Hike The Subway - Top-Down

Utah Wildcat Canyon Trailhead

Added by Scott Kranz

The Subway is a challenging, unguided canyoneering day trip and arguably the most popular backcountry adventure in Zion. It is one of the most diverse and beautiful slot canyons in Utah.

The Subway (rated 3B III), also known as the Left Fork of the North Creek, is the most popular backcountry hike in Zion. It is one of the most diverse and beautiful canyons, as well as a fun and challenging day trip canyoneering adventure. There are two ways to explore the Subway: from the bottom up or the top down. The top-down route is a strenuous 6-12hr, 9.5+ mile hike that requires rappelling skills, down climbing skills, 100ft of rope, route finding experience, swimming through several deep pools of cold water and a sense of adventure. May through September are the ideal months to take on the Subway—when the water and air temps are warmer. September is optimal, since the park in general seems to be less crowded and permits are easier to get.

Due to its popularity, the Subway is managed under a quota system and permits are required. Reservations are available online via lottery (several months in advance), a last minute drawing (also online, 2-7 days in advance), or at the visitor’s desk inside Zion National Park. Purchasing the permits online, as they are date-specific and have a tendency to sell out is the best method—especially during high season/summer months. Pick up your passes at the visitor’s center prior to the day of your hike, since you’ll want to be hitting the trail before the visitor center opens! Besides picking up your passes, it’s a good idea to check in with the rangers to find out the weather forecast and the latest conditions in the canyon. Because this is a slot canyon, flash flooding is a major danger and conditions can change dramatically in a short time. You can also check the local weather and current Subway conditions online (www.nps.gov). There’s a book you can purchase at the visitor’s center or online prior with a detailed route description (Zion: Canyoneering by Tom Jones).

Online there are great charts with rough guidelines (please note times are approximate, based off of those bombing through the canyon in ~6hrs. Also note the mileage has the chance of increasing, depending on how many times you cross the stream below the Subway): CanyoneeringUSA.com

Additional Considerations:
  • The canyon’s pools are spring-fed, so water is available to filter once in the canyon
  • Check weather conditions, since flash flooding is a major danger in any slot canyon
  • Comfort with rappelling, down climbing & setting up/using anchors
  • All rappels are bolted (as of 2012)
  • Many people take on the three short obstacles/rappels via hand lining, however, this is NOT recommended and has gone horribly wrong. Aside from this, choose your anchors carefully, since the established anchors are not all suitable for hand lining
  • If attempting the Subway in the winter/spring—the red ledges immediately after the Subway are icy and require crampons. Also, with the snow melt, there are several weeks in spring when the Subway floods and it is NOT safe for passage
  • Port-a-potties available at both trailheads
  • GPS coordinates are only references and may or may not be accurate, as GPS has limited capabilities in the canyons. Do NOT rely on a GPS as your sole method of navigation
  • Check zionnational-park.com out for Subway GPS coordinates
  • Some people have not planned well and have ended up spending the night in the canyon. Give yourself plenty of time
  • Professional guide services are not permitted on this adventure

Pack List

  • F-Stop Loka ultralightweight backpack
  • Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus Recharger
  • Clif Builder's Bar
  • Sony A7 with 24-70 Zeiss f4
  • Zeal Ace sunglasses
  • Petzl headlamp
  • Gerber Crucial mutlitool
  • Mizu water bottle
  • Dry bag
  • 60ft of rope will suffice—unless you’re going to do the variations, then you’ll need 100ft
  • Harness with rappel device
  • Helmet
  • Sturdy trail runners or hiking boots/approach shoes (consider renting neoprene socks &/or boots in town)
  • Consider a wetsuit/wetsuit top
  • Water filtration/purification system
  • Headlamp(!!) with extra batteries
  • Change of clothes
  • Quickdry clothing
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Activities:

Hiking, Swimming

Skill Level:

Intermediate

Season:

Summer, Autumn

Trail Type:

Point-to-Point

Distance:

9.5 Miles

Rating:

Features:

Bathrooms
Forest
Scenic
Swimming Hole
Waterfall

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How to Get There

about 2 months ago

Gorgeous Hike!

This is a great experience, and a "must have" on your bucket list. Being so, there are lots of people. I suggest leaving early am to beat the crowds. Nice hike, the crawl out is steep, but do able for sure. Make sure and take plenty of water and energy snack!

about 2 months ago

4 months ago

Amazing canyoneering experience

The Subway Top-Down route is incredibly fun and features beautiful views from start to finish, but I wanted to echo some others' notes that this isn't a walk in the park for everyone even though it's tempting to view it that way. Be careful not to take too large a group because of the amount of time it'll add and the impact it has on your experience, but more importantly, it'll be way more fun if everyone is comfortable rappelling. I think it's easy to take for granted that everyone intuitively understands the mechanics of rappelling, but the last thing you'd want to deal with is someone hurting themselves halfway through the canyon. That said, you're likely to have an awesome adventure regardless.

