Everything you need to know about hiking the Subway (bottom up) in Zion National Park
Of all the incredible hikes within Zion National Park, the Subway, a hollowed-out sandstone gorge resembling an underground tunnel, is one of the most spectacular— and also one of the most highly sought-after.
Elusive wilderness permits greatly restrict visitors to the canyon, and technical terrain further limits who can experience the otherworldly splendour of this remote cave and its emerald pools. As tricky as it is to access, though, the Subway is all the more magical for being off the beaten path and far from the crowds of Zion Canyon.
In addition to a highly technical canyoneering route that approaches the Subway from above, those lucky enough to score a permit also have the option of a challenging but non-technical 9.5mi hike to reach the Subway. Here’s absolutely everything you need to know about hiking the Subway “bottom up”, including how to get to the trailhead, what to wear for your hike, and insider tips on getting a permit!
About Zion National Park
Getting to Zion National Park
Located in southern Utah near the Arizona border, Zion National Park is within easy reach of several major cities and their airports, including Las Vegas (3hrs) and Salt Lake City (5hrs).
The park is also 1hr from Bryce Canyon and 30min from Kanab, Utah (via the east entrance), which together with Page, Arizona forms the southwest’s major adventure hub! In short, Zion is incredibly accessible and not to be missed.
Getting to the Left Fork (Subway)
Access to hike the Subway (bottom up) is from the Left Fork trailhead on Kolob Terrace Road, around the west side of the park near Virgin, Utah (30min from the Visitor Centre).
The excellent news is that you won’t have to fight for a carpark or worry about shuttle tickets, since the Subway is outside of Zion Canyon and therefore off the main tourist path! Limited daily permits (80 people max) also ensure that this is a far more backcountry adventure than other popular hikes in Zion, like Angel’s Landing and the Narrows.
Entrance fees for Zion National Park
As with the entire NPS network, there are fees associated with visiting Zion National Park. If you are only exploring the park for a single week and not planning to visit any other national parks in the next year, you can purchase a 7-day access pass for $35USD at either the south or east entrance stations.
If you plan on visiting more than 3 US national sites in the next 12 months, it’s actually cheaper to get an annual parks pass for $80USD, accepted at all 63 national parks and thousands of other national monuments and forests around the country.
Purchase your America the Beautiful Pass at the visitor centres and entrance stations (south and east entrance), at Recreation.gov, or even in-store or online from outdoor retailers like REI.
Preparing for the Subway (bottom up) hike
How to get a Left Fork (Subway) Permit
Getting a permit is 90% of the struggle when it comes to hiking the Subway, and therefore this is probably the MOST important section of this entire post.
There are 80 total spots available each day to access Left Fork (Subway); 60 of these spots are available in advance and 20 become available in the days leading up to a given trip date. Multiple people can be on the same permit, but the allocation is based on total hikers (max 80) rather than a set number of permits (i.e. the park will continue issuing permits until they reach 80 people).
Theoretically, there are 4 ways you can obtain a Wilderness Permit for the Subway, and these are the same regardless of whether you’re hiking “bottom up” or canyoneering “top down”:
1. Advance Lottery (2 months prior to your trip): You can apply online for one of 60 available Left Fork (Subway) permits for trips in April to October, providing 3 date options in order of preference. By the 5th of the following month, you should hear back as to whether your application was successful.
2. Calendar Reservations (1 month prior to your trip): In the event that there are permits remaining after the Advance Lottery, you can directly reserve dates for the upcoming month starting on the 5th of each month at 10am MT and continuing until all 60 advance permits are exhausted.
3. Last-Minute Drawing (7-2 days prior to your trip): 7 days ahead of any given trip date, 20 additional last-minute permits become available for the Left Fork (Subway), which you can enter to win up until 2 days prior (by 12pm MT) as part of an online lottery system. Winners are announced 2 days prior at 1pm MT (1hr after the lottery closes).
