Zion National Park and the Zion Wilderness
Zion is one of my favorite national parks. I’ve been there a few times and consider the half marathon every year, just because I think it’ll be such a special experience to run the entire thing. The park itself is beautiful and I can go on and on about the specific hikes within, which are my favorite, and what to do there. But this post specifically is about the Zion Wilderness and one of my absolute favorite hikes of all time: The Subway. The technical term for the subway hike is the “Left Fork North Creek” and is often written “Left Fork North Creek (SUBWAY)”.
Any Photography Gallery in the Southwestern US is just filled with photos of the subway and for good reason. It’s unbelievably beautiful. I’ve done this hike 4 times. Some of my favorite shots, all taken just from my iPhone, are given below.
I’m going to give you some tips and tricks for navigating the Subway hike, including best times to go, tips and tricks for ascertaining permits, notes for the hike, and some advice for the entire trip. I found internet resources woefully poor when I tried to grab permits the first time, so I’m hoping that sharing some knowledge will help others!
What is it?
The subway is a hike/landmark maintained by the National Park Service. There are actually two different hikes:
- Bottom Up – A 9 mile round trip along the Left Fork of the North Creek. This begins and ends at the Left Fork Trailhead on Kolob Terrace Road, This is the hike that most people will apply for and do.
- Top Down – A 9.5 mile hike that requires mountaineering certification, as you need to carry rope, swim (in freezing cold, deep, and debris filled water), and rappel down into the Subway. I’ve never done this route but have seen others dropping in down the back. It looks AWESOME. Another thing to consider, outside the skills, is that you start at Wildcat Canyon Trailhead and end at the Left Fork Trailhead. Any group doing Top Down needs to arrange transportation back to their starting point.
Who/When To Go
The best times of year to hike are spring and fall: March – May and September – November. If you plan to do the Subway, make sure you’re in good hiking shape (able to hike for 5-7 hours), bring lots of water and some food, and are comfortable route-finding.
The Subway, though beautiful, is a very difficult ~10 mile hike that ends with an approximate 3000 foot climb out of the canyon in miles 8-10. The first 2 miles climb you down into the canyon, then 3 miles out and 3 miles back along the river in the canyon, and then a 2 mile ascent back to your car. While the trek along the river is mostly (lightly) shaded, the ascent and descent are in blazing open sun. For this reason, I’d avoid going in June – August as it will be unbearable hot. Additionally, the river will be absolutely freezing and the ascent/descent trail will most likely be covered in snow from December – February. Neither of these times will be very pleasant hikes.
Additionally, the subway is an UNMARKED trail. You find your way down and just follow the river to the final destination. You have to cross multiple times and route find for trails that continue. There is NO MARKER for where to start your ascent back out of the canyon, so be sure you or someone in your party are comfortable on a trail with these conditions. Strongly recommend you bring a map and compass as well. Headlamps are a good conditional if you start late, as the canyon gets dark early.
First, the Subway is not in Zion National Park but the Zion Wilderness, about 25 miles from the park entrance. It’s not open to the public with the rest of the park. This hike is a permitted hike, limited to 60 people per day. As such, is extremely special. It’s a gorgeous hike where you’ll see very few other people and get to be at one with nature and some of the most beautiful scenery in the Southwestern United States. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE do not hike the subway without a permit.
- You are not special. The rest of the world has to wait for a permit. You should too.
- You’re squandering the experience for those with permits. The point is to preserve the sacred beauty of the land and the experience for those who get to hike it. You defeat both by bypassing the rules.
- It’s VERY expensive if you get caught. There’s only one small parking lot that the rangers check for car permits, so you will get caught. Additionally, they hike the trails asking for permits. You’ll get caught there as well. I’m not joking when I say that it’s a $1200 fine for hiking this without a permit.
So, how to get a permit? There are a couple of different ways. No matter how you go about it, there’s a $5 processing fee per permit or application which goes back to maintaining the land. Just know that your money is being well spent 🙂
Check the Calendar
The easiest way is to check the calendar. This site lists every open day and there are often some loose permits available, especially on days close to the present date. More recently, the National Park Service has begun listing the 2-7 days out reservations on here in lieu of running the lottery, which makes planning a lot easier. Click on any day you want that’s available, create an account, and make the reservation for your party. It’s a great place to check if you already have a trip to Zion planned and, last minute, you hear from a friend about this amazing hike.
Apply to the Advance Lottery
Next easiest is to apply in advance for the lottery and plan your whole Zion trip around granted dates if you happen to win. For whatever reason, this lottery is not as competitive as others and you will often win on your first or second try. For example, I’ve been applying to hike the Wave – Coyotes Butte North – every month for over 2 years with no success. My first application to the Subway was successful (though I’ve had 4 unsuccessful week-of ones since). You apply for the lottery 3 months out. So, if you apply in January, you’ll be applying for dates in April. This gives you plenty of time to plan. You’re notified on the first of the following month (so, February 1st in this example) and they mail all the permits to your registered address.
Once on the lottery page, you’ll have to create an account to apply, but it’s minimal. Once in, the application (in December) looks like this. In the Resource Area dropdown there’s only one option: Left Fork North Creek (SUBWAY). Choose it 🙂
Apply to the Last Minute Lottery
The last minute lottery is run every day 2-7 days in advance of the date in which you apply. So, if you want to hike on June 10th, the lottery opens on June 4th and you can apply every single day up to and including June 8th. More recently, if there are enough spots still available after the original lottery, the National Park Service will just open all spots up on the main calendar. You should always check there first.
If the last minute lottery is running, select “Left Fork North Creek (SUBWAY)” and follow the application process. You get to specify days of interest and you can plan your hiking trip around dedicating one day to this if you’re spending multiple days in the park.
Day of Walk Up in the Visitor Center
Given all the processes above, you’d think that it would be really difficult to find open spots on a super popular hike like this. However, 2 of the 4 times I’ve done this hike have been through this means and, well, it never hurts to ask.
Go early in the morning to the Zion Visitor Center and there’s a permit pick-up desk to the left of the main entrance. Try and get there right as the place is opening.
Zion Canyon Visitor Center:
Closed: December 25
Spring: 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Summer: 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Fall: 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Winter: 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
When you ask if there are any available permits for the Subway hike TODAY, the person behind the counter will look at you as if you’ve grown a second head and say something like, “There are never available last minute Subway permits, but I can check if you like…” Hopefully, after typing for a bit, they’ll look up (astonished!) and continue with, “woah! We have xx open spaces,” where xx is often 2 or 3. This happened in both occasions and I think it’s because either ambitious non-hikers realize they’re too tired to do it and cancel or people with delayed trips cancel at the last minute. In any case, since it’s worked for me, it might work for you. It’s worth trying if you really want to do this hike and didn’t get an advance permit. Just a note, this WON’T work for larger groups. There’s no way they’re going to miraculously have 6 open spots.
Where to Stay
If you’re heading all the way to Zion for the Subway hike, make sure you spend a few days exploring the national park. It’s an amazing park, one of the best national parks in my opinion, with at least 2-3 days worth of iconic hikes and places to explore. Definitely dedicate one entire day to the Subway hike, since it takes about 30-40 minutes each way to travel to the trailhead in addition to hiking time.
The closest town to Zion is Springdale. It’s a really nice upscale little town with good food and wine and epic views. When exploring Zion, you can stay here or in the park. My two favorite hotels are (just a note, I’ve stayed at 2 others but didn’t like them… Pioneer Lodge and Westgate by Wyndam were less favorable):
- The Zion Lodge – The only hike inside the park itself. It’s got the best location for exploring the national park, has awesome lawns with deer and other wild life outside right on the lawn, and some really great net zero rooms / cabins and nice restaurants. My only gripe with this place is that small from everything else (a.k.a., the town of Springdale), but it’s a small price to pay for the convenience of being in the park. When I’ve stayed here, I’ve run to all the hikes in the park!
