If you love unique landscapes (preferably involving water), you may have heard of The Subway in Zion National Park. When I first saw photos back in 2008, I became obsessed. It’s a beautiful natural tunnel with water flowing through clear water pools, all tucked away 4.5 miles away from a winding country road in Zion’s wilderness. The “trail" to it is littered with boulders, a rambling creek, trees, manzanita, sandy riverbanks often covered in rocky wood piles, and many obstacles involving crawling, jumping, hauling yourself up, sneaking through tiny openings and climbing up rocky barriers. This is less hike than scramble/bushwhack.
Access to this natural wonder is either made “top down”, a canyoneering adventure involving deep pools and ropes, or “bottom up”, an out-and-back route from a trailhead outside the main section of the National Park canyon. It requires a permit to take either route–only 50 people are allowed per day.
I did this hike before, back in 2009 while training for a half marathon in San Francisco. Those running muscles and lungs did me good back then since I had a really tough time limit and a late start. This time, my rock climbing muscles helped with both arms and thighs.
The journey, while beautiful in its wildness, is exhausting. Not just because of the length (nine miles normally wouldn’t rough for me as a hiker), but because of the constant route-finding/losing, rock-hopping, stream-fording, walking on slippery/wet rocks once you get to the tunnel, climbing over boulders and hoisting of a heavy camera backpack. There is almost a negligible amount of actual flat, unencumbered trail. To top it off, the trail starts and ends with a narrow dusty goat path that goes 400′ down and then back up to the ridge line.
One of the best parts of my trip this time was seeing the dinosaur tracks rock which is about halfway through the hike, and next-to-impossible to see when you’re headed in unless a GPS points it out to you. I blasted right past it last time, unaware of its existence. It’s a giant slab of clay-like rock with very clear prints in it, evidently from the Jurassic Period, and it’s almost directly on the trail. Absolutely awesome, and nirvana for a paleontologist wannabe like me.
To get an idea of what it’s like to hike to The Subway, imagine with me:
Drive 8 miles north of Virgin, Utah and park at a little pothole-filled parking lot. Check your gear and water, load up, grab your trekking pole (do bring one, it’s so nice), tuck your permit into your bag and head down the pathway toward the mountains. After maybe 1/4 of a mile, you wonder where the path will go as you’ve run into a ridge line and there’s nothing in front of you but air and a steep hill overlooking a canyon with water running through it. Then you see the winding goat path that plummets into the valley below, which you must follow down to the creekbed.
After this, it’s about 4 miles of following cairns (rock stacks) or finding your own way around the obstacles. This part of the hike becomes a blur in my memory–you go into a zone of simply looking ahead, trying to find the path, trying to minimize the difficulty, making decisions nearly constantly about where to put your feet. There are many times where you must choose the lesser of the two evils, such as tossing your backpack over a huge rock and hoisting yourself over it after, or trying to get through a deep part of the creekbed without falling. There are only a handful of spots where it’s legitimately difficult no matter which way you choose, but the difficulty definitely increases the closer you get to The Subway. So does the beauty of the canyon. As you approach your goal, the canyon walls move in slowly. You can eventually see where the towering rock above you closes in and takes a big lean to the right, and that’s where you know you’re close.
Two large staircases of water, which you must walk up or around, are the prelude to the Subway tunnel itself, along with a crack where almost the entire creek flow astonishingly becomes a few inches wide. This is an incredible 1/4 mile of some of the most beautiful scenery in Zion, and you’re not even in the Subway! The rock faces are gorgeous and tall and awe-inspiring as they wrap above you into the sky. The water has carved and smoothed everything though here. As you carefully make your way up the slippery creekbed, you’ll see the opening to the tunnel ahead. It’s dark, round and enticing, and once you get to the mouth of the tunnel itself, this is a moment to pause and realize what you just did.
Before you are stair-stepped pools flowing through the middle of a glorious striped rock tunnel. Above you, you can just see either bright green (spring/summer) or flaming yellow (autumn) plants on the rock faces. Once you make your way up some of the tunnel, it opens out into a smooth, water-filled space that takes up the entire space between the rock walls. The water is green and all the rocks beneath look like a maze. If you hop into the pool, you’ll wade through and see Keyhole Falls, a stunning 10′ waterfall in what feels like a cave. On my last hike in 2009, I stood under it because it was so hot outside. This time, I didn’t. Brrrrr October.
The Subway is short. Tiny, even. Incredibly slippery. It is so packed with beauty and details that you could spend the entire day finding new bits to it. As a photographer, not going into a twitchy fit of “I MUST PHOTOGRAPH EVERYTHING” is really hard. I have to force myself to stop, look, feel, find angles, try to tell a story instead of blasting a long-exposure off every two feet. There are so many things to notice.
Leaving is hard. Especially when you think about the traverse that awaits you. I always pause before I go around the sweeping rock curve back into the main canyon, looking back at the small round black opening to the Subway tunnel and promise that I’ll be back. I can’t help myself. It’s a hauntingly beautiful and wild place, and it’s one that stays with me. I long for it. I crave it. Whenever I’m in Zion without visiting it, I feel like I missed something. This all said even after visiting other amazing and unique places, like the Narrows and Kanarra Creek and the Emerald Pools during a flash flood.
I do think a lot of the cloying appeal of The Subway is because it is so hard to get to. If it were on the side of the road, it would be overrun with photographers and tourists. As it is, there are so many people that want to visit that getting a permit in the summer is really hard–it’s all done on a lottery system and there are no guarantees. Thank heavens that it’s out there in the actual wilderness, not full of candy wrappers and water bottles, and that those of us who love it can only get there because we’re willing to work hard for it. I’m so happy to be among those lucky enough to love it for its elusive beauty.