being stuck behind that group at the bowling ball obstacle for quite a while, we were happy to finally get around them and get moving again. The next obstacle was Keyhole Falls, where you rappel down right next to the waterfall. It’s a slightly awkward angle to the start of the rappel, but simple once you get your feet on the wall. This is where the Subway part really starts and you can see the curved walls and the great light.
We continued through the Subway portion, past the famous “North Pole”, and to the final rappel. It was about a 30′ drop into some pools near a waterfall. It was the longest,but most straightforward rappel of the day. From there, it’s still quite a distance to the parking lot. Most of the trail is through or next to the water, and it’s not very well defined, so you often get to choose your own adventure. The first mile or so immediately following Subway is through shallow water and lots of small waterfalls, and the footing is EXTREMELY slick. We had quite a few close calls and I took one epic fall even though we were being very cautious.
Beyond that, you crisscross the creek many times until you reach a trail marker on the right side of the creek that shows the way out. It’s a very steep climb up to the ridge, then about 1/2 mile walk on level ground to the parking lot. The hike out was longer than we expected, and we never did locate the dinosaur tracks along the way. At this point we were glad for clothes to change into, as we were in full sun and warmed up quickly. Our wetsuits would have been suffocating to wear the whole way.
While Subway is technically a day hike, and not even a very long one distance-wise, it is a very tiring route to tackle. The rappels are straightforward, but if you get stuck behind a group, as we did, you can quickly get cold and also lose quite a bit of time. Because it took so long to get through the technical part of the canyon, it made the rest of the hike seem much further in comparison. I think we both breathed a sigh of relief when we finished the last rappel, but the hardest part of the hike was yet to come. So while planning this route, make sure you have the stamina needed to complete the challenging hike back to the car, it really is a spanker!
This is truly an amazingly beautiful route and remote enough to feel really special. It’s mentally and physically challenging, but the scenery and feeling of accomplishment make it totally worthwhile! Just make sure you are ready for some COLD water!
The best sites we used for planning: