The “Subway” gets it’s name from it’s shape. It is keyhole slot canyon on the left fork of North Creek in Zion National Park. Water rushing through the slot canyon has carved a round passage at the bottom, with a series of cascading pools.. It is a magnet for photographers, but because the park service limits permits to 60 persons per day, chances are you will have plenty of time to yourself to photograph it.
Many of the hikers who pass through the Subway are doing so as part of a long hike down the canyon from the top. That route requires rappelling down the canyon with ropes and also swimming through frigid water. Hikers coming from the top are often wearing wetsuits under their climbing gear. They are not usually interested in photography - another reason you will likely have the Subway to yourself.
The route I will describe here is the “bottom up” route, in which you enter the canyon from downstream, hike upstream to the Subway and then return the way you came. As I mentioned above, a permit is required for each person who hikes to the Subway. These can be reserved online at https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/subwaypermits.htm and picked up at the visitor center in Springdale the day before your hike.
When you pick up your permits, the ranger will make sure you understand the risks. If there is rain anywhere upstream from North Creek, a flash flood could sweep you away to your death. There is no possibility of outrunning a flash flood. You are responsible for checking the weather and keeping yourself alert to danger while hiking. A year after we hiked, 7 people were killed in a flash flood in an adjacent canyon http://graphics.latimes.com/zion-flash-flood/. I hiked to the “Subway” on October 19 of 2014 with my friends, Gary and Ted. We had hiked Angel’s Landing and the Narrows in the two preceding days. If I were to do this again, I would have a rest day preceding this hike. It is only 9 miles round trip, but it took us all day to complete. Granted, we took a lot of photos, but the hike itself was strenuous.
The trailhead starts at a dirt parking lot on Kolob Terrace Road. It is well-marked and has a bathroom at the trailhead. We arrived at around 8:00 AM.
Outhouse at trailhead
The first part of the hike is across a lovely, wooded plateau. This section is perhaps a quarter mile.
Trail starts across a plateau
Then the trail steeply descends into the canyon. At this point, I was glad to have trekking poles to prevent falls and take the load off my knees. The trail here is loose dirt and rocks, so the risk of slipping and falling is high.
Then descends steeply on the loose rock and sand. That's Ted, leading the way.
On reaching the river (really more of a creek), turn left and follow the water upstream. For awhile, there is a path beside the river. The path continually changes sides however, so frequent creek crossings are needed. We often found ourselves having to backtrack a hundred feet or more because the path on our side was blocked. We would cross the creek again and proceed onwards, frequently crawling through underbrush and over boulders. This is how a 9 mile hike can take all day.
The path starts out well
Here's a really nice section of trail
Gary and Ted on the path ahead
Before long, the path disappears - which side is best?
Pretty, but a lot of rock-hopping.
Sometimes the way was blocked by a deep pool and waterfall, with high boulders and underbrush on both sides.
Returning to the creek after climbing over a boulder
A little early (Oct 19) for peak Fall color but there is some
The sun is reaching the canyon floor. We need to keep going.
Another water hazard
Eventually, the creek widens to a series of low cascades over shelves of red rock. It is truly beautiful. For most of this section, it is easier to just walk up the stream. This section is called Archangel Falls. Where the creek first opens up, we stop for lunch and photos.
Archangel Falls. We stop here for lunch
We will turn right at the base of that rock formation
From here on in, it's a water trail for about a mile.
It's like walking up a wet staircase
The water path continues
Some parts are a little steep
This hanging fern alcove made a good detour from the steep section.
We turn the corner and there it is at last!
Getting closer. I'm thinking I to myself, "I don't want to be here in a flash flood".
Entering the Subway
Beautiful rock pools inside!
A deep pool.
More cascades beyond.
Going further would require a cold swim and rock climbing gear.
Looking back at the afternoon sun lighting the tunnel.
The deep pool up close. Note the slow shutter speed.
Vertical - you can see the "keyhole".
This is the one to print!
In my opinion, the best time to arrive is in the early afternoon. That way, there is more light coming into the outflow of the tube from the West. This gives the tube of the Subway a golden glow. Being down in a canyon, there are precious few hours of direct sun. Later in the afternoon, the colors would not be as vibrant. Leaving early in the morning gave us time to stop at the Archangel Falls section and have some lunch while photographing the creek in full sun. On the hike out, the light was not conducive for these shots as the sun had gone behind the canyon walls.
You definitely need a tripod. The Subway is dark, so a long exposure is needed for a good depth of field. I also found the tripod necessary to get a blur in the moving water. I would have liked to get a motion blur at Archangel Falls, but I kept the shutter speed high to stop the motion of the leaves. A composite shot could have solved that problem, but we felt pressed for time to reach the Subway. Maybe next time...
The other indispensable piece of equipment is a water filter. I carried 3 liters of water. It was not enough to keep me hydrated but it was more than enough weight to carry. My friend Gary used his filter to give me another liter and a half. Given that the whole hike is adjacent to a stream, I could have carried a lot less water and just used a filter.
Oh, don't forget your trekking poles! I found them very useful on my dozens of rock hopping, stream crossings as well as getting down that steep hill into the canyon. I never fell, but as it was I had quite a few scrapes and bruises from climbing up rocks and under heavy brush. It was a full body workout. I also smacked my head on a low branch as my backpack hooked on a branch behind me.. A minute later, I heard Gary yell an expletive as his head hit the same branch.
Back at the car at sunset.
I was a half hour faster hiking up out of the canyon than my companions. Unfortunately, I didn't have car keys, so as the sun set and the wind picked up, I was shivering in my cold, sweat soaked clothes. I ended up taking off my two shirts to dry my skin, because that was a little less cold.
When we drove back into Springdale at around 8:00 PM, we ate at Casa de Amigos. After eating an excellent, enormous burrito, I got up to leave and found my legs were as heavy and unresponsive as wood. All I could do was stand there and laugh.
Hope you enjoy,