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Left Fork North Creek-Hiking Zion's storied Subway

From dawn til' dusk, a trek up and down the scenic river

By: Jake & Holly OpenRoadRevival + Save to a List

 We’re screaming down highway 15, the speed limit in Utah seemingly the only thing not overtly conservative.  A cup of coffee propels the lifting of my eyelids, the trek from Duck Lake Village a bit longer than I bargained for with swirling mountain roads demanding stretches be taken with cautionary tale, each zig and zag adding length to a segue of roads that appeared far from intimidating on a paper map thousands of miles back east.  The previous pair of commutes into Zion have been whisked down the vastly desolate 89 to 9 path, a stretch plenty long enough to cut into those ornery morning hours and upon return, further enhancing one’s pre-established appetite for a cocktail.  Yet over here, south of the junction with Cedar City, it’s an open and uniquely straight barreled shot at a posted 'eighty', a recommendation to which the heft of my foot eagerly dismisses.  This morning, tired yet optimistic eyes peer out moving windows entranced with highway signage and a mountainous horizon, for it's the Subway that has grabbed us from the clutches of our pillows at a yet darkened hour and urged us forward.

This trip has been in the works for months, laid out through rough itinerary in the crisp, collection of weeks that make up a Michigan fall, then reinvented and built upon with cheery enterprise capable of eclipsing the duration of a bitter winter.  Pictures studied and cataloged, a worn-out Rand McNally spread out across the dining room table as permanent decoration, and servicing us both in reference and as inspiration.  An enlistment of our Texan friends happened near the beginning, travel companions to which we've vowed to see the country, and on a sweltering July afternoon we offered ourselves westward, pushing out from their suburban-Dallas driveway and heading up through Amarillo to grab the interstate and cut straight across the latitudinal length of New Mexico.  From that first skip of the tires, we’ve soaked ourselves with the vast expanse of the infamous Grand Canyon, dangled naked toes above Horseshoe Bend, trounced wet, muddy feet through the Escalante River, strolled among the hoodoos in Bryce and yesterday waded through several miles of the Zion Narrows.  Today, however, is the highlighted occasion, the one to which a proverbial red check-mark has been planted upon my calendar since receiving an email in early May confirming our award through a lottery system.

Despite the wide-open spaces of southern Utah, traffic is the first nemesis to thwart this morning.  As early as we may be, we are not the only ones and this rough two-lane semblance of pavement leading into Kolob Canyon has seen its share of better days.  Shut down in one direction, fresh asphalt being laid in uneven regimen upon the other, we sit behind a slew of cars with tired patience as they do the same.  The plate directly before us reads North Carolina, a sketched outline of a prop plane faded in behind embossed characters, and as I study it’s details it creeps forward compelling my foot to follow suit.  With the flip of a sign, we are on our way, skirting the edge of a rubble road for several miles, staring intently so that we don’t somehow miss our intended lot causing a rerun of this pilot-car led tour.  ‘Left Fork Trailhead’, signage marks its habitation to our right, words picked up quick enough to read at our fifteen miles per hour pace.  We pull in, grab our gear with deft enthusiasm and tuck our permit in its uniform position between windshield and dash.  After tying my shoes to a circulation inhibiting degree, I commence my stride toward the informational motif which signifies the origin of adventure.  'Entering Zion Wilderness', tan and white bolted atop a metal stake, the sight of appropriate joy after far too much windshield to begin a day.

Left Fork starts out simple and peaceful, a cozy stroll through bristly pines that weaves up, down, back and forth for longer than one might assume.  A quaint trail fit for a quick little run, but unappreciated due to my viewership as a sheer nuisance from gaining entry down into the canyon as speedily as possible.  We tramp forward, pleasant and relaxed, until the ground transitions from sandy floor to switch-backed encounters of a steep decline leading, with eventuality, to a creek running serenely below us.  Carefully, step by step, we navigate our vertical-in-appearance route down, narrow walkways of sun-stained brown, discolored by the compaction of heavy hikers making their descent.  Feet slip off loose gravel, persevering in their stressful attempt to regain grip before a perilous fall adds an emphatic exclamation point to the end of our trip.  Simplistic from the standpoint of stamina and strength, it's hardly technical but a conscious effort a worthy component to each setting of the foot for the incorporation of safety.  Plenty of time is utilized traversing our way down into the river’s lush lower banks until the final descent of angled trails become sparse and unmarked, so we forge our own path down to the steady running liquid presented before us like energetic children sprinting toward a summer park.

