Click here for video of Zion National Park's Subway.
By Reece Stein
KUTV Outdoor Editor
(Published Sept. 1999, Utah Outdoors magazine)
Utah may be getting light rail but it already has a subway. And it has become one of the most popular attractions in Zion National Park. No, it's not THAT kind of subway. It is a narrow slot canyon carved by the Left Fork of North Creek.
"The thing that makes it such a great hike is there are so many different things," says Skyline assistant football coach Mark Neilson, our guide. "You start up in the ponderosa, then you go through slick rock, red rock, white rock, different kinds of vegetation and the deep slot canyon and all the fun adventures it takes to get through."
This is a nine-and-a-half mile long, one way hike in the west side of Zion. You begin at the well-marked Wildcat Trailhead 16 miles north of Virgin, Utah, on the paved road to Kolob Reservoir. But you will leave your vehicles at the lower Left Fork Trailhead eight miles down the highway. Then shuttle up to the top and head out.
The high plateau trail passes through ponderosa pine trees and wildflowers for 1.2 miles before intersecting the Northgate Peaks Trail. Turn south on this trail for about 1/10th of a mile, then follow a path to the left over the hill and down the white slickrock flow to Russell Gulch. The trail leads to a steep chute, which takes you down to the canyon floor. It took us an hour and a half to cover this 3.7 miles.
You will need a 50-foot length of rope. One-inch tubular webbing is perfect. It is lightweight and flexible. Tie knots every foot or so for good hand holds. Take wet bags for cameras, plastic trash bags for your daypack. Pack your lunch in a plastic container and duct-tape it shut. Wear swimming gear and tennis shoes or old hiking boots, because you will be in and out of water for the next few miles. You will be tempted to wear only water sandals. Don't. The dry trail and rocks will beat your feet up.
"It scares me," says Becky Neilson as she lowers herself through a narrow, vertical crack using the rope. "It scares me awful, but I figure they will leave me there to be bones, so I better hike on, but it is scary."
The first obstacle is a 12-foot drop through the crack to the right of the boulder choking the narrow canyon. The rappel isn't really technical, but the rope is a savior.
"They help me," says Becky. "I'm not going through without good guides."
Further on the canyon narrows and the stream pools into a series of wading and/or swimming holes depending on the water year. And the water is cold. You want to do this hike in the summer or early fall when the air temperature and sun will warm you up and dry you off. Hypothermia is a real concern on cold days.
"Jumping into the pools is the biggest challenge," says Kelli Somers of Idaho Falls. Kelli balances herself on a chokestone about twice the size of a basketball, then jumps into the pool on the other side.
"It's so scary, because you don't know where the bottom is." Kelli jumps in over her head and comes up gasping because of the cold-shock. "You just have to kind of take a leap of faith," she says grinning as she wades to dry land.
Further on Keyhole Falls requires another 10-foot rappel. Loop your rope around the runner bolted to the right side of the canyon. Often logs in the cut aid in the descent.
"We had to work as a team to get through some of the spots," said Larry Eldracher, who knows about teamwork. As defensive coach at Skyline, he has been key to the Eagles' six state 5-A football championships in the '90s. "I never felt we were in a position where it wasn't safe, but we had to work together," Larry said.
About five miles from the trailhead, a mile or so into the narrows hike, the creek disappears into a crack. Keep to the left onto a rounded ledge where two runners are bolted into the sandstone. It's a 15-foot descent to the canyon floor and the head of the subway. Here an eon of flash flooding has carved a smooth, cylindrical tunnel through the slick rock. The reflected light dances off the rounded canyon walls as our party of ten wades through the shallow water. We have seen the last of our rope.
"What is there not to like?" asks Reatha Whiting. "All the different colors, the formations, jumping off the cannon ball, the ropes, the dinosaur tracks."
Oh yes, the dinosaur tracks. After a couple of miles of hiking down colorful, shallow cascades, including a 15-footer which makes for a dramatic water slide, you come across a couple of slabs of rock-hard mud standing on end. They are covered with several different sizes of dinosaur tracks. We have about two-and-a-half miles to go to the cars, including a brutal 400-foot climb straight up the loose talus slope to the canyon rim.
The subway hike has become so popular, the park service has imposed strict regulations. Each hiker must buy a $5 permit and only 50 permits are sold each day to limit impacts in the canyon and insure the serenity of your visit.
Advance reservations can by made up to one month prior to your trip by calling (435) 772-0170 between one and five p.m. Have your credit card number handy. Groups are limited to 12 people and camping is not allowed along the subway route. Permits may be picked up one day in advance at either the main or Kolob Canyon visitor centers.