Hiking The Subway in Zion National Park

By Michael Lanza

In the refrigerator-like shade at the bottom of a fissure hundreds of feet deep, somewhere in the labyrinth of sandstone canyons that dice up the backcountry of Zion National Park, our keyhole-shaped passageway narrowed to the width of a doorway. A shallow, ice-water creek pumped along the slot canyon’s floor, which dropped off before us about four feet into a pool extending some 30 feet across. We’d been informed the water temperature was around 51° F. And it looked deep.

We were going for a chilly swim.

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David Gordon in the Subway, Zion National Park.
David Gordon in the Subway, Zion National Park.

My friend David Gordon and I were making a one-day, top-to-bottom descent of The Subway, more properly identified as the Left Fork of North Creek. A popular, technical slot canyon in Utah’s Zion National Park that requires a few short rappels and usually a wetsuit or dry suit for the pools of cold water, The Subway takes its name from its most-photographed corner, a bend where floodwaters have bored an oval passage that resembles the most strikingly colorful subway tunnel you will ever see (lead photo at top of story).

In the Subway, a new wonder greets you around every corner. A tree twice as thick as my torso, shorn of its bark and branches, leaned against one wall in a narrows—deposited there, standing upright, by flash-flood waters.

We waded and swam deep pools and scrambled around or rappelled over short waterfalls. It was late autumn, so yellow leaves from cottonwood trees dappled the creek and pools, appearing to almost glow in the muted light, against a backdrop of rock in hues of salmon, gold, and red wine, with vertical streaks of black and white.

In some parts of it, the canyon expands to broader than a soccer pitch; in others, it narrows to a slot barely more than shoulder-width across. The scenery frequently leaves you spinning around in awe, as I think you’ll see in the photo gallery below.

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The park limits the number of permits issued daily to descend the Subway, and it’s a hard permit to get during the prime seasons of summer and fall. My complete feature story about that hike, “Luck of the Draw, Part 1: Hiking Zion’s Subway,” explains the permit process and how I managed to snag one at the last minute. Reading that feature story, like most stories about trips at The Big Outside, requires a paid subscription, which costs as little as five bucks.

See also my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”

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See also all of my stories about Zion National Park, including “Luck of the Draw, Part 2: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows,” and my downloadable e-guide to backpacking the Narrows, which tells you everything you need to know to pull off that classic trip. And see all of my stories about hiking and backpacking in southern Utah at The Big Outside.

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