4. Walk-up Permits (2-0 days prior to your trip): As soon as the Last-Minute Drawing concludes, any remaining or cancelled permits will be accessible by walking up to the Wilderness Desk (right next to the Zion Visitor Centre; hours 7am-5pm). This is usually a good bet, since permits do get cancelled when multiple people in the same group win (e.g. Dan and I both enter for 2 people, we both win, 1 of us “returns” 2 spots for use on another permit).
With the exception of Walk-up Permits (#4 above), all other methods of applying for a permit involve a non-refundable $5 fee, 100% of which stays within Zion (and therefore you can think of this as a donation rather than a waste of money if you’re unsuccessful).
If you ARE successful, the permit also costs $15 (1-2 people), $20 (up to 7 people), or $25 (up to 12 people), payable at the Wilderness Desk upon collection of your permit.
Tips for getting a last-minute permit
For those trying to get a Left Fork (Subway) permit closer to their trip dates, your only 2 options are the Last-Minute Drawing or Walk-Up.
We entered the Last-Minute Drawing five times, believing this was our best chance at securing a permit, and lost every single time— there were usually 150+ people vying for the 20 remaining spots, and it’s not to say that the lottery is a waste of time, but it helps to have realistic expectations. This is VERY competitive!
After speaking to multiple Zion rangers, we eventually learned that there are almost always last-minute cancellations that result in additional permits being made available as a Walk-Up. You’ll definitely still need luck to score one of these permits, as there’s no set release time— I might cancel a permit at 11pm, and therefore 2 spots become available to the first person at the Wilderness Desk at 7am the following day, but I also might cancel a permit at 4pm, and therefore 2 spots become available after 4pm (that weren’t available at 7am).
Walk-Up is a massive gamble and there’s no way to predict when people are going to cancel, BUT this is how we finally got our permit:
Dan got in line at 630am and talked to the group just behind him, who were decreasing the number of people on their permit due to friends bailing— if he hadn’t let them go first to make the cancellation, we wouldn’t have been able to snag 2 of the newly-available spots for that day!
Key things to consider:
- Being there early doesn’t guarantee you’re going to get a permit, since groups cancel all throughout the day. Talk to people in line and be prepared to wait several hours if no one has cancelled yet that day.
- You can get a permit for the day OF or the day PRIOR to your trip (anytime after the Last-Minute Lottery, which draws 2 days prior at 1pm MT), so it’s good to keep your schedule open.
- If you do enter the Last-Minute Lottery, every person in your party is allowed to submit an application, thereby increasing your chance of winning (e.g. Dan and I both submitted applications for 2 people; had both of us won, we would have “returned” 2 spots). Again, think of the $5 fee as a donation to the park!
What to wear for hiking the Subway
In addition to comfortable athletic clothes, your footwear is pretty crucial when hiking the Subway. While you can definitely complete the trail in regular hiking boots and rock-hop across the creek to stay dry, there are sections (right as you approach the Subway, specifically) where it’s truly impossible NOT to get wet.
Consequently, I’d recommend either wearing a pair of neoprene socks under your hiking boots OR renting canyoneering gear from Zion Outfitter, just outside the South Entrance of the park in Springdale.
Again, you don’t have to wear specialised boots for this hike, but I think it made the experience a lot more fun to be able to romp through the water and swim around at the Subway in boots designed to handle slippery rocks.
The “warm weather” rental package from Zion Outfitter is $29 for neoprene socks and boots, and we were honestly SO happy to have the grip (these boots have an astounding amount of traction, even when wet!) and the ankle support, as well as sparing our own hiking boots the trauma of walking through the sandy creek all day.
Other important things to know about the Subway
- BOTTOM UP VS TOP DOWN: In addition to the “bottom up” route described here, which is a non-technical hike to reach the Subway, you can also access the sandstone gorge via a classic “top down” canyoneering route. This technical option requires significantly more time, energy, and equipment, so only attempt if you have prior canyoneering experience!
- FACILITIES: There are toilets at the Left Fork trailhead, but no water— come prepared with at least 4L per person!
