Nature's Sculpture. The Subway is one of the best routes in the Park, and hiking up from the bottom gets to the best stuff without ropes and swimming. If you're carrying lots of camera gear, hiking in winter, or you are averse to ropes and swims, it is a great way to see The Subway.
The short version: hike down a 400-foot (120m) steep, loose gully. Pick your way up a rugged streambed for two hours. Enjoy some really nice scenery. Hike back down the streambed for two hours, then up the 400-foot steep, loose gully. If it is at all hot out, hiking in the streambed is hot