 Cairns. Cairns. Cairns.  This is the mantra I’ve read time and again.  Mark your spot, that as simple as the trail is many folks miss the ascent back up, either over or undershooting the spot needed to safely rise above the surrounding walls.  Other alternatives exist, something about ‘the face’ or ‘when the rocks turn black’ but the ole trustworthy cairns seem to be the most steadfast instructions to follow.  The only cause for concern, however, is that there are rocks everywhere, piles of battered stone lifted upon battered stone up and down this river as far as the eye can see in both directions and 360 degrees.  And I further suspect there will be ample collections of amateur rock art up and down this whole embankment that have absolutely nothing to do with the marking of a trailhead so I take a moment to soak in the scene, convincing myself that I can call about this specific memory at will upon our return.   A few dashes of the minute hand are spent here to reestablish our bearings and empty infiltrating pebbles from our sandy boots before erecting a couple of our own makeshift sculptures of balanced rock just in case, or for the sublime hell of it.  Whatever our motive, its short-lived and we compile to get on our way, start tracing this vein of liquid upstream.

The trail up North Creek serves patches of worn out grass with fury, much more a mismatched series of sporadic dirt than a formal guidance system capable of systematic follow.  If, and when, it does exist as a full entity, countless river crossings hinder any strict attempts to follow it as easily avoidable efforts of futility.  Stretches of open ground rarely run further than twenty yards, obstacles of stones, jutting boulders and the gorge-forming substance itself consistently cutting between you and swift, steady movement.  Either you love or hate this sort of off-road experience.  Myself, I’m in the camp of loving this negotiation of constant hindrance, each passing of the river requiring an incorporated internal dialogue to avoid wet feet by hopping between the tips of stones which you hope sit cemented sturdily upon the river floor.  Dry portions, slowed by the navigation of monumental boulders which fill the landscape in every direction, all run down this gauntlet of a canyon by raging waters at one time or another, evoke the questioning of where an easier path might lie.  

With passable speed we move forward, the terrain continues its grueling escapade on our group.  At first, everyone seems to attack the obstacle driven course with enthusiastic tenacity but after so many tribulations the effort has grown stale for some of us.  Now wearing on the girls, their slimmer, shorter legs getting the brunt of the assault,  breaks become more frequent as we search for a large, flattened white stone supposedly imprinted with dinosaur footprints signifying the halfway point.  Eyelids clothes-pinned to our foreheads, with persistent focus we scour for this elusive entity until the sheer search itself causes disdain that the halfway juncture may yet be up ahead.  Time starts to tick away, feeling of the essence as nobody wants to chance becoming stuck down here, darkness enveloping us in the unfamiliar wilderness without sufficient device, and we are not quite certain what lies ahead or how far.  A minor, mental panic shudders over us before we dismiss our fears and saddle on.

Elevation change is hardly a heart-pounding factor during this hike, but we are obviously moving uphill as gravity would indicate by the flow of the water.  A steady current becomes more frequently interrupted by bubbly, white-foamed waterfalls, all compelling enough to enlist a second look while they soothe the ear.  Mustering the courage to climb a handful of them, we enlist the notion of shedding minutes as an excuse to operate with adolescent zest.  Every movement of the foot matched with a blessing for the eyes, a landscape that has been repetitively gorgeous begins to transition into something encapsulating and alternative.  The river widens, waterfalls assume added depth and appear with increased occurrence.  The girls still seem preoccupied with the halfway point, the questions of ‘where are we’ and ‘how much further’ escaping their lips with each quarter mile.  A few passersby on their jaunt back offer up some much-needed motivation of ‘almost there’.  Everyone is tired, the July sun burning down upon the backs of our necks, but we’ve made a pair of decisions to aid our cause.  First, there will be no more jumping from stone-to-stone with the rationale of keeping dry shoes, its too late for that anyhow, and we are simply going to live with getting our feet wet because, hell, they already are.  For whatever length of time we proposed the opposite, it was a ridiculous intention from the get go.  Second, we dismiss the dinosaur stone, the infamous halfway point as still possibly in front of us, and promise to refrain from any discussion regarding it.

Boulders, in their giant propagated form, begin to expose themselves with increasing rarity, the river now running its edge to the steep uprising where the cliffs shoot up.  Formations, best described as otherworldly, begin to appear with regularity. A slick, algae-covered mound doubling as a waterfall calls for an impassable photo op.  The Subway, our formal destination, never seems like it can be more than a short collection of steps further, this refreshing prance over slick rock guiding us with every twist and turn, a section of beautiful terraces, vivid in its spectrum of reddish-brown, thrills us on the next.  Everywhere, a wandering eye is welcomed with an additional vista worthy of a point of the lens.

Next is ‘the crack’, which has for some reason become the highlight of this entire excursion for myself.  Whistling with railroad intensity, it surges down its narrow corridor echoing about its vertical enclosure while it waits to regroup with its fellow droplets that it has certainly defeated in its race downstream.  Around the corner, you feast upon the narrowing, tubular effect starting to take shape.  Inviting and awe-inspiring, it’s a sight unfit for human adjectives as it tunnels before us, in the distance looking like an exit strategy for that massive stoned ball made famous for chasing down Indiana Jones.  From here, a steady clip uphill drives you closer, although not harsh on the thighs, once more a careful stepping mechanism serves beneficial.  Trekking poles earn their paycheck throughout this portion (and indeed the duration of this hike) not as propellers of movement but as well-oiled devices of balance. 

