Left Fork Trailhead in Zion National Park is the start of the Subway “bottom-up” route, a 9-mile trek through Zion Wilderness Area to a stunning natural wonder (the eponymous “Subway”) that is unlike anything else. It’s a popular hike, despite requiring a permit and a cap on the daily number of visitors and that, all told, can be a bit of an ordeal both logistically and physically. The question people inevitably asked when they learned that I made the trek, “Is it worth it?”
“Is it worth it?” I take this to mean ‘was the effort I put into completing the hike proportional to the rewards I received upon its completion?’ It implies there is a transactional element to the experience and a necessary weighing of items on either end of that transaction to determine whether or not I gained or lost value in the exchange. I am unsure of how to quantify the relative amount of effort (mental, emotional, physical and otherwise) that I exerted or how to measure its value in comparison to the value of the outcome. I don’t even know how to identify the entities on either side of the transaction. With whom or what am I exchanging outcomes for my effort? The wilderness? God? Myself?
It’s entirely subjective. Still, I will try to give an honest answer with an examination of what I observed and felt and experienced while on the hike, and I hope the results of that examination will be resonant enough to be useful. Now that I’m done saying the inside part out loud… It’s a long hike. If you’re in a hurry, skip to the TLDR at the end.
Setting out for the Subway Hike
When we pull up around 6 a.m., there is only one other car in the parking lot at the Left Fork Trailhead in Zion National Park. “I thought there would be more people here already,” I confess to my partner, after having spent the morning dreading that I had slept-in too long and would arrive to a crowded lot. I still have the warning from the park ranger in my ear to start the hike as early as we could safely manage. August heat in Southern Utah can already be punishing enough, and near-by St. George had just endured the hottest July ever recorded with an average daytime high temperature of almost 105 degrees.
This morning, the sun isn’t yet up and I’m already sweating. Although that could be pre-hike jitters, attempting to prepare me for a thousand circumstances I can’t possibly control. We go through our checklist again, piece together all of our gear and strap it to our bodies. We are, admittedly, a little overprepared, packing along extra water (five liters each, as opposed to the recommended three) and extra food. The added weight on my body, however, takes some weight off my mind.
In a confrontation against nature, I know who wins. I know what happens to a human body when it suffers dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. I choose not to tempt the elements—other than with the act of venturing into the Zion Wilderness Area in the first place. I imagine myself a pilgrim who undertakes the journey to witness in awe the marvels created by the very forces that make the path perilous. I know how many people get beaten by the elements on this hike every year, who have to be extricated from this vein in the earth by helicopter or stretcher. I know of at least one Subway hiker who suffered hypothermia after getting caught in quicksand. Yes. Quicksand. The wilderness could mean our demise. More likely, we will mean its. We are both fragile in our way.
The jitters work their way out of me as I begin to move forward, and I try to leave behind my world and all that bothers me as I enter a new world. When the words to describe this process don’t come readily, I know I can count on the words of proper wilderness writers.
“My aggression toward myself is the first war. Wilderness is an antidote to the war within ourselves…In wilderness, there is no shame. In wilderness there is acceptance in the evolutionary processes of life…there is only the forward movement of life and the inevitable end.”
—Terry Tempest Williams
We quickly cover the section before the descent into the canyon. This is likely the only section of clear path we’ll have along the route. The air is filled with fragrant juniper, pine and sagebrush and the morning is teeming with active wildlife. I pause for a fuzzy, inching caterpillar to cross the dusty trail and introduce myself. “How’s your morning going?” My best guess is that my new friend is a woolly bear caterpillar, and some people believe they can predict the weather. According to the National Weather Service, the legend goes “the amount of black on the woolly bear in autumn varies proportionately with the severity of the coming winter.”
I hope my partner knows this will be the first of many critters for whom I will stop to acquaint myself today. Because my partner is the best adventure buddy, it isn’t long before he is giving fantastic names to all of our animal friends along the way (including a hefty little Canyon Tree Frog enthroned in the center of a large boulder named Kidd Rock—no relation). On this hike, we also encounter darkling beetles (you may know them as stink bugs), pools full of tadpoles, rock squirrels, dace, plateau lizards, flame skimmer dragonflies and a hardy little rhinoceros beetle.
The canyon descent
We pause to breathe and take in the view from the ridge overlooking the canyon. The way down is the classic ruddy hues of Navajo Sandstone, littered with loose rocks and steep enough to make the bottoms of my feet tingle. When we reach the bottom, we take careful note of where the exit route meets the canyon. According to park rangers, it’s not uncommon for people to miss the exit and keep trekking through the canyon, becoming lost. One ranger told us the most common distress call they get from the Subway hike are form people who miss the exit (or didn’t go far enough and thought they miss the exit). There are two small signs to look out for, but even they can be easily missed after a long day of hiking.
At this hour, the sun hasn’t yet touched the inner walls of the canyon, and the temperature cools significantly near the water. The tall grasses around the river are pressed to the ground, toward downstream, and we come across pools filled with debris. Later, a park ranger checking for permits on the trail tells us there was likely a flash flood a few days prior.