4 months ago

5 months ago

Great Challenge

Epic!

5 months ago

9 months ago

Key Hole

I've done the subway more than 12 times and I would have to say a fun side-note on this hike is the key hole swim you can do in one of the first swims. Halfway through a longer swim, on the left, is a hole. If you drop in that hole of water there is a hole in the rock a few feet down you can go through and swim out the other side. It's pretty cool.

9 months ago

10 months ago

Awesome Sauce.

Beautiful, incredibly fun hike. I did this last summer (mid-June) and would recommend it to anyone interested in these kinds of excursions. I do a fair bit of hiking and dabble in rock climbing/rappelling, but this was my first canyoneering trip and I would say it's ideal for a beginner. Just challenging enough to keep it interesting while not being too advanced for newbies. Heads up: we did have some difficulty finding the trailhead, and apparently this isn't an uncommon problem - while looking for the trailhead we came upon a group in front of us who had also been searching for some time. We actually looked around for well over an hour before we found it, and during our search drank up most of the water we had on hand. The trailhead begins at the highest point of the hike, hence the top-down designation, and the high desert in June is (you guessed it) hot. Here's my advice to find the trailhead: follow the cairns (duh) down the slickrock, and where there appears to be a fork at the bottom, stay right. There will be another fork a short time later. Take a left here. It's pretty inconspicuous and the cairn is NOT SET UP where the trail branches off, but up a little bit higher on the trail. It's not easy to spot. Trust me, we sent several scouts off in that direction and neither of them found it. One of them had even done this trail already. So, yeah. Keep that in mind. Once you find your way from there it's very straightforward - I mean, once you get down into the canyon there's really only one direction to go. The water in June is COLD but refreshing, and there are several places where you have to full-on jump into the water, there's no other option. Another heads up: one of these water obstacles has a log coming out of two boulders which leads into the water. It would appear that you can use the rope situated nearby to slowly ease into the water. This is not the case. The log is super slippery and you'll end up falling on your ass. You're better off just jumping right in. Don't worry, it's deep enough. Oh, and the hardest part of the entire hike, by far, is the last 200 meters or so, which is pretty much a straight uphill to the parking lot. After that 8.5 mile obstacle course you just completed, it's pretty brutal, but when you get to the top and look down upon what you just completed, it's totally worth it.

10 months ago

12 months ago

SO Amazing!

I did this hike in mid november. I was a little scared that it would be freezing! We had wetsuits and neoprene socks though and we were totally fine. In fact I have done canyons in the middle of the summer that were much colder. I loved every moment of this hike, and even though it is pretty long I plan on going back and doing it over and over again.

12 months ago

over 1 year ago

This hike is an absolute blast. Like previous reviewers have mentioned, finding your way down to the start of the Left Fork can be a bit confusing at times. Here's a tip: getting there shouldn't require anything too crazy/scary to get down. We got sidetracked twice and both times the route in front of us was a bit sketchier than we imagined it should be for such a popular hike. Once you get down into the canyon, you'll have an amazing time. Note: This hike requires rappelling, so you and your group should have the proper equipment and knowledge.

over 1 year ago

over 1 year ago

Utah has some incredible canyoneering and this is one of the most spectacular options. The route ranges from squeezing through tight quarters, swimming in deep pools, rappelling over down boulders and hiking through the river surrounded by massive sandstone cliff walls. Summer is the time to go as the water will be warmer (spring and fall require wet suits). The subway brings out the explorer in you as you may have to try a few different options before finding the corrent entrance to the canyon. Make sure you do plenty of research and know as best you can where you're meant to go. Once you hike around the gulch before the canyon you'll have to keep a sharp eye out for the entrance and probably do some trial and error. If it seems like a really sketchy entrance into the canyon, back track and push forward looking for cairns and a trail heading up a mild hill. This will lead to a rocky, steep (but totally manageable) trail heading down to the canyone floor and towards the first obstacle - a large boulder that you will need to rappell. Always rappell if there is the option - many drops look like they are jumpable, and they may be, but many have tested their limits jumping down boulders and gotten injured. As far as gear goes, bring a lighter canyoneering rope rather than a climbing rope - it will be lighter and soak up less water. Everyone should have a harness, rappell device, locking carabiner and bring at least one form of an anchor so that whoever is leading and setting up can tie in while getting the others ready. I'd also advise to take it slow once you finish the rappells and are walking through the actual "subway" section. Sit down for lunch on the river or near the red waterfalls and soak it in. You've got a good climb out ahead of you so rest up and enjoy one of the most beautiful places in Utah!

