RUSSELL GULCH (Canyoneering Route)

Canyoneering Guide Photos 1 2 3

Russell GulchMost people know Russell Gulch as the large drainage and pantheon at the beginning of the Subway Top-Down Route. But while the standard route descends Russell Gulch, it crosses over and avoids the deepest sections of the actual drainage in favor of a more hiker-friendly approach to the Subway. In contrast, the Russell Gulch canyoneering route heads directly down the watercourse and involves three 100-ft big-wall rappels in the belly of the canyon before rejoining the Subway route near the confluence with the Left Fork. This spicier start may add 1-3 hours to a top-down Subway hike.

WARNING: The Russell Gulch canyoneering route is more serious than the standard Subway top-down route and involves several 100-ft big-wall rappels. If you are armed with only a 50-ft rope and very little canyoneering experience, this route is not for you.


You must get a permit for "Russell Gulch" to do this canyoneering route. If you intend to continue down the Subway, you also need a separate "Left Fork North Creek (SUBWAY)" permit. While getting both permits for the same day may be difficult, if you are lucky enough to get both, this route is a great experience. Complete info on the Zion Canyoneering Permits website.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: The guide below assumes that you have the basic skills required to descend a canyon safely. Conditions in canyons change quite often, so use your own eyes to evaluate every obstacle if something is different than expected. Do not blindly follow this or any other description; use your own judgement and be safe.

Detailed Description:

From the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead, hike the mile-long start of the Wildcat Canyon Trail. At the intersection with the Connector Trail to Hop Valley, turn left (east) and continue towards Lava Point. Then after only another .2 miles, turn right (south) onto the Northgate Peaks Trail. After only another .2 miles, you will see a signpost that signals the start of the Subway route. Now it's time to leave the Northgate Peaks Trail and follow the unofficial, yet well-defined, path that heads southeast down the slickrock formations into Russell Gulch. (This is the same exact start as the traditional Subway Top-Down Route.)

Before the Subway route starts its ascent up to the prominent slickrock pass formation, it crosses the actual Russell Gulch watercourse. (See map below.) The drainage is often mostly dry, but several pools of stagnant water may be visible as you look downcanyon. This is where we leave the standard hiking route and start the Russell Gulch canyoneering route! Russell Gulch canyoneering route Hike down the slickrock slabs to the right of the Russell Gulch drainage and soon you will find yourself approaching a deeper gorge. Find an easy scrambling route to the bottom and then continue hiking downcanyon.

Russell Gulch is a surprisingly deep and lush canyon... a secret world hidden from those hiking the standard Subway route far above to the east. After less than half a mile of hiking the wash, we come to Rappel 1 (100ft) at the edge of a large vertical drop. (There is a small pool to wade or swim just before the rappel station, so this is a good spot to put on wetsuits and gear.) The rappel is off of two bolts, although several trees in the area are also possible anchors. Halfway down the rap is an intimidating little pothole that can be stemmed over and then the rap ends in a short pool at the bottom that is often a swimmer.

After more pleasant canyon hiking, Rappel 2 (100ft) is off of two bolts in the wall at the lip of a big drop into a dark corridor. The bottom of this rappel is typically a short swimming pool as well. Then after only 10 more minutes of hiking, we reach the final big drop. On the right side of the canyon, do a short 25-ft rappel off of a tree to get to the station for the final drop. Rappel 3 (100ft) is again off of two bolts and is free-hanging for the lower half. The landing zone is on dry rock at the edge of a large pool of water. Pack the rope for now and continue downcanyon to look down one more 40-foot drop. While you could rig and rappel this drop, most people will choose to bypass this. Turn left and hike over the shoulder through the bushes to join up with the standard Subway route. Now it's time to either hike back up Russell Gulch or continue along the Subway Top-Down Route if you were lucky enough to get a Subway permit!

The Subway Top-Down Route topo map Russell Gulch Canyoneering Route
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The Subway Top-Down Route topo map Subway Map #2:
Keyhole Falls to Left Fork Trailhead

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Joe's Spin:

Canyoneering through Russell Gulch is a fun way to add a bit more spice to the start of the Subway Top-Down Route. While not the most amazing canyon in Zion, it is definitely a fun experience through some typically beautiful remote Zion scenery. The only downside is having to carry 200 feet of rope through the rest of the Subway, but that's a small price to pay. Alternatively, you could exit by hiking back up Russell Gulch, but that may tip the fun-to-work ratio...

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