The Subway in Zion National Park is a magical, iconic place. After seeing a photo so unlike anything we can really relate to, most photographers will seriously explore making this difficult all-day trek.
The Zion Subway
There are two approaches to get to this ethereal location, neither of them would be called easy. There is the ‘top-down’ hike which requires repelling, wet suits, ropes and knot tying skills. The easier bottom-up hike is simply strenuous, no technical skills required. However, neither of these routes are possible unless you are lucky enough to secure a lottery permit from the Zion Park Wilderness Reservations Desk. There is a limited supply handed out for any one day and they are generally very oversubscribed. Zion Park Rangers have checked my admission permit three of the four times I have gone on this hike. Both hikes require a start prior to sunrise. Avid photographers exit the canyon at sunset or later.
This hike represents another one of the types of photos I would like to stay away from now, despite its beauty. You would likely encounter 30 or more excited photographers all trying to squeeze into a confined area for a unique shot. On the other hand, it is a place any photographer needs to visit. For the above photo, I waited for all other photographers to leave. That meant hiking out the last section of the trail in the dark, but that was the risk taken to get the light glow. The late afternoon sun shines into the water carved section of the cave, creating the golden light I was after. The canyon exit point, after following the river for miles, is not clearly marked. Miss it and you can find yourself in a world of hurt.
The Bottom Up Hike
The bottom-up hike is going in and out on the same trail. Take the use of the word trail very loosely. Once you have made the very steep decent from the top of the canyon to the river floor, there is no clear trail. The next several hours are spent trying to find the best route. Gazing across the stream, it appears easier on the other side. So you wade across and hike there for awhile. Then it seems the easier path is now on the opposite side, so you again cross the stream. You keep this up for most of the hike. By the way, if you actually do go on this hike, once you get to the bottom check your surroundings very well. You will need to recognize this exit point in totally different late afternoon light. When I hiked this alone the first time, I laid some branches on top of rocks and drew arrows in the sand. However, the people coming in after me trampled the sand and knocked off my branches….
Here is part of your trail. Hiking this in late fall your feet are very cold at this point, but the Subway lies just around the corner.
The Subway Hike in Different Seasons
Still shy of the main attraction lie some narrow crevices with fast flowing water. The pine cones and leaves will give you an idea of their size. This is where accidents happen trying to set up a tripod on this sloping, slippery rock. I’ve started a slow slide downhill and nothing will stop you until you fall down on your knees or a now bloody elbow.
Just last night I listened to a presenter at a local camera club say regarding his photos of this very crevice “… believe me, I did not place those leaves there…” Even if he did not, it is certainly the case that some of the many previous photographers, that day or prior days, most likely did place some leaves. Photographers are often afraid to admit they help create a photographic scene. Somehow it is okay to create a position of fruit for a still life in your kitchen, but not in nature? It is okay to create a pose in a studio but nowhere else? If you are an artist, it is okay to create and move a few leaves around.
The added leaf and pine cone above help add scale to the photo and tell the season.
It is sometimes difficult to stop at this pothole to take photos since it is very apparent the coveted Subway is just around the corner. These two photos show how important it is to make this hike in the best season.
I really wish I had some winter scenes to show here, but Seth did not invite me, so these are all I have 🙂
The Subway is not Always Stunning
The hike into the Subway certainly is not easy and is at its worst on a very hot summer day. The danger is spraining an ankle, twisting a knee or slipping on a rock resulting in a bloody gash. Limping out would not be a viable option and a rescue would be embarrassing and potentially expensive. The good news is unless you are the very last one out, you will not be alone. There will likely be 20 other photographers and hikers on the trail.
So now you are lucky or persistent enough that you finally win a coveted spot on the famed Subway hike. You got up at 4:00AM and have hiked for several tiring hours. You are getting near and the beautiful Subway lies just around the corner and this is what you find.
It is still quite an amazing spot, but it just does not live up to expectations after seeing all the other beautiful photographs. In hindsight, this was likely a good opportunity to hop into the water and photograph some unusual angles. I did not even wait around for the late afternoon glow. Those unique views will have to wait for another day.
The Subway from the Top Down
Hiking top down to the Subway is a one-way trek, you do not hike in and out on the same path. A car is needed at each end of the trail head. It too is an all day, nine mile hike with the Subway about halfway down. This hike generally requires some short repels and some dry suits rented from Zion Adventure Company in Springdale.
Preparing for this hike, I enrolled in a canyoneering and repelling course, also from Zion Adventure Company. Even if you do not intend to hike the Subway, this is a great class that teaches you the basics of knot tying and repelling from some very tall cliffs. Two other participants in this class seemed to catch onto the knot tying and technical aspects better than me, so who better to team up with and tackle the Subway the next day? As I recall, they may have been on their honeymoon. What an international couple. She was born in Afghanistan and he was an Asian who grew up in England, so he spoke with a strong British accent.
At the top trail head you are guiding yourself with printed out directions as best you can. After a while, the dirt trail gives way to sandstone where no trail exists. We spread out to cover the most ground trying to scout the path down.
The backpacks contain our dry suits, ropes, helmets and other climbing gear. Worried about the hike ahead and time constraints, many good photo opportunities were passed up. Maybe there needs to be another top down hike in my future.
We did this hike on a Thursday. I distinctly remembering my thoughts while doing the breaststroke in a dry suit across this very cold pond. At one point we had to swim under a large log, pushing our packs below the water so they would not get hung up on the partially submerged log. Head popping up on the other side, gasping for air, my mind went back to my days in the office building in downtown Chicago. Old friends and co-workers at that very moment were answering phones, dealing with customer complaints, working on Excel spreadsheets and preparing for the next mundane meeting. What a great retirement; life was good.
Reflections on The Hike Out of the Canyon
Often I am the last to leave the Subway, waiting for a shot without other photographers in the scene and the best late afternoon light. Worried I’m pushing it too much, I finally hurriedly leave. Yet the canyon eventually opens up and it seems there is much daylight left. The sun will strike the canyon cliffs while the Subway creek (left fork of North Creek) is in the shade. This is the perfect combination for great reflection photos. Taking a photo of a tree reflecting in the water, the tree will appear upside down. If you later flip the photo, it may resemble a Claude Monet style painting.
Another evening sets on the 30 or so lucky, exhilarated and tired hikers into the Subway. Other than being careful, my biggest suggestion is to have a cooler of cold beer waiting in your car. You will be the most popular hiker in the parking lot for sure.