There is no groomed trail once we reach the floor of the canyon. We find our way up drainages, over boulders and across creekbeds. We do our best to keep dry so we don’t have to spend the whole day hiking in wet shoes (although at a certain point, getting our feet wet becomes inevitable). In addition to stopping for water breaks and to meet animal friends, occasionally I have to stop to just…take it in. Waterfalls pour over red rock, limestone and lava rocks, creating inviting but deceptively deep pools at their base, shaded by jade-green pine trees. Leafy plants grow in eaves over the surrounding cliff faces, creating natural hanging gardens where water trickles out from the rock.
It feels like it has been hours since we’ve seen other humans when we come across another couple on the trail. We spend most of the morning alternating which group is in front, picking different paths through the canyon, catching back up when the other stops for a break and chatting while we keep the same pace. Isa and Max are from Brooklyn, N.Y. and this is their first time hiking the Subway as well. They met at NYU, now he works in advertising and she’s going back to school to get her M.D. When I mention my job, they gush, “We love Salt Lake magazine!” Obviously, they are lovely company. They also have a knack for picking out trails through the many obstacles on our way upstream. None of us were able to find this hike’s famed dinosaur tracks on the hike in, so we commit to helping each other spot them on the way out.
The most amazing view—the Subway Section
As we get closer to the Subway section, the rock formations become more startling and distinct. The water slides in sheets across the red rock, over time eroding it into a wide set of gentle staircases. Treading up those slick steps becomes the only way forward. We switch to lighter footwear because, from this point on, we’ll be hiking upstream in the creek, with water up to our ankles. After the second red-step waterfall, the walls of the canyon begin to curve in on themselves, almost forming a complete tunnel. The unique formation is what gives the Subway its name (but that didn’t stop me from confidently informing other people on the trail that it was named for famed explorer Alexander Subway).
The Subway section is dotted with almost perfectly round pools, as if bored into the rock. Some are shallow and might make great places to soak if you get there a little later than we did. We made it to the Subway section just after 10 a.m. and, even in August, the sun had not yet peeked into the narrow canyon and the water was ice cold. Not all of the round pools are shallow, however. Some we deeper than six or seven feet—judging from the long branch I used to measure depth (quite sophisticated stuff). In the deepest portion of the canon, the only way to progress is by swimming and now we know just how cold the water is.
We hang on the edge of a rock, craning our necks at different angles to see how much further until the end. The thundering sound of the waterfall—the terminus of the canyon—pounds in my ears. It can’t be too far. I look at my partner and, before I can even think of a counter-argument, we both know I’m going in first. You see, I was born with some sort of hydrophilic compulsion. If I encounter a body of water that’s safe for me to jump into, I jump into it—whether it is frigid mountain streams and springs, oceans at all seasons, or the Left Fork of North Creek in Zion National Park.
As I take the plunge, I struggle to remember words from a book that was mandatory reading in college—Desert Solitaire. I want to wrap them around myself for warmth, but in this moment, my whole body shivering, the words feel almost mocking.
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view…where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you—beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.”
I cling to smooth and slick canyon walls as I splash ahead, gasping as I gracelessly clamber into pools where the water rises to my chest and some in which my feet can’t touch the bottom at all. My skin smarts from the cold and my breath starts to hitch in my lungs, but finally, we are rewarded (yes, rewarded) with the most amazing view of the “waterfall room.”
The waterfall gushes through an opening above our heads that looks to be about only 6 feet in diameter. We take in the sight for as long as we can stand the temperature of the water. Then we do what anyone would do after bushwhacking through a canyon for hours to reach this spot—we take a selfie.
Getting on the trail as early as we did affords us the time to linger in the Subway section, play in pools, admire the strange geological creations of erosion, take photographs that, try as we might, fail to capture the elusive magnificence of the waterfalls and ancient rock formations and find a dry rock on which to eat a well-earned lunch.
Hiking out—don’t miss the dinosaur tracks!
On the way back, we stick to the creek as much as possible, no longer precious about staying dry. We have the sun on us now and the temperature in the canyon climbs steadily. The cool water becomes a salve for the skin of my hands, singed by gripping for balance lava rocks that grow hot in the sunshine. We pass groups of hikers headed upstream who must have started their respective journeys hours later, and we wish them luck.
Around the halfway point, we start keeping our eyes peeled for dinosaur tracks. To go on we have only a loose description of the rocks that encase them: two large, flat gray boulders to the right of the creek (if headed downstream). I think I inspected every gray boulder for the better part of a mile and my partner still spots them first. We call to Max and Isa, so we can all get our pictures of what remains of ancient life. In one of the dilophosaurus tracks, a lizard is relaxing in the shade of its hollow. It can’t be bothered to scurry away when we approach…so we get a photo of it, too. “Maybe one day you’ll fill out those tracks,” I say encouragingly.
The lizard blinks back at me as if to say, confidently, “I already do.”
