Updated: Jan 26
Not many travel destinations list the Subway as one of it's greatest destinations, but if you are planning to visit Zion National Park and are up for a little adventure, you should consider a trip through the Subway. The Subway is one of Zion's most unique and scenic slot canyons. The Subway gets its name from the tubular rock formation which resembles a subway tunnel. The Subway is a backcountry hike that requires a permit, so planning ahead is key if you want to explore this epic destination.
Obtaining a Permit
There are a few different options for obtaining a permit for the Subway. The best chance is entering the lottery for a permit 3 months in advance of your trip (i.e if you plan to visit in April, you would apply to the lottery in January). A small fee is required and you can select up to three dates in the month you plan to visit. Notifications of the outcome of the lottery are typically made around the 5th of the following month.
For those who don't win the lottery, or if your trip to Zion is more last minute, you can try your luck at the last minute lottery that takes place 7-2 days in advance of the desired hiking date. Your last chance is checking the day before your hike to see if by some chance there are still permits available; however, this is very unlikely in popular months. The advance lottery runs for months April to October, because demand for permits during the winter and early spring months drop as hiking the Subway is too cold for most folks. In the off months, getting a permit the day before is more likely. To find out more or apply for a Subway permit visit the Zion Subway Permits page here.
There are a two different routes to the Subway, the top down canyoneering route and an out and back route to the Subway from the bottom. Both of these routes require a hiking permit, and the top down route requires additional gear and expertise for rappelling, down climbing and swimming through large cold pools of water. The hike from the bottom does not require any rappelling or swimming, but does limit your access to the Subway to the lower portion of the slot canyon, missing some of the amazing features of the upper Subway. If you are up for a little adventure and have some basic canyoneering skills I highly recommend the top down route via Russell Gulch.
Getting to the Trail Head
The top down route starts at the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead which is about 16 miles up the Kolob Terrace Road, or a 28 minute drive from the town of Virgin Utah. Because the Top down hike is one way, you'll need to plan on dropping a car or getting a ride back to your car from the Left Fork Trailhead. The Left Fork Trailhead is also the start and finish of the out and back bottom up hike and is located about 8.5 miles up the Kolob Terrace Road, or a 15 minute car ride from the town of Virgin.
The top down route requires some route finding to find your way into the canyon, but once in the canyon, you simply follow the river down stream. Be prepared for some down climbing, swimming through cold water, a few short rappels and some great scenery. The route itself is about 10 miles long and typically takes most hikers the better part of a day, so plan to get an early start.
Once you get to the Subway, the rest of the hike is non-technical and opens up to a wash where you hike in and around the river for about 2.5 miles at which point there will be a steep trail that climbs 400 feet up the north side of the wash and leads to the Left Fork Trailhead. A sign marks the exit, but can be easily missed, so use of a GPS is recommended.
If you are hiking the out and back bottom up trail you will start at the Left Fork Trailhead, descend into the canyon and hike up the wash until you reach the Subway. Once you are done enjoying this natural wonder, you return the way you came. The hike from the bottom is about 9 miles round trip and does require some basic route finding as well as some scrambling over rocks and boulders. For more specific instructions on each route I recommend consulting Joe's Guide to Zion National Park for the top down and bottom up routes.
Gear to Bring
If you plan on the top down route, plan to bring at least 60 feet of rope for rappelling, webbing, some rappel rings, a harness and rappel device. A wet suit is not required, but recommended, especially in the late spring and early fall. For both roots plan on bringing plenty of food and water since it is an all day hike, and a GPS or map to help with navigation. A dry bag is also a good idea to keep cameras, food and other things dry, especially if you plan on the top down route.
The best time to do the Subway in my opinion is May to September, as the weather is a bit warmer, especially when swimming through cold pools of water. Also keep in mind that the end of the hike is exposed to the sun and can be very hot as you climb out of the canyon, so be prepared with plenty of water.