- CYANOBACTERIA: In late 2020, Zion National Park issued a Danger Advisory for the North Fork of the Virgin River, North Creek, and La Verkin Creek due to the presence of harmful cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins in these three major tributaries of the Virgin River. This doesn’t mean you can’t hike to the Subway, but you should shower after contact with the water, take care not to submerge your head, and avoid ingesting any river water, even after filtration.
- LEAVE NO TRACE: 84% of Zion National Park is designated as Wilderness, the highest level of protection for public land, which is why the permitting system is so incredibly tight. As with every outdoor adventure, and particularly those within protected Wilderness areas, it is critical that you take steps to reduce human impact on the environment. This includes packing out all of your rubbish and being mindful of where you go off-trail— it’s absolutely part of the adventure, but not at the expense of delicate plantlife, so be sure to get your off-route kicks on the rocks or other durable surfaces.
Hiking the Subway (bottom up) in Zion National Park
At 9.1 miles and 1305ft of elevation gain, the Subway isn’t an overly long or steep hike, but it still takes the better part of a day, thanks to the terrain (heaps of creek crossings and narrow, rocky trails along the bank) and the beautiful scenery (which will have you stopping every few minutes to take photos).
The Alltrails map below is a useful reference to download for your hike, but the trail follows North Creek the entire way into the Subway, so it would be nearly impossible to get lost or off-route— when in doubt, just hop into the water and head upstream!
Setting off from the Left Fork trailhead on Kolob Terrace Road, the trail begins with a steep, rocky descent to North Creek.
This is the most challenging part of the hike, in my opinion, with loose stones making it tricky to get good footing— still, it’s a relatively quick drop into the creek, where the going gets much easier!
At the end of the steep trail leading down to North Creek, you’ll see a sign indicating the Left Fork Trailhead back up the way you came— turn left here to walk along the riverbank and begin your Subway hike in earnest.
I’ve read a few different accounts of the Subway where people said this sign (pictured above) was easy to miss on the return journey, but we didn’t have any trouble spotting our trail, nor did we think the route was confusing.
As long as you’re paying a tiny bit of attention when you near the junction, you should have absolutely no issue making your way back to the trailhead at the end of the day.
From here, faint trails zigzag along both sides of North Creek, heading upstream towards the Subway.
There’s not really one “right” route, but try to walk on worn paths and avoid any sections that have been blocked off by branches, thus minimising side trails and allowing for restoration of trampled plantlife.
During the first three-quarters of the hike, it’s possible to stay dry by rock-hopping across the creek and opting for paths along the bank, but I actually found it far more fun to walk through the water and explore this incredible riparian ecosystem— the entire journey is punctuated by vibrant wildflowers, golden frogs, small fish, and an explosion of green foliage, all best enjoyed from the creek itself.
Hardly a minute went by that we weren’t admiring some rare bird or splashing through a beautiful waterfall, and all the while, we saw only a few other groups of hikers headed back from the Subway, enjoying rare solitude in the country’s third-busiest national park.
After several hours of enjoyable hiking along (and through) North Creek, you’ll eventually notice the canyon walls begin to narrow overhead and the trail incline slightly towards the base of the canyon wall.
A series of wide, flat waterfalls announce the entrance to the Subway, and before you know it, you’re entering the namesake feature, which is even more spectacular than it’s possible to describe.
True to its name, this cylindrical sandstone gorge bears a striking resemblance to a subway tunnel— and with wind rushing through, it even feels like you’re waiting for an underground train.
In addition to the semi-circular canyon wall and the warm glow of light that filters through, almost like the beam of a Subway approaching, deep pools cut into the rock slab make for a truly otherworldly scene.
This is the kind of place that’s immediately worth any trouble it took to reach.
And for all the times we cursed the permitting limits, you wouldn’t want one extra person here— the opportunity to explore without other hikers on your heels is a big part of what makes the Subway so impressive.
For those who want to wring every ounce of fun out of the Subway, hop into the pools at the back of the canyon and scramble/swim through the narrow walls and around the bend, where a hidden waterfall greets only the most eager of explorers.
Although cold, it’s VERY worth getting wet and seeing the Subway in its entirety, something usually reserved for canyoneering groups. The only hard part will be leaving for the return hike!
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