When we arrive at the canyon exit, Max and Isa pass on a tip from a park ranger, “have a good soak in the water before the climb. Like, soak your whole body.” They don’t have to tell us twice. We have a quick snack, some water, and rest all of our limbs in the cool water of the creek. It’s about 1 p.m., the sun beating down on our heads, when we’re steeled for the steep hike out. We switch to our dry hiking boots and set out.
TLDR: The Subway Hike—Is it worth it?
Yes. It’s worth it because I did it. And I would do it again. And I would encourage anyone who has the chance to make the Subway hike. Yes, it takes a bit of extra planning. Yes, there’s a lottery. Yes, it’s tough. Yes, it’s long. Yes, trail-finding for nine miles will leave you covered in mud, scrapes, bruises and bug bites. You’ll be shivering and numb with cold. You’ll be sticky with sweat and heat. But, staring down that rock hollow at the end of the canyon—wearing the proof of your resolve on your skin—will remind you that you are alive. Brutally and beautifully alive. The trek will forge connections to the people with you and connections to the wilderness. There really is nothing else like it. So, do it. It’s worth it.
“In spite of this, after walking there for days, coming home bug-bitten, shins bruised, nose peeling, feet and hands swollen, I feel ablaze with life. I suspect that the canyons give me an intensified sense of living partly because I not only face the basics of living and survival, but carry them on my back. And in my head. And this intense personal responsibility gives me an overwhelming sense of freedom I know nowhere else.”
Have I convinced you? What follows is some more information about the Subway hike and some ways to enhance your overall experience.
If you do need to sweeten the deal, the day before your hike, swing into Croshaw’s Gourmet Pies in St. George. Grab two French apple pies—one to eat after your hike and one to take home. If anything, doing the Subway hike is worth it for how good that pie tastes after completing it. Nothing has ever tasted better.
If you need something stronger than delicious pies, Whiptail Grill in Springdale has a beautiful (misted) outdoor seating area and serves a great margarita and tasty Southwestern cuisine. If beer and pub fare is more your speed, Zion Canyon Brew Pub is just up the road.
The Subway Hike basics and tips
The Subway hike can be tackled in one of two ways: top-down and bottom-up. The former is the more technical, point-to-point route which involves rappelling down into the Subway area of the slot canyon and hiking downstream. The latter is the out-and-back route that goes upstream to the Subway area and then back. As it’s our first time on this hike, we opt for the less technical “bottom-up” route.
Permit-only hikes mean experiencing Zion National Park without the crowds. Zion is the third most visited National Park in the country (as of 2022), trailing just behind the Grand Canyon. The more popular areas in the park tend to get a little crowded and parking lots fill up. It’s a big part of why, since I hiked Angel’s Landing about 15 years ago, I haven’t made many trips to Zion. Now, trails like Angel’s Landing, part of The Narrows and the Subway are permit-only, allowing park staff to cap the number of people on the trail each day.
Some logistics to consider. If you live in Utah, there is no shortage of gorgeous hiking trails that require minimal planning and a short drive. Hiking the Subway requires the management of a few more moving parts, including adapting travel plans, multiple overnight stays, work time-off to potentially flexible dates—all within a fairly short time frame, given the wilderness permit lottery system. I recommend planning to stay at least two nights near the park. (There are plenty of resort and hotel options in Springdale, or save money staying in La Verkin, which is closer to the park entrance for Left Fork Trailhead anyway.) That way, you can pick up your permit the day before your hike, start as early as you can the next day and rest up after the hike before your journey home. If you’re starting the hike from the top, add arranging pick-up at the end of the hike to your to-do list.
Playing the permit lottery. An online advance lottery is held for all trips, April through October, into the Subway to obtain a reservation for a wilderness permit. Online applications must be submitted two months prior to your planned trip, with up to three prioritized dates selected. You’ll be notified of the status of your application (if you received permits or not) on the 5th of the next month. That gives you one month to get all of your plans and accommodations in order. Go to the Zion National Park website to learn more about what you can do if you don’t get awarded a permit through the advance lottery. Click here for more on playing the Utah wilderness lottery.
Technical gear. It’s worth noting that some people used to do the top-down hike without full climbing gear because there was a log bridge you could use to ease your descent into the canyon, but that log was washed out quite a few years back. So if you’re taking the top-down route, bring your canyoneering/climbing gear. Places near the park, like Zion Guru, will rent harnesses, helmets and wetsuits, but you might need to buy your own rope and other equipment. The Desert Rat in St. George could be a good place to start.
Other packing considerations. It’s more to carry, but having two pairs of shoes and socks—one set to get wet and one to keep dry—saved my feet some skin. The slick rock is, well, slick, so make sure both pairs have solid tread and grip. Park rangers recommended carrying 3 liters of water per person. While you’re picking up your permit, you can buy a map of the Left Fork Trail (The Subway) at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center store. You can also download a map of Zion National Park onto your cell phone from Google Maps. (Cell reception is rare on the hike.) Bring snacks and pack a lunch to keep your energy up. And you’ll need the basics like sunscreen, bug spray and first aid kit. Beyond that, you might want gloves for scrambling over boulders and waterproof cases for cell phones and cameras.