The Subway "top-down" route is the classic way to hike the Left Fork of North Creek and is one of the most beautiful and sought-after hikes in Zion National Park. This route is a long strenuous day (6 to 10 hours) of hiking and canyoneering through roughly 10 miles of rugged territory involving several short rappels, a few down-climbs, and several cold swims. Along the way, you get to experience one of Zion's most beautiful and unique slot canyons and see the iconic and extremely photogenic tubular subway formations. (If you are not prepared for canyoneering, please consider doing the non-technical "bottom up" hike.)
A Zion wilderness permit is required for all hikes through the Left Fork/Subway ("bottom up" and "top down"). This canyon has gained epic popularity and the National Park Service has an advanced lottery and last-minute lottery system in place to allocate permits to 80 people a day. For more information on permit reservations, please see the Zion Permits website.
This is a canyoneering route; take it seriously! You must have and bring proper canyoneering gear (climbing harness, rappel device, ropes, etc.) and know how to use them before you do this hike. Many people have twisted their ankles by taking these short rappels for granted or by callously jumping off of obstacles. This remote canyon is not a fun place to get injured or require rescue. Commercial canyon guiding is not permitted in Zion National Park.
This hike starts and ends at different trailheads. You will need to spot one car at the Left Fork Trailhead (the end of the hike) and drive a second car to the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead (the start of the hike). Alternatively, you can arrange a car spot and shuttle with one of the commercial outfitters in Springdale.
|Rating:||Strenuous semi-technical canyoneering route in a wet canyon with many obstacles.|
|Access:||Start at Wildcat Canyon Trailhead (15.5 miles up the Kolob Terrace Road from the town of Virgin), end at Left Fork Trailhead (roughly 8.2 miles up the Kolob Terrace Road)|
|Time Required:||6-10 hours|
|Length:||Roughly 9.5 miles total|
|Elevation Change:||1000-ft descent down Russell Gulch, then gradual 1000-ft descent through the Left Fork, ending with a steep 400-ft ascent to the Left Fork Trailhead.|
|Technical Challenges:||Several short rappels up to 30 feet; a few short cold-water swims in narrow sections of canyon. Wetsuits recommended in cooler months. Numerous downclimbing/scrambling obstacles. Navigation though Russell Gulch down into the Left Fork and locating the final exit to the Left Fork Trailhead.|
|Equipment Needed:||60' canyoneering rope, climbing harness and rappel device, climbing helmet, webbing and rapid links, drybag, GPS (to confirm approach and exit). Wetsuits are recommended in the cooler months.|
|Seasons:||Late spring through fall. Spring runoff in late March and April can make many obstacles treacherous. Off-season descents not recommended to the general public.|
|Permit Required?||YES, a Zion wilderness permit is required for ALL hikes through the Left Fork/Subway.|
|Flash Flood Warning:||Do not do this canyon if there is a threat of rain.|
The "top-down" Subway route can be broken down into several sections:
This is the easy part of the hike! 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 into Russell Gulch.
Now the scenery starts to get more interesting as we make our way down the slickrock formations of Russell Gulch for roughly two miles to get to the Left Fork of North Creek. Follow the cairns and the well-defined path as it goes down the slickrock hills and through a few forested areas. Warning: Russell Gulch is a very wide slickrock valley with many different layers; follow the route on the map closely, look for trail indicators, and do not simply hike down the watercourse blindly. The route described here is a non-technical hiking route that crosses over the Russell Gulch watercourse, rather than descending it. If you reach any spot where you think you have to do a big rappel before you reach the bottom of the Left Fork, you are going the wrong way. (Note: A descent of the watercourse of Russell Gulch is a more advanced option that involves several 100' rappels.) In an emergency, it is also possible to hike back up Russell Gulch.
The most notable landmark that you will have to look for is the high slickrock pass (pink bump) shown in the photo to the right and labeled on the map. Once you exit the forest, the route heads east and up a bit to bypass a temping wash that leads many hikers astray. The high slickrock pass will appear in the distance and a steep trail will lead you down to the crossover of the Russell Gulch watercourse. Next, ascend to the saddle of the pass and once at the top, you will see an open slickrock bowl welcoming you to the south.
As the route reaches the cliffs above Left Fork of North Creek, it will turn west to give a great view downcanyon. Following the rim, the trail then makes a steep and somewhat eroded scramble north into the lower mouth of the Russell Gulch watercourse. The scramble isn't particularly difficult, but it can be intimidating. Once at the bottom, hike out the final section of Russell Gulch to join up with the Left Fork!
The Left Fork starts out looking like a fairly benign streambed, but after a short amount of hiking you will reach the boulder field obstacle -- a spot where several large boulders have fallen into the canyon. It's an easy rappel off of a set of bolts at the top of the middle boulder. After a bit more hiking, we come to our first mandatory swim through two emerald pools in a beautifully sculpted section of sandstone. (If you have never had to swim on a hike before, this is where you learn. A drybag in your pack makes a great floatation device!)
Now the territory really starts to get interesting as more water appears in the canyon and the rock formations get taller and narrower. The next challenge is the "bowling ball corridor" -- a very narrow swimming section that is marked by a "bowling ball" chockstone stuck in the narrow walls above the water. (There were actually two chockstones up until Spring 2005 when the other got washed away.) Since a big flood in 2012, a log is now jammed under the chockstone and you scramble up the log over the chockstone and then swim out the other side. It's a bit awkward, but not too difficult. (Note that this obstacle will change in the future!)
A little more downcanyon, we reach Keyhole Falls -- a very short and easy rappel into the most beautiful section of the canyon known as "The Subway." The tubular shape of the canyon along with the straight-cut lines that look like train tracks give this canyon its famous name. The beautiful alcoves, clear flowing water, and golden light bouncing off of the walls make this a very magical place. Take the time to really soak it in! A little downcanyon, you will hike past the "north pole" -- a log propped up against the canyon walls that has been made famous by many photographers. After one more bend in the canyon, we reach the final rappel off of a pair of bolts on the close side of the canyon, down into the pools of the lower Subway.
Historical note: Prior to 2013, a logjam existed on top of what's known as the "waterfall room" and most parties would cross over to the far side to do the final rappel off of a different set of bolts. Some people also used to rappel right off of the old logjam, but this was the site of a tragic fatality in September 2012.
Once down, enjoy the sights and take off your canyoneering gear because the technical section is over! Enjoy the beautiful lower Subway section which is always one of the most rewarding spots in Zion for photography. As you continue your hike out, you will make your way past several beautiful open waterfalls and cascades which can be bypassed on the left/south side. Be careful as the bare slickrock surrounding these cascades is incredibly slippery! The final part of the hike may seem a bit anti-climactic; after the waterfalls, the canyon quickly opens up and we are back in direct sunlight again. The wash is still beautiful with many wondrous slickrock shelves creating waterfalls and multi-stepped cascades, but the last few hours will be spent simply trying to make time through the obstacle course of rocks and plant life. You will find many short trails of use along the banks that will speed up your progress, but please obey any "don't hike here" signs or piles of sticks blocking a trail as the NPS is trying to stop unneccessary erosion in many areas.
After roughly two-and-a-half miles of hiking the open wash, you will see an exit sign indicating the final trail up and out of the canyon. (A GPS is very useful to keep track of your progress to make sure that you don't miss the exit or attempt to exit too early up Lee Valley!) The steep exit trail heads out the north side of the wash and zig-zags its way 400 feet up a shelf of old black volcanic rock. After a long day of hiking, this final steep uphill can be quite grueling, but don't give up! Once the trail clears the ridge and heads in, it's fairly easy hiking to the Left Fork Trailhead. (And hopefully you have your car keys!)
|Subway Map #1:
Russell Gulch to Keyhole Falls.
Note: While viewing the map, click on the map to return to this page.
|Subway Map #2:
Keyhole Falls to Left Fork Trailhead.
Note: While viewing the map, click on the map to return to this page.
The hiking season for the Subway is typically late spring through autumn, but conditions are much more difficult during the higher water conditions during spring runoff which usually takes place during April and May. During high water conditions, spots like the bowling ball corridor and Keyhole Falls can be impassible and other sections may be treacherous. During the cooler months, a wetsuit may provide welcome comfort for those doing the top-down route. If you have any concerns about conditions, please ask rangers at the Wilderness Desk to get the latest information. The top-down route is not advised during the winter months and the Kolob Terrace Road is typically closed and buried under snow a mile before the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead.
Many people who have no canyoneering experience want to do the Top-Down Subway route. Unfortunately, the National Park Service does not permit commercial guiding within the boundaries of Zion National Park. Several outfitters in Springdale do offer canyoneering training, equipment rental, and guided canyoneering outside of the park boundaries. See the bottom of the Zion Hiking page for more information. Alternatively, if you have access to a local climbing gym, getting firsthand experience learning to rappel properly in a climbing harness would be very useful.
This route is one of Zion's greatest hits and one of my personal favorites. From the sublime beauty of Russell Gulch in the morning to the amazingly photogenic Subway section, to the fun little rappels and swims, this "hike" has it all. The only downside is dealing with the logistics of spotting cars and navigating the multi-stepped process of obtaining a backcountry permit to do this route.