Hiking the Subway – The Left Fork of North Creek
Zion National Park, Utah
Hiking the Subway in Zion – Despite the rising sun and baby-blue cloudless sky, it wasn’t the warmest of mornings in the desert of southern Utah. It was somewhere around 50° so still nothing a few minutes of hiking couldn’t warm, but the first shin-deep river crossing was definitely a frigid one. The white board in the park ranger’s office earlier had said the Virgin River was 47º so I assume the Left Fork of North Creek was also hovering right around the there as well. It didn’t really matter though – we were pretty much running on the adrenaline of just finally having the Subway hike underway. I had been looking forward to this hike since February.
The Left Fork of North Creek in Zion National Park, also known as the Subway, is one of the park’s more popular and iconic hikes, taking you along (and through) the river to a tube-like, undercut slot canyon resembling an urban subway tunnel. It had become so popular, the crowding had put a strain on the land so a permit system was implemented, including an advance lottery, with only 80 permits given out per day. There are two routes used to complete the hike – one from the top-down, requiring rappelling (up to 30′), short down-climbs, and swimming through pools, and the second from the bottom-up, which is non-technical and no (mandatory) swimming. We opted for the former, having no climbing and repelling experience as well as not wanting to swim with camera gear through 47° water.
For the first half mile, the trail was fairly flat, well maintained, and still tacky from the previous night’s rain. We came to a beautiful overlook of the entire canyon we were entering before the loose-rock trail steeply dropped and switch-backed 400′ to the river. As soon as we reached the water, a well defined trail complete with cairns continued to lead us up the canyon, every once and a while zig-zagging across the river. We watched other groups do whatever they could to stay dry, hopping rock-to-rock like children playing ‘the floor is lava,’ but they were just delaying the inevitable – At the first major falls (5′ cascades), the trail was gone and we were hiking straight up the river, mainly in ankle-deep water. We definitely took our time making our way in, stopping at each little cascade to take pictures, not realizing the ones at the beginning of the hike are relatively unphotogenic compared to what was up-canyon. But before we knew it, we were at the major feature of the hike, the Subway.
I’m a sucker for hikes along water, but multiply that ten-fold when you actually have to hike up the river and find your own route. I absolutely loved it.