Inside sits the masterpiece setting for the array of photos that first perked our interest, guiding our wonderment this far in the first place.  Potholes of a glistening blue and marvelous green seemingly scooped out of sections of rock, incrementally chiseled over unfathomable periods of time by the ferocity and persistence of earth's blood.  Caverns, quaint little coves, carve out slim niches upon stone sides that allow for the convenient, dry storage of backpacks left behind.  Potholes turn into glorious pools, superior with each impending manifestation as the escalation upward continues its progression before it finally plateaus amidst a disappearing ceiling that re-exposes the illuminating light of the sky. 

Prior research had indicated that this area be explored with further detail.  The final pool, the one to which sees the trail dead-end without the aid of climbing equipment, is waist-to-chest height and if waded through will reward its adventurers with a splendid, splashing waterfall that can be traversed 360 degrees.  Having come this far, achieved our destination and with only our own footsteps to retrace on the walk back, we embark forward.  Striking and impeccably clear, the chilly water submerges our bodies as we push through a series of petite, secluded pockets with narrow, natural carvings of connective hallways.  Upon the end, each of us slips our head into the rounded cavern which contains the raging spray of rushing water.  Steve and I venture further, stepping in for a closer look while tracing our hands around slippery edges before I slip my foot into the what seems to be a bottomless center.

Lingering about the remaining pools, we opt for a brief swim followed by the posed episodes of photography.  Time no longer seems to be our enemy, it’s earlier than we anticipated during our frantic trek up.  Difficulties encountered to reach here drift to distant memories, the trip back seems like it should be easier for some reason.  And it is, slightly, downhill now as we trod openly through the water with our already wet faculties impartial to the fact, picking up our progress as we enlist the help of features ran across prior.  The mood is more joyous than it had been earlier, and the discussion stays focused on the absurdity of beauty we’ve come to witness firsthand.  Sun shines down off the flat surface of a pale rock to the west of the water's edge, it draws my interest and I stray over for a closer look.  Indeed, it is the dinosaur rock that eluded us so precariously on the trip up.  We spend a few minutes soaking it in, appreciating the passage of time as much as a person can, the opportune chance at a beating heart on this planet for but the brief snippet of time which we are allowed.  The remainder of our stroll is driven by surging legs and a focused vision pegged with the assignment of searching for the exit ramp to the right. Penetrating the landscape for our enlisted cairns, or ‘the face’, or ‘rock turned black’, squinted faces scan the ridgeline that towers up, it looks daunting from here.  Eventually we notice an area compelling enough to warrant attempt with minimal difficulty, it seems well trafficked but I can understand the struggle on certain days with less traffic.  There seems to be nothing discernible about it from this angle that screams here other than a series of footprints leading upward.

 Climbing up starts only as annoyance.  Legs are tired, shaky even, and attitudes start to turn grumpy as an appetite for both food and drink become consuming.  It’s slow going, the Subway calling on its defense of a steep, and still slippery, slope to keep us from our escape.  By a matter of will, we urge the girls to reach the top as they joke (or not) about having come to terms with this becoming their final resting place, accepting their inevitable demise at this geographic locale.  Thirsty and exhausted, we are close to the top but now void of water.  Once upon the brim, Steve and I surge ahead to procure them beverages.  It’s this simplistic but seemingly lengthy stretch that feels to be never ending now, cutting through trees and down gullies, the parking lot never showing its face.  We are marginally worried, neither of them have telltale symptoms of dehydration and we’ve been consuming water with regularity, but yet we’ve heard the horror stories and the realistic possibility still exists so we rush forward until the nose of Steve’s white Honda Ridgeline comes into view.  Steve unlocks the vehicle while I hastily chuck four bottles of water from the cooler into my pack and begin my run toward them, half in effort to hurry and half to avoid the repetition of the same span in a matter of hours.  Happy to receive it, they drink up hastily and finish their remaining strides along flat ground to the car with general ease.

Back in the confines of the car, conversation focuses on anything edible, anything capable of wetting the gullet that isn’t in the form of flavorless water.  Personally, I’m craving a Diet Pepsi, a preference for a healthy dose of whiskey inside, but I’ll take the legal version for the car ride north to Duck Creek.  We hit the right side of the pilot car this go round, the same aging woman wrestling the sunlight, still perched atop her lunch cooler rotating an orange sign back and forth during the whole encapsulation of all we’ve seen and endured.  Before we know it, we’re advancing back through southern Utah roads with rapid velocity.

A gas station in La Verkin is our saving grace.  We load up on junk, happy to pay whatever price they are compelled to ask of us.  The sun is starting to sink, the fade of the horizon starting to show its assortment of color.  The stretch of interstate back is made steady work of, the switchbacks that climb from Cedar City seem less inconvenient this time around.  Back to the retreat of our cabin escape before sundown, one which we’ve rented and made home for the week, we reward our effort with cocktails on the deck as the sun drops behind the scene of towering pines before starting our preparation for dinner.  It was a rough day, in some ways, sure, but days full of that is a life I could get used to living. 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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