Utah’s Zion National Park: “The Subway” Hike

Odometer (Legend):  531,804


Odometer (ILX):  103,488


Trip Distance:  80 Miles


Grab a $5 footlong before getting started with this post.  The Subway I’ll be introducing you to today, however, isn’t any kind of sandwich.  It’s something far better:  It’s one of the most remote and scenic canyons in the country.  Growing up in southern Utah, I was lucky to have several national parks right in my own backyard.  Utah, in fact, is often considered the country’s national park capital because there are five parks in close proximity.


Zion National Park covers 229 square miles but it’s most known for 15-mile-long Zion Canyon.  Its designation as a national park happened almost exactly 95 years ago, in November 1919 under U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.  The canyon itself is up to 1/2 mile deep and cuts through the sandstone rocks in dramatic red and orange colors.  Back in May 2013, I shared a throwback post about a few of my visits to Zion including my favorite hike of all time, Angel’s Landing, which ascends a narrow pathway through terror-inducing heights with 1,500-foot cliff drop-offs on both sides.  Yeah, don’t lose your footing.


For years I’ve known of a hike called The Subway but it wasn’t until this weekend that I actually got the chance to experience it.  Due to its treacherous nature and in the interest of preservation, access to The Subway is heavily restricted by the National Park Service and a backcountry permit is required.  My mom reserved a permit for our group several months in advance, so we set aside the date and planned our visit around a fixed date.


Bright and early on Saturday morning (do people ever say they got up “dark and late”?), five of us piled into my ILX and headed toward the entrance to Zion in Springdale.  It was a cozy squeeze but only about a 40-mile trek.  We ran into a traffic delay just before entering park limits, thanks to a 10K run that caused a road closure.  By the time we’d retrieved our permit from the Visitor Center, driven 8 miles up Kolob Terrace Road, and unloaded our gear, it was around 10:45 in the morning when we started the hike.


For the next 6 hours, we’d be traversing some of southern Utah’s most rugged and scenic landscapes – with many of the fall colors at their peak, too.  Motivated and full of energy, we practically skipped down the singletrack dirt trail for the first 1/2 mile or so.  Terrain was level for the time being.  Soon, though, we started dipping down rocky, steep (and sometimes slippery) red dirt as we made our way to the base of the canyon.  A few of us had walking sticks, but Justin and I did the best we could to find our footing without the assistance.  The lower in elevation that we got, the more clearly we could hear the babbling of the Virgin River as it carved its way through the canyon.  Aside from a couple of cairns here and there, we had very few points of reference to go on.  Sometimes, the trail was wherever we wanted it to be.


We frequently had to climb up, over, or around boulders that were bigger than SUVs.  They came in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.  Some had edges that looked so precision-cut, they almost seemed man-made.  About an hour into the hike, it became apparent that getting our feet wet was going to be inevitable, so we swapped our footwear for water-friendly Teva sandles and continued onward.  Multiple times we did end up having to cross the Virgin River as we headed up the canyon.  One of my favorite things about The Subway hike was its solitude:  In our entire day of hiking, we encountered probably fewer than two dozen people.

It seemed like it took forever, but we finally started noticing that the canyon narrowed and we crossed over some eye-catching tiered waterfalls.  Just around the corner, The Subway was there in all its glory, and we spent some time in that area admiring the surroundings.  The actual section of the hike that has rounded subway-like walls is only about 1/4 miles in length.  It lies between two peaks called the North and South Guardian Angels.


Glancing at her watch, my mom alerted us to fact that it would start getting dark in just 3 hours.  The last place any of us wanted to be at dusk was stuck inside the canyon, so we somewhat hurriedly started back-tracking toward the trailhead.  I found it interesting that the reverse hike often times offered completely different looking views than what we had seen on the first leg.  It was a bit unnerving when Justin and I came across a group of 3 people who were terrified:  “We’ve think we’ve missed the exit.” (referring to the area where we needed to climb up out of the river bed and ascend to the trailhead).  Justin and I were quite certain we hadn’t yet gotten to to that point in the trail.  Still, it made my heart skip a beat to think that we might end up hopelessly lost and need to spend the night in a dark canyon.

Sure enough, we did find our way out and we spent the last ounce of our energy (and our last few drops of bottled water) on climbing the 1,000 or more feet in elevation to the parking lot, just as the sun started dipping beneath the horizon.  I passed by a man who was clearly struggling to carry a bunch of camera gear and offered to lighten his load.  He graciously accepted the offer and had me unlatch his heavy tripod so that I could carry it to the top for him. It was such a relief to get to the summit and know that we had finished our mission safely.

The Subway offered up an experience that I won’t soon forget!  More pictures follow below – hope you enjoy them.

First, a very short (15-second!) video.

Stuck in Saturday morning traffic in Rockville, Utah – headed to get our backcountry hiking permit.


Arrival at the Left Fork Trailhead.


Todd and Tia getting ready for the descent into the canyon.


Making our way down the steep slope toward the Virgin River.


Fall colors as mom makes her way through the canyon.


Justin shows off his strength with this huge boulder.


Obligatory hiking selfie.


Pit stop along the river as we headed toward The Subway section.


More fall colors.


Small waterfalls were found throughout the canyon.


Scenery unmatched.


One of several terraced waterfalls.


Arrival at The Subway.


The Subway.


This was as far as we went into the depths of The Subway.  We would have needed to rappel to go any further.


Taking a breather before starting the return trip.


The Virgin River cascades down this smooth rock face.


Back at the trailhead, victorious!  Aunt Jodi, Justin, Tyson.


Despite not having any service, my iPhone somehow calculated my daily steps at 22,872 – equaling 11.03 miles and 59 flights of stairs.


It’s no wonder my legs were still sore even a couple days later.  Hope you enjoyed the hike!

14 Responses to “Utah’s Zion National Park: “The Subway” Hike”

  1. autoscribe74 Says:

    Wow, gorgeous photos- what a great adventure!

    • Thanks Mark! Yeah, it was a great time! I only wish we’d had more time to spend in the canyon. Maybe some other trip we’ll plan it as an over-nighter. You should join us.

  2. great pictures! looks like everyone had a really good time.

    • We did! There are still lots of other hikes at Zion I haven’t yet done – not to mention the hikes at Utah’s other national parks. Time to start planning my 2015 travel calendar…

  3. Thanks for helping make this happen. Your photos are AMAZING as usual. That car of yours is getting spoiled with all these great road trips.

  4. Sherry Dompier Says:

    This was really great – thanks for taking us all along. I loved seeing this park when we were there visiting- beautiful even from the roads !!!

    Sent from my iPad

    • Thanks Sherry! I’m glad you got to see Zion. It’s one of my favorite attractions in the entire state of Utah. I hope you are doing well. Wish I could have seen you while you were visiting. Hope the boys are kicking butt at demo derby as usual 🙂

  5. do you have the new iphone 6 or 6 plus?

    • Haha, yes indeed it was, James! Definitely need to add southern Utah to your list of driving destinations if you haven’t already. The landscape would make a great backdrop for the Mercedes CLA you’re driving this week 🙂

  6. Amazing pics! Glad you all had such a good time. I haven’t been to Zion in eons, but it’s a stunning place. Maybe again on a future mega drive!

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