The Subway is one of the best attractions at Zion National Park, and if you’re lucky enough to see it for yourself, congratulations! Many people only ever dream of getting the opportunity to hike such a wondrous place.
Despite the effortless beauty of The Subway, successfully hiking the Subway does take some preparation. Due to the difficulty level of this trail, it is important for hikers to have an understanding of what the bottom-up hike entails ahead of time. Knowing what gear to bring, what to expect during the hike, and reading up on the tips from my past experience will really help enhance your overall experience.
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The Subway at Zion NP: Hike Description
If you want to avoid learning how to rappel, swimming with wetsuits in cold water, and taking the technical route to see The Subway, you can hike “bottom-up” from the Left Fork Trailhead. This route allows regular day hikers to experience some of the most beautiful remote scenery in the park. Along the way, you’ll see beautiful cascades, pools, and waterfalls, as well as the famous Lower Subway formations. This 7-mile out-and-back hike can take anywhere between 6 to 10 hours. It is regarded as a strenuous hike through rugged terrain–3.5 miles each way to be exact.
This hike starts and finishes at Left Fork Trailhead, on the Kolob Terrace Road. Driving time from Springdale is 45 minutes. Allow plenty of time to do this hike and be prepared to get wet. This hike doesn’t require any canyoneering gear or rappelling skills but it is a great adventure nevertheless.
Interested? A few important notes first.
A wilderness permit is required for all hikes through the Left Fork/Subway (“bottom up” and “top down”). Due to the increasing popularity of this hike, the Subway is managed under a quota system. There are two ways to get a permit– the advanced lottery (3 months in advance) and the last-minute lottery system (7-2 days in advance). The group size limit is 12.
These lottery systems allocate a total of 80 permits per day. In the unlikely event that spaces remain after the Last Minute Drawing, walk-in permits become available the day before your trip date. On each application ($5 application fee), you can select three possible dates for your hike. After the park conducts the lottery drawing, they will contact you about the status of your application. For more information on permit reservations, please see the Subway Permits page on NPS.
On the day before your hike or on the day of, you will need to go to the Wilderness Desk in the Zion Visitor Center to obtain your physical permit and parking pass. The hours for the Wilderness Desk vary by season, but you need to get here as early as you can to avoid the long, slow-moving line of other backcountry hikers. (From my personal experience of waiting in line, each permit takes about 10-15 minutes to process, which includes hikers asking questions and rangers giving their safety talk.)
Hiking Gear For The Subway
- Hiking Daypack
- Weather-appropriate clothing (windbreaker or puffy jacket for men and women)
- Water Hiking Shoes (for men and women)
- Neoprene socks
- Lots of water and snacks, maybe even a packable lunch. Stinger Waffles are one of my favorite sources of quick and delicious energy.
- Directions for the hike (Print this guide out!)
The Subway at Zion NP: Hiking Guide (With Photos)
This hike starts and finishes at Left Fork Trailhead, on the Kolob Terrace Road. From the parking lot, follow the well-maintained trail as it heads northeast for roughly half a mile. Keep walking towards the huge canyon walls ahead of you.
Eventually, you will see views like the above, overlooking the Left Fork. Continue along the trail as it leads slightly upwards. In no time, your fairly steep descent will begin. You’ll continue switching back and forth, zig-zagging down roughly 400 feet to reach the streambed of the Left Fork. Be more careful here, as the ground tends to be sandier and rocks tend to be looser.
Once you complete your descent and reach a point where the trail meets the river/streambed, you are ready to hike up the canyon! Before you start hiking up the canyon alongside the stream, take note of your surroundings. In this area, you will find a small sign pointing you to the trailhead (aka the exit). This is extremely important to note for when you need to hike back out.
Per the park ranger as well as many other guides out there, many weary, careless hikers have accidentally hiked past this exit sign, resulting in several miles of unnecessary walking. Don’t be that guy.
Continue hiking upstream. You will find that for the first two miles, you won’t need to hike directly in the water, as there are sections of trails to the right and the left of the stream that you can use. Continue to walk along the banks, boulder hop, and scramble as needed. If you begin seeing a bunch of baby frogs hopping around in the sand, avoid stepping on them and just know you’re in the right area.
Eventually, you’ll find deeper and deeper pools of water. You’ll also find that at some point, there is no way to avoid the water any longer. This is where you take the plunge, feet first! Your feet will get used to the wetness in no time.
Don’t forget to get yourself a pair of neoprene socks to keep your feet warm during the wetter parts of the hike!
The canyon gradually narrows as it approaches The Subway, causing the stream to get more rugged. You’ll notice yourself slow down as you begin to trudge through higher water levels. After the first two hours of hiking, the scenery starts to really impress as the stream widens and the water begins to cascade over layers and layers of rock.
Welcome to the iconic staircase falls– you’ll definitely know when you’ve reach them. Who knew water cascading down a number of terraced sandstone ledges would be so beautiful? When you’re done admiring this feat of nature, proceed to walk directly in the water up the staircase.
Continue up the trail. When you reach another waterfall (though this time clunkier and less impressive), circumvent this by climbing up some rocks to the right of it. Once you’re up, the canyon takes a hard bend to the right and enters the impressive, narrow mouth to the Subway.
Keep walking in. At some point, you’ll notice the tubular oval cut out by centuries of flowing water. This is the spot where everybody takes the iconic Subway photos! You’ll notice the three emerald pools, the beautiful potholes filled with water, and the refreshing brisk air of this enchanting area. Watch your footing here as you ascend and descend the incline made of rock as it can be very slippery.
If you happen to be here during prime time, you’ll likely also see other hikers rappelling down the wall to get into the Lower Subway. After you’ve had your fill of ogling and picture taking, turn around and hike back out.
Though this is the official turnaround point for The Subway bottom-up hike, if you’re willing to get wet, you can continue back into the pools to see a small 20-foot tall waterfall created by a logjam.
The hike out will be easier than the hike in, though a bit tedious. Recall, this is a strenuous hike. Remember to keep an eye out for the exit spot!
Tips For Hiking The Subway at Zion NP
All of your friends should apply for the permit and hope for the best.
A permit is required to access and hike the Subway. The NPS only allows about eighty people in per day, so it’s a complete luck of the draw when it comes to obtaining permits. Having as many people in your group apply helps with your odds of winning the permits. My Subway hike lottery experience for reference: 3 of us applied, only 1 of us won the lottery.
The bottom-up hike can be easily done without a guide.
If you’ve taken the time to note the landmarks of this hike before going, it will be easy to hike without “having someone who’s hiked it before guide you”. The trails are all very well-maintained so it’s hard to get lost. The key is this: if you continue to see footprints in the dirt and dried sand on the rocks you’re scrambling over (signs of usage from previous hikers), chances are you’re on the right track.
This is not a dry hike, use water shoes.
If you don’t have a sturdy pair of water shoes on hand, then rent them at one of the many local outfitters. Wet hiking boots are not pleasant, and you WILL get wet. Neoprene socks will also save your life and prevent frozen feet! For reference, when I went towards the end of summer, the highest water levels reached my upper thigh (I am 5’8).
Be prepared for a long hike in and a long hike out.
The hike starts out relatively flat, followed by a pretty intense descent into the canyon, then continues to be a long trek into the canyon to the Lower Subway. Then, you do it all over again on the way out. Because of all the water crossings and switching between the left and right banks of dry land, you may end up doing more mileage than what hiking guides officially note the hike distance to be. (For us, it ended up being about 10 miles from the parking lot to the end of the Subway.)
Start the hike early.
Allow plenty of time to do this hike and keep track of time! Don’t underestimate how long it’ll take to complete this hike; it takes a full day to hike and explore The Subway. If you start late and hike slower than average, you may have to turn around before seeing the best part of the canyon and race the sun back to your car. For reference, we started at 10:15am, which was pretty late, and finished at 6pm. It took a whole 8 hours for a relatively fit group of girls.
Bring lots of water for the trek.
Bring 2.5-3 liters of water, or enough to satiate your thirst for 7-9 hours of hiking. This will be especially important if you are hiking the Subway in hot summer weather. I brought about 2 liters and underestimated the distance/time it would take to complete the hike and ran out of water towards the last mile and a half.
Note landmarks while hiking.
After the descent into the canyon and before you continue on through the canyon, take note of where this junction is. When you come back out, you’ll have to locate where the ascent begins (there will be a sign for “Left Fork Trailhead”). We spoke to the park ranger who said that many groups have inadvertently missed this exit point and have hiked for many extra hours in the wrong direction.
Google Maps can help guide you into the canyon.
When I hiked the Subway with my group of friends, we referred to Google Maps to make sure we were walking in the right direction. Though it won’t tell you which turns to make or which forks to take, Google Maps is helpful in giving you a hint of if you’re in the general vicinity of where you need to be, or if you’re veering off track completely.
You might not need hiking boots or a dry bag.
A lot of other guides out there mention the need to bring sturdy hiking boots and a dry bag to keep your belongings safe. I found neither of these to be useful. As long as you rent or buy sturdy water shoes, there is no need to bring an extra pair of dry hiking boots (water shoe recommendations: men and women). I had asked multiple outfitters around Zion NP and was told that bringing extra dry hiking boots on the trail is more of a preference, but by no means necessary to enjoy The Subway hike. In terms of bringing a dry bag, this is typically not required in the summertime since at no point in the bottom-up hike are you ever submerged or chest-deep in water.
Hiking sticks are also not required.
Since you’ll be doing a lot of rock scrambling and not so much water wading past hip height, hiking sticks or trekking poles will just get in your way. Despite what the park ranger told our group when we hiked The Subway in late September, we went against his canned advice and found that there was really no need for trekking poles at all.
Keep an eye out for flash flood warning signs at all times.
Flash floods are a serious, life-threatening risk in the Zion area. They can occur with very short notice, so always be on the lookout for flash flood warning signs. According to the park ranger, you would be relatively safe if you were within the first 2 miles of the hike and it started raining. Since the canyon walls are relatively far apart here, flash floods are less of a risk. However, if you are in the Lower Subway (last portion of the hike) during a flash flood, get out immediately and retreat to higher ground as fast as you can. Better yet, if rain or thunderstorms are in the forecast, don’t attempt the hike at all.
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