The Subway in Zion National Park is one of the most beautiful and unique places we have ever seen. When we were first planning our trip, we knew we wanted to do this hike but we were unsure if it would be feasible in mid-November. The water temperature can drop to the low 40s and the air temperature would be unpredictable. After some research though, we found that with the right gear, we could totally tackle it. You can do this hike from the top down if you are into legitimate canyoneering, this requires 60 feet of rope and some swimming in very cold pools. We opted for the bottom up round trip route which, while strenuous, does not require any technical skills.
The Permit System
To keep impact down and ensure safety, a permit is required for this hike. Zion National Park allows 80 people to hike per day. From April to October, there is a lottery system in place, these applications are taken 3 months in advance of the date of your trip. One of the HUGE advantages of hiking The Subway in November is not having to worry about the lottery system. You do still have to apply for your permit, however. Starting in November, The Subway permits run on a first come first served system. We put in our application 3 weeks before our trip and only 24 other people were before us. You cannot pick up your physical permit more than 24 hours before your hike. This is to ensure that the rangers know the weather forecast and can be assured that there is a low risk of flash flooding. That being said, if you have your permit in hand and a storm pops up out of nowhere, it is not recommended to hike in this area.
With permits addressed, it was time to think about gear rental. We decided to go with Zion Outfitters, located across the river from the Zion National Park Visitor Center, they were super convenient and easy to work with. They offered full body dry suits but we opted for just dry pants along with neoprene socks, canyoneering shoes, and a walking stick. We thought the walking stick was silly at first but it ended up being one of our favorite pieces of gear, extra stability is a life saver. You can also rent dry bags here, this is a great idea if you have any electronics that you don’t want to get wet (no matter how careful you are, slipping and falling in the river is a possibility). Luckily we had our own so we were able to pass on this option. We were able to pick our gear up after 3 pm the night before so we could get off early on our hike. We were also able to get a discount on a second day so we could utilize our gear for The Narrows hike as well. Overall we were very pleased with Zion Outfitters. They even have showers and laundry services- perfect for van-lifers!
- Rating: Strenuous
- Length: 9 miles out and back
- Time to complete: 7-9 hours
- Average air temperature in November: 56 degrees F
- Water temperature in November: 45 degrees F
- Permit system: Lottery 3 months in advance April-October, first come first served November-March
After we had our gear rental, we felt fully prepared for the hike of a lifetime. The hike begins at the Left Fork Creek Trailhead off Kolob Terrace Road. Be sure to start your hike early, the exit to the trail can be tricky so it’s not ideal to do in the dark. We got off around 7:30 AM. The beginning of the trail is fairly flat until you reach the canyon. There you will descend about 400 ft to the bottom of the canyon, this part does require some rock scrambling. As you get to the bottom, be sure to look back and even take a picture. Many people get lost on the return trip when they miss their exit point. The rocks on the canyon wall turn to black lava rock at the point of exit, keep this in mind when you’re hiking back.
Once you’re in the canyon, the fun part starts. There is a fair bit of way finding here. You follow the river the entire route however the trail criss-crosses the river and isn’t always clear. Along the hike there are a few points of interest before reaching The Subway. We unfortunately never found them (much to our dismay) but there are some of the best preserved dinosaur tracks in the world on this trail. We copied GPS coordinates before starting the hike but alas, GPS is spotty due to the canyon walls. They are apparently 1.7 miles in on the left hand side on a large white slab of rock. Hopefully you are more lucky in finding them than we were!
Further up there are two gorgeous stepped waterfalls that you will walk up. Be careful as you are walking (be sure to utilize a walking stick)! Soon after the second waterfall you will begin to see the curved Subway like walls. We were lucky enough to have The Subway to ourselves for almost an hour. Though the area is less than a half mile, you will want to spend a fair bit of time exploring in here. The light that comes through the walls contrasted with the blue-green water is a beauty that I have never seen before.
After taking countless pictures and basking in the beauty, we saw our first set of other hikers. We decided to turn back and allow them to enjoy The Subway to themselves, we could have stayed all day though! We ate lunch just outside The Subway, still in awe of what our eyes had seen. The hike back was far easier as we decided to actually utilize our gear and hike right in the river. It was much less difficult trudging through the water than all the way finding we did on the way out! Since we spent a fair bit of time memorizing our exit point, we found our ascent point pretty easily, scrambling back up the rocks was a different story. We had an unusually warm day in November at 70 degrees. Our scramble up the rocks in full sun and dry pants could only be described by one word: swampy. We finished the trail in about 7.5 hours and that was with spending about an hour at The Subway. You could definitely do it faster but why would you want to?
We highly recommend hiking The Subway in November. Sure the water is colder but with the right equipment, it’s definitely doable. There was no competition for permits, there were less people on trail (we saw maybe a total of 10 other people), and the fall colors definitely add to the beauty of the trail!
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