over 1 year ago

over 1 year ago

A great day of canyoneering. The trail from the wildcat trailhead down to the start of the canyon can be a bit hard to follow, so make sure to keep your eye out for cairns. The canyoneering is fun and the rappels are short (and a couple are even circumventable if you're confident). Definitely recommend doing this in the summer, it makes the swims far more enjoyable! I'd definitely recommend the Top-down over the bottom-up hike!

over 1 year ago

over 1 year ago

Probably one of my most memorable hiking/ repelling experiences. The trail is a little hard to find in some spots at the beginning, so definitely bring a map (or GPS if you have it, but make sure it's waterproof). But once you settle in, the hike is relatively easy and the scenery is amazing. Bring your repelling gear for at least 2 sections (some other's can be circumnavigated) and just be prepared for adventure. The pools are great, the ambiance is fantastic and it's just a freaking great overall hike. Warning though, be very mindful of the weather, don't even attempt if rain is in the forecast!!!

over 1 year ago

over 1 year ago

Funny enough I ran into Tyler Johnson (previous review) on the trail. Top Down is an amazing way to take in the Subway if you're comfortable with rappelling and anchors. You'll get the opportunity to swim through several pools that are waist to chest deep and see a whole new perspective of the canyon that isn't accessible from the Bottom Up Route. If you're planning to go top down here are a few things to keep in mind: 1) It's helpful to have a shuttle car for the thru-hike. Park one at the Left Fork Trailhead (37.2847443,-113.1328094) and then load up all passengers and head to the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead (37.339812,-113.1125852) to start the hike. 2) If at any point, you think you're off the trail before the first obstacle, head back to the last point where you knew you were on the trail -- we turned back 2x because we missed the direction the cairns were pointing. We saw cairns along the entire route up to the first obstacle when we were on trail. 3) At the first obstacle, you may see people jumping off the right side of the boulder. I'd recommend being patient and rappelling. Nothing is worse than getting an ankle injury this early in the canyon. 4) Wetsuits -- we didn't use them since we went July 30th, but they could be helpful early or late in the season as the upper canyon streams were a bit cold. Get out and enjoy it!

over 1 year ago

over 1 year ago

If you love beauty and adventure, you won't find a better day hike. As described above, the top-down hike requires a permit, and the permits are extremely popular and hard to get, but the trip is well worth it. The subway offers much of what is best about Zion national park. The canyon is challenging enough that even experienced hikers will find themselves engaged, but welcoming enough that even novices can enjoy it as long as they travel with someone who really knows how to rappel and manage basic canyoneering obstacles. Three important note on the trail: 1) Just after way-finding through the sandstone bowl, as you are preparing to drop into the canyon itself, there is misleading false approach that takes off to the right. We re-set cairns yesterday (7/30/2015) to show the appropriate way to approach the drop-in (the correct trail takes off more to the left or straight on, depending on how you're viewing things), but it's quite easy to miss. If you make your way down the false approach, you'll find yourself confronted with an impassable down-climb of about 30 feet over a series of uneven, sloping, unsafe rocky ledges. This appears dangerous (especially from the bottom) and should not be attempted. The correct entry, which takes off straight ahead/more to the left, leads to a very manageable approach down a rocky trail with some boulder hopping. 2) I've hiked Subway before doing everything possible to avoid rappelling, but did it yesterday with harnesses and rope at the ready and found it to be much more enjoyable. The rappels are short, but great fun. The last obstacle, in particular, can be approached either straight on (bolt and webbing are slightly to the right) or by skirting around to the left and using bolts in the wall there. I've previously always gone left, but yesterday we rappelled from the straight-on/slightly right and found this made for a 25-30 ft rappel that was a lot of fun. 3) The trail down the riverbed (after leaving the slot canyon) takes quite a long time, so know that even after you've managed all the obstacles, you've still got a good few hours before you'll make it back to your car. All of that aside, there is nothing quite like this canyon. Within the canyon, you'll find places where you need to jump from a boulder into a pool and then swim across as well as others where you walk along in waist deep water only to find your footing suddenly gone and yourself in water up to you shoulders (or above your head). The subway itself is spectacular and unique and is preceded by a fantastic little redrock slot is followed by a series of stream beds where Zion's bright red rock mixes with green algae and white foaming water and a blue sky to form one of the most striking and gorgeous of nature's canvasses. All in all, a spectacular trip.

over 1 year ago

Added by Scott Kranz

Seattle-based Adventurer, Photographer, and Writer

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