The Subway is perhaps the most well-known hike located in backcountry Zion National Park (not located through the traditional park entrances). It is a 9.5-mile, one way, single day adventure that requires technical canyoneer skills. It is considered a 3B-III canyon, which means that there are minor rappels requiring the use of ropes, at least one overhead swim, and is strenuous due to the length of the entire hike. The average trail time for a technically experienced hiker is 7 total hours. For those wanting to experience all of the epic-ness of Zion while avoiding the massive crowds within the park, this is a perfect choice. For those looking for a less committing way to experience this area, consider hiking the Lower Subway route.
This Subway route is a lot like a play. Located in the middle of the hike, the iconic Subway section is a dramatic climax before the second act, but it is no more impressive than the rest of the show. This hike displays all that Zion National Park has to offer including big vistas of the upper Temple Cap formation, Navajo sandstone, and Kayenta Formation layers, ponderosa pine forrests, sections of slot canyon, dinosaur tracks, and miles of descending waterfalls. The Subway is named for the tube-like tunnel formed in a narrow slot of the canyon.
Your adventure must begin by sending someone in your group into Zion National Park to pick up your permits. You will need to pay the full-day entrance fee into the park in order to pick up these permits. Permits are given through a lottery system that requries you to plan at least three months prior to your trip. All of the permit information for any route of the Subway hike can be found here: Zion-Subway Permits. Currently the park allows 80 individuals per day through this canyon. This allows for a lot of solitude within the canyon. You will inevitably run into other groups, but you will enjoy a break from the massive crowds within the other popular sections of the park.
The hike begins at Wildcat Canyon Trailhead parking lot just off of the Kolob Terrace Road. The preferred method is to drop a vehicle off at the Left Fork Trailhead, which is the end of the trail for this route, and drive the remaining 8 miles to the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead. Shuttles can be arranged through the park for a price. One member of your group must carry the permit (in a waterproof bag), and all cars parked at either trailhead must have parking slips displayed.
It is recommended that you carry a phone or GPS device and a map. The first third of the trail includes large traverses across slickrock where there is no visible trail. Advanced routefinding is necessary to avoid getting lost or accidently descending into Russell Gulch or another canyon where you will need much longer ropes. Staying on the correct path is crucial to avoid serious risk. Once you have descended into the Left Fork of North Creek, you will run into several obstacles where you will need to down climb tricky sections of the narrow canyon to proceed. Those with less technical experience may need a rope and harness for these sections. There are bolts and natural anchor opportunities at each of these obstacles, and the hardware and webbing is maintained by the park service.
The obstacles will include several down-climb sections ranging from 20 foot boulders to 10 foot drop-offs into water. There is a 40-foot swim, and there are other smaller potholes where you cannot touch the bottom. Bonus points for those brave enough to swim through the underwater arch at the second large swim area. The things you carry must be waterproof, because everything in your bags will be submerged. The water is very cold, and some hikers choose to bring wetsuits. The water changes drastically with each new storm, which brings piles of debris to random sections of the canyon. Avoid all possibility of being caught in a flash flood situation. The last obstacle comes before the Subway section, where there is a 30-foot rappel near a waterfall. This is the longest rappel on this route.
The last third is the hike-out section. You will descend miles of slowly cascading waterfalls and millions of frogs. Dinosaur tracks of the eubrontes-dilophosaurus can be found on this section. Do not miss your exit trail. Have a GPS device and a map to ensure that you do not miss the small sign marking the exit trail. You will ascend 600 feet to reach the last quarter mile trail to the Left Fork Trailhead parking lot.
Although this report involves a lot of warnings, if done safely, this Subway route can be one of your most memorable and incredible adventures for the books. Remember to bring plenty of water, Leave No Trace, and take only pictures.