You've probably seen pictures of The Subway on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. Zion National Park is home to one of the most beautiful slot canyons in the world. There are two ways to do The Subway. In my opinion, the only way of experiencing the true beauty of The Subway is with the top-down option.
Trip distance: 9.5 miles
Terrain Rating: Difficult
Hike In: 7AM
Hike Out: 4PM
Trailhead: The Subway begins at Wildcat Canyon Trailhead and ends at the Left Fork Trailhead. This means you need to either rent a car or car spot. We took a chance and car spotted, which is why we started before sunrise at 7AM. Thankfully we only waited around 15 minutes before a father/son duo from the UK showed up.
Important Pre-Trip Logistics:
- The Subway requires a Backcountry Permit, a reservation that should be made months in advance.
- You will need confident rappelling skills. A class should be taken in advance if the party is full of beginners.
- You will be swimming through multiple pools, so if you're going late-season make sure you purchase or rent a wetsuit. You should also be prepared with river shoes and sneakers.
We arrived at Wildcat Canyon Trailhead around 7:45AM. The beginning part of the hike is easy and follows a very clear path. It is only 1 mile from the trailhead until the intersection with Wildcat Canyon Trail. Turn left at this function and follow the trail for 300 yards until another junction with the Northgate Peaks Spur Trail. Turn right at this junction and follow for 200 yards until you hit a very well defined trail going off left and down into Russell Gultch. None of these trails are marked, so make sure you are following a PROMINENT trail. If not, backtrack and start over again.
From here you will step into an expansive unmaintained trail. Look for cairns (piles of rocks) as you make your way down this 1.25 mile section. Follow the cairns to a slick rock and through the floor of Russell Gulch. DO NOT descend the Gulch! This is a very easy way to get lost. If find yourself going steep down right into the Gulch, turn around. The route actually comes around left and follows the slick rock.
You will soon descend into the Left Fork canyon at the confluence of Russell Gulch and Left Fork. This is where your rappelling, scrambling, and swimming begins. You will first encounter some boulders that have fallen into the canyon. Scramble through the boulders and down the canyon. You might need a rope here, but it's not necessary if you're comfortable with jumping into soft sand. Then, you will reach your first swim through a short pool of water. This is a good time to change out of your hiking sneakers/shoes and into your river shoes and wetsuit. Some people choose to start with a wetsuit, but I personally like hiking in more comfortable clothes. The water was freezing in the middle of October. I got out of there as quickly as I could.
After your first swim, you will starting seeing the beauty of this canyon. The rock formations come closer together and more pools of water start showing up. The next obstacle is a giant "bowling ball." There is an anchor here and you could use a rope. However it's only 4 feet down into the water and we decided to just jump. Needless to say we were greeted with brisk cold water and loud screams.
From here, there's a little more trail walking and wading in shallow pools of water until you reach Keyhole Falls. This is where you enter The Upper Subway. Keyhole Falls requires a short 10 foot rappel. While the rappel itself is short, setting up your rope requires you to stand on wet rocks. Be careful! The rocks can be very slippery. Take your time and use caution here. After your rappel, you will be greeted with small waterfalls and logs into The Lower Subway. The actual section here from Keyhole Falls to the main Subway section is less than 0.5 miles!
Before reaching the final approach, you have one more 40 ft rappel. This is the longest rappel, but not the most difficult. The anchor is easy to attach on and the rocks aren't slippery at all. The water beneath you is only ankle deep. Still, be careful and take your time here. It's not worth risking injury because you're in a rush.
Finally after the rappel, you reach your destination. There were around 5 or 6 people here when we went, including 1 photographer. We patiently waited for our turn to take pictures and then left after around 20 minutes. You will be greeted with a burst of sunlight after you exit The Subway. This is a good time to remove all of your wet gear and change into standard hiking clothes. It is a good 3.5 miles back up to the parking lot and can take a bit of time. You want to make sure you're comfortable before you begin your ascent.
The hike out follows the red rock formations and sandstone cliffs. You will feel incredibly small at the floor of the canyon. The trail is average, with a few twigs and such poking out on the trail. The trail isn't incredibly well marked with cairns, so just make sure you are following a prominent trail. Around 1.5 miles from the exit, you will see Dinosaur tracks on your right on light gray mudstone. You have to look out for the tracks or else you won't see them.
It's another mile from the dinosaur tracks before you exit the canyon north. There is an exit route sign detailed "Left Fork Trailhead." From this sign, you will begin a steep climb out through the lava cliffs.
I was exhausted by the time I reached the parking lot. It was a quick 10 minute drive back down to the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead, where we left our cars. From there, it was another 15 minutes back to our campsite. I was so excited to eat and devoured an entire meal in under 15 minutes. Then I slept for 12 hours.
- Drybag backpack
- 2L of water
- 60' rope and climbing harness
- 3 granola bars
- Upper wetsuit
- Chacos and hiking shoes
- Non-cotton t shirt, running shorts, light fleece, and rainjacket packed away in a separate drybag container, inside my drybag backpack.