- Canyon Vista Lodge – Exactly the opposite of the above. Canyon vista is on the second to last shuttle stop from the national park into Springdale. It’s about a mile and a half from from the park entrance. The grounds are AMAZING and the rooms are epically large with semi-full kitchens and a shared outdoor grill. It’s walking distance to everything in town but a comfortable walk into or out of the park as well. I really just love the hotel. The views are amazing and it’s spacious; you can stay for days without really running into anyone. Breakfast was included but not at the hotel. They gave us vouchers for places in town so we got to explore 🙂
Planning Your Subway Hike
Be sure to wake up and set out early; you should aim to be at the trailhead no later than 8 am. Nothing bad will happen and you will still make it out by sunset if you set out later, but you’re going to want to spend lots of time exploring on the hike, playing around in the subway, eating lunch, and taking photos. Also, the canyon walls are shaded starting early in the afternoon, so hiking out before 2-3 pm ensures you have light on that last climb.
If you won the lottery, you should have received your passes in the mail. Make sure to bring them. If not, pick them up from the visitor center the day before if at all possible. Otherwise, it’ll delay the start of your journey until the visitor center opens.
Things to bring with you:
- Water! In a Camelbak or similar if you have one to ease the hiking.
- A backpack if your backpack is not your water bag.
- A lightweight jacket or lightweight rain jacket. The hike is hot but the subway is quite cold and you’re gonna wanna spend some time int here for sure. A rain jacket is recommended if you don’t want to get wet (but seriously, you’re on the wrong hike then) or depending on weather.
- A small towel or shammy. You’re going to want to get in the water (more on that later).
- Water shoes. It’s nice to change into these when you’re following the river.
- Hiking shoes or shoes with good traction. The last part of the hike out to the subway is up some slick rocks. You can wear these in so you don’t have to pack them. [Personally, I love Merrell]
- Swim Trunks / Swimsuit if you want to swim in the pools back there. You should plan on this and wear them in if you have ones that are comfortable for hiking.
- Hiking snacks and some light lunch. I love granola, trail mix, cliff bars, and some light sandwiches. I almost always pack some beer as well 🙂
- A map of the hike. They’ll mail one to you and give you one at the visitor center.
- A GPS tracker or GPS watch if you’re not as good with directions. This will ensure you make the turnout and exit where you need to.
- A compass. A decent one.
- A headlamp or small flashlight, just in case. I like to just always keep a headlamp behind my drivers sear and a small flashlight (and GPS unit!) clipped to my hiking bag. It’s just safer.
Plan to start early in the day.
Finally! We’re getting to the good stuff.
You have to drive to the Left Fork Trailhead. DON’T FORGET YOUR PERMITS! It’s about a half hour if you go from the town of Springdale and slightly further from the park. The parking lot is just a small pull out from Kolob Terrace Road and it’s easy to miss. While there’s very little cell service once you get down into the Canyon, I’ve never had a problem at the top so Google maps should be able to navigate you to and from. Be sure to HANG YOUR PERMIT on the rear view mirror of your car or put it on your dashboard. They will ticket you.
The hike itself often doesn’t have associated maps except on paper. I think the best map of the trail is on All Trails and shows a few markers and way points. Recommend that you create and account so you can download the map offline onto your phone. A map of the hike is given below as well with some reference points.
You’ll enter the subway at the Left Fork Trailhead in the parking lot. It’s really easy to find. From there, you’ll descend about 1000 feet into the canyon. The descent can be a little tricky if you’re not super sure footed, lots of switchbacks and loose rock so take your time. When you get fully into the Canyon the trail will level out in a pretty forest that follows the river. MAKE A NOTE of where you turn off the descent and to the left into the level hike. You’ll notice that there are no markers here and this is your way out, so burn it into your memory or make a note of GPS coordinates. I’ve seen people put a can or jacket or something there as a reminder, but if the rangers come through they will remove it, so if you want to go this route don’t place anything you care about losing.
