Zion National Park has the most diverse hiking of any National Park we've visited. And this hike is one of the best. It's not located within the main park section which includes Zion Valley, so it has a much more remote feel and you need a permit to do this hike. Also, in peak season, you can only get a permit through a lottery system. The hike is not difficult, but it can be taxing on older joints due to the amount of scrambling over rocks and crossing the creek numerous times. Give yourself lots of time - we thought we had, but it almost wasn't enough.
Oh boy. We didn't exactly know what we were getting into when we picked up our backcountry permit to hike the Left Fork of North Creek, more commonly known as "The Subway".
We were just doing the "Bottom Up" non-technical section as a day hike, but still a permit was required. Eighty permits a day are available, and this time of year it was easy to get one as a walk-in. However, as it gets later in the year, walk-in permits are difficult to get. Most are reserved in advance online and there is a lottery system - See Subway Permits.
One thing that was confusing was the distance of this hike. In some places, I read it was nine miles roundtrip, and in other places I read it was a little under seven miles roundtrip. Even the two different people we spoke with at the Backcountry Desk in the Visitors Center gave us different distances.
From the National Park website:
From the Bottom Up
Either way, everything I read said to allow 5 - 9 hours for this hike. I figured with picture taking and our usually slow pace, we would be closer to the nine hours.
The trailhead for our hike is a little over eight miles out Kolob Terrace Road, which happens to be less than a half mile from the Zion River RV Resort. That section of the park is the least visited but the most convenient to our rig. We didn't get started quite as early as I hoped, but we were on the trail at 10:30, giving us a little more than nine hours to be finished before dark.
We started down a sandy trail that had a few black volcanic rocks to climb down near the beginning.
After that little section of rocks, it was a pretty flat, sandy path into the wilderness area.
But then we had to descend 400 feet into the Left Fork of North Creek.
We knew we had to do it, but we stalled on the rim a couple of minutes.
Finally, we started down the very steep dirt and rock trail.
We were already dreading coming back up, but we knew it would be faster than going down. It took us about 45 minutes to cautiously descend that 400 feet.
We looked back up to mark the dark rock cliff where we started.
We reached the creek and were ready to start the trek upstream.
Again, we scanned our surroundings to make sure we didn't miss our exit from the creek on the way back. There is no designated trail so you just sort of find your way on either side of the creek or through it. It was possible we might not come back down the same way we went up and things could look different.
Although I had read that it was almost impossible to keep our feet dry on this hike, that was my goal. I didn't want to hike very far with wet boots and socks as I thought that would destroy our feet.
Well, in order to stay dry, we had to cross the creek and find the sandy paths on either side.
And sometimes the path would end very shortly after we got there and we'd have to cross back or we would have to scramble up the bank. In many places, especially the farther upstream we went, there was no choice but to "rock hop" or scramble over rocks and huge boulders in the creek.
It's not that it was extremely difficult. We just had to be ultra cautious with Linda's knees and an ankle she tweaked doing The Narrows hike. Whereas the younger, more nimble, fearless hikers flew by us, we plodded along and it took forever to get anywhere. Our route options were more limited and choosing the best route also took a lot of time. It was more mentally draining than physically demanding.
Still, the hike was beautiful with red rock cliffs and the flowing stream and the clear deep pools.
And, in almost every large pool there were one or two really big trout.
I don't know if fishing is allowed, but it sure would be tempting.
A little over half way, we stopped at this beautiful pool with a small waterfall in the back.
It had taken us a little over two hours to that point, and it was time to take a break and get a little something to eat.
But soon, we were back to scrambling.
In the upper part of the hike, flat sections like this one were few and far between.
Our most constant companions were the lizards of various sizes.
And we saw quite a few of these silvery frogs.
And we had the high-pitched buzz of hummingbirds the whole way. There were several other birds, but that was about it in the way of wildlife.
However, the beauty continued as we came upon small cascades and waterfalls.
Just before that last photo, I think Linda was about ready to give up on me. We were asking every person "How much farther?"
By that point, she had given up on some of the scrambling and just started walking through the water where it was shallow enough.
More waterfalls kept her going.
Above that last waterfall, the creek bed spread out and the water was shallow enough to walk through without getting the insides of our boots wet. However, we had to be careful as algae made the rocks slippery.
Finally, we made our approach to "The Subway".
The Subway "tube" isn't very long, but it is very cool with its potholes and pools.
Here's Linda standing beside the largest pool.
On the other side of the "tube", we could see the beginning of the watery slot canyon that the "Top Down" hikers go through.
I keep hearing that the "Top Down" hike is spectacular, but it requires some technical canyoneering skills, rappelling, 60 feet of rope, and the willingness to swim in the cold water. Maybe we'll come back some day and do that with an experienced guide.
Today I brought my water shoes and swimming trunks thinking I might go back into what they call the "waterfall room", but that water was just too deep and too cold, and we were already tight on time.
Linda looked at the time on the GPS and it was already 4:15. In another fifteen minutes, we would have been out for six hours. Uh oh.
The good news was that we had "The Subway" all too ourselves. The bad news was we didn't get to stay very long, and we were at risk of not getting out of the canyon before dark.
We picked up our gear and cautiously hustled our way back downstream. I packed up the camera as there was no time to stop for pictures. We hiked and scrambled and eventually came to a spot we didn't recognize.
Linda looked up to our right and thought it was the ridge we were supposed to exit at. But it was hard to tell as the sun was behind the ridge and nothing looked the same in the shadows. She thought we missed our exit, so we turned around.
Then I convinced her we hadn't gone nearly far enough and the GPS confirmed it. So we turned around again. But not far downstream, nothing looked familiar to either of us, so we turned around again. Finally, I was absolutely convinced we hadn't gone far enough, so we turned around one more time.
We wasted a good fifteen to twenty minutes hiking the same section three times. And we almost panicked. But, eventually, we started to see familiar places. When we passed our earlier picnic area, we knew where we were, but we also knew we had a long, long way to go. We couldn't believe we thought we had missed our exit and we weren't even half way yet.
All consideration about keeping our feet dry went out the window. To avoid as much scrambling and route choosing as possible, we walked right through knee-deep water whenever it seemed to be the easiest, quickest option.
As the shadows darkened, all those silvery frogs we had seen started to serenade us. And soon, the crickets joined them. Not a good sign.
It was quite a relief when we recognized our exit point. Whew.
But we still had to climb up the side of the 400-foot steep hill. Fortunately, it was still light enough to see, and we didn't need our headlamps.
That hill was straight up, but as tired as we were, we knocked it out pretty quickly while huffing and puffing and sweating our way to the top. Another wave of relief came over us that we didn't have to hike up that hill in the dark.
From there, it was about a half mile to the parking lot. But it seemed a lot longer. When we reached our lone Jeep, it was 8:20 and we had less than a half hour of light left. We made it out in about four hours and that was moving pretty quickly for us.
My GPS said we went a little over six and a half miles, so I think the 3.3 miles one-way that I had seen in a few places was about right. But that was definitely the toughest six to seven mile hike we've ever done.
If we do it again, we'll hit the trail around 8:00 a.m. and give ourselves a good 10 - 12 hours. But keep in mind that we're just really slow on this type of hike with all the scrambling and our extra cautiousness to prevent injury. I read warnings to give yourself plenty of time on this moderate-distance hike, and we certainly know why now.
The Subway is definitely the highlight, but the entire hike is just beautiful. It was certainly the least crowded of all the hikes we've done at Zion so far. We're worn out and a bit sore, but we're glad we did it.
On the way back to the RV park, we were just a little outside the Zion boundary when we saw a beautiful, healthy Gray Fox on the road. Bonus.
We hope you enjoyed our wilderness ride on "The Subway".