The Subway Icon
Location/Hike: Left Fork North Creek, Bottom Up (The Subway) Zion National Park
This hike is challenging, yet not excruciating, and comes with a rewarding visual finish; but the permitting process can be difficult. I would love to do it again in the fall, and perhaps venture further up the creek. For that I rate it a 7 out of 10.
The hike up Left Fork North Creek is a very unique and rewarding experience. After receiving a permit (see permitting requirements section below), the hike starts from a typical dirt trailhead parking lot. At the parking lot there is a posted map that provides a good picture of what lies ahead; which is a roughly 8-9 mile hike through the Left Fork North Creek that ends in a rock formation that is known as the subway. Of course one could continue on if prepared to swim and rappel, but for most it ends at the subway formation.
We made the trip in the summer of 2014. The initial descent from the trailhead to the creek is no joke. While one doesn’t have to necessarily ‘scramble’ up / down the steep hill that separates the creek from the trailhead, I would also not describe the trail as pristine either; which is to be expected. I would describe the path as adequate, and worthy of a hiker taking sure steps; particularly on the way down (and especially if it is dark). This section is approximately one mile in length. After carefully, yet swiftly, making it down the steep hill we were able to make it more than halfway up the creek (on the way toward the subway formation) before getting our shoes wet as there were pretty well worn trails on either side of the water. But, once our feet were wet it became pointless to try and keep them dry; and in retrospect it is likely that going up the creek without regard for the wetness of our feet, vice trying to keep them dry, would have probably been faster. Either way, without much effort, we never had to walk through water that was higher than knee-level and in general found the flow in The Narrows the day prior more difficult to navigate. That being said, according to park officials, there was a very light snow pack that winter (the main valley never closed that winter), and near drought conditions so far in the spring / summer, so it is likely that water levels may have been low by historical standards.
The backcountry desk in Zion, and the NPS website, stated it was a 4.5 mile hike each way (for a 9 mile round trip). While our GPS didn’t think it was quite that long, the track I note below in the map section of this guide shows it to be nearly that distance. I’m sure this final distance depends on how much zig zagging is done on the way up and down the creek. I don’t say this to minimize the amount of energy / stamina required to make the trek (particularly if carrying camera gear), as it is a taxing hike, I just note that our GPS didn’t quite ever make it to 9 miles.
We camped at the main Zion camping area the night before our hike. This meant we woke up about 1.5 hrs prior to sunrise, packed up our tents, and drove to the trailhead. This put us at the trailhead about 30 minutes prior to sunrise (15 min to pack up and a 30 min drive), and beginning our hike about 30 minutes prior to sunrise (15 min to double check gear at trailhead). Needless to say we were the first ones on the trail that morning, and didn’t run into anyone until we were on our way back (and that is after spending between 1-1.5 hrs shooting waterfalls and the subway formation at the end of the hike).
While this timing did allow for good indirect light on the waterfalls and subway formation, in retrospect I would have liked to have been there at least an hour earlier. While this would mean making the initial descent in the dark,I think it would’ve been worth it to see the lighting a bit closer to sunrise. That being said, if you indeed are interested in taking some nice photos of this location I would not depart the trailhead any later in the morning than we did (30 min prior to sunrise). We scooted up the creek fairly quickly, and only had about 1-1.5 hours of shooting time before the direct high contrast light starting beaming into the creek which meant the end of shooting for me.
We made it back to the trailhead in the early afternoon, just in time for a nice late lunch / early dinner in Springdale.
While it would also be of interest to see sunset lighting, that would mean a lot of night hiking, and think if I had it to do over again I would leave earlier in the morning and do another morning shoot rather than opting for a evening/night-time shoot/hike.
Specific / Current permitting requirements can be found on the NPS website here: http://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/subwaypermits.htm
In general, you can apply for the permit lottery 3 months in advance. Stats on the NPS website indicate that hundreds of people apply for tens of slots; which means the odds of success are not good. If you miss the 3 months in advance window (like we did), you have two other options. First is the secondary ‘last minute drawing’ that is held between 2-7 days prior to the hike date (which we also missed). The last option is to show up at the Backcountry Desk the day prior to the day you’d like to hike and hope that someone has cancelled. We were extremely fortunate and this last option worked out, someone had cancelled.
As I said before, when we departed on our hike we were the first ones on the trail; but when we got back to the trailhead the parking lot was full and we had run in to at least 3-4 groups making the hike up the creek.
Recommended Camera Equipment
Backpack with Camera, tripod, cable release, extra memory / battery, lense hoods.
I used a 24-70mm and 14-24mm wide angle.
Note: After looking back at my photos, I found my ‘keepers’ were shot on my 24-70mm lense, with a couple on my 14-24mm lense. I never broke out the zoom (70-200mm) or TCE.
Polarizing filter. I really liked the way it took the glare off the water in the subway (and in the pools created by the waterfalls). Soft 1-2 stop GND filters. I found myself using these towards the end of my shoot as the light bouncing off the high sandstone became a bit too intense for my camera to handle.
Recommended Other Equipment:
Nothing crazy, just water (1-2L and/or filter system) and a bar/snack for way back. A headlamp if you plan to hike in the dark (of course). External battery for smartphone. GPS. Printed Elevation map (for backup).
There is a track on Gaia GPS Pro (no I don’t get paid by them, I just like using the App) posted by “Keys4Kids” that looks to be accurate: https://www.gaiagps.com/datasummary/track/d8437ccb008385661bcd4abc1bc1c844/
Trailhead GPS Point: (37.28469, -113.09588)
Subway GPS Point: (37.309425, -113.050499)
Recommended Photo Opportunities
I did not take my camera out of it’s comfortable resting place in my bag until we were about 90% of the way up the creek. This is when we ran into the first waterfall formations just below the subway. You will know them when you see them, they are striking. I recommend shooting these waterfalls, the cracks in the creek base, and the subway formation itself.
So a list of my favorites are:
-- Large rounded “subway” formation prior the actual “subway”
-- Round pothole waterfalls
-- Subway Formation
-- Cross-bed Cracks in creek base
On the way back be sure to pay attention to your location on the map. I can see how it would be easy to miss the one turn you have to make; to go up the hill and depart the creek. I’d recommend staying on the west side of the creek toward the bottom just to be sure. Know this may seem obvious to some, but just in case.