From there, you’ll follow the muddy trail back and forth across the river. You can hug the river the whole time or go up a bit higher, but you’ll follow the river basically until it meets the Subway. It is a slightly uphill route the entire way out and, depending on what time of year you go, it might be hot. One thing I love about this hike is just how amazing and different the entire hike is. For most of this hike you’re in a beautiful deciduous forest and listening to the river run along side you. You’ll be walking up-river (e.g., against the current) the whole way out to the subway and with the river on the way back.
About a mile and a half in on the north side of the river are two HUGE rocks that are covered with solidified mud and DINOSAUR TRACKS. They’re really big and right next to the trail, so if you make an effort to hike on the north side and keep an eye out, they’re pretty hard to miss. If you miss them on the way out, you can always catch them on the way back. I unfortunately didn’t get any photos of them as the contrast between the tracks and the mud is very low and hard to shoot, but they are SUPER cool. And please please please DON’T TOUCH THEM!! Touching them erodes the tracks and ruins them for generations to come. Look, but don’t touch.
After another mile and a half the river will start to open up and you’ll see a lot more coniferous trees and red rock. This is how you know you’re getting close to the subway and where the real photoshoot begins! The water runs right down the red rocks and you’ll have to scale them to keep going. I’ve tried to find all sorts of clever ways up these slippery rocks but the truth is, there’s not really one. You just have to go right up the middle, which has the best views anyway! There are tons of tiny waterfalls, beautiful rock walls, and channels where the flowing water has carved through the gorgeous rock. Take your time as the rocks are slippery, though it’s scarier (I think) on the way back down.
About another half a mile and you’ll see the entrance to the subway. You really can’t miss it. It’s called the subway because the water found it’s way through the rock at the top and carved out a big hollow tube like an underground subway train in New York or London. It’s breathtaking as you enter, since the water is still running down the red rock. The scale of the place is something that’s hard to capture in photos, but suffice it to say it’s big and beautiful and unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
If you’re going to run into other hikers, it’s generally IN the subway, as the back is where the bottom up hike meets the top down hike and everyone loves spending time in there. If you want people-free photos, just be patient or ask others. I’ve found people to be epically kind in such a special place. we were able to take these quite quickly.
Inside the subway is EPIC. Pretty much every angle, every view, every shot is the best one you’ve ever seen. It’s almost difficult to take a bad photo or find a view that you don’t admire. However, the floor is VERY wet, slippery, and cold. There are only a few places where 1-2 people can stand that aren’t covered in water. Be careful with your camera and your self as you walk along. The pools range in depth from 3-8 feet and you can feel free to jump in and out of them if you don’t mind the shell-shockingly cold water! You might as well give in and get in though, because there’s a super cool surprise at the back of the subway. As you walk towards the back, the look of the subway changes. It opens up again, while beautiful, it looks like your hike is over. You’re WRONG.
If you listen closely, you’ll hear loud water rushing in the back of this space. That’s because there’s a hidden waterfall in the back of these walls where the subway and the hike actually end. You have to get in past the end of the rocky ground in the photo above. It’s about 4 feet deep where you enter but quickly gets over 6 feet deep and you have to swim to the waterfall and tread water to see it. It’s difficult to get a photo because your camera and gear will get all wet and you’ll have to take it while treading in ice cold water. But it is worth getting in to check out for sure!
If it’s a hot day, the subway entrance is a great cooler place to stick around, drink some water, and eat some snacks. In the summer months, you can catch people napping here to try and wait out the hottest hours of the day before trekking back out. But take your time, take photos, and swim around. This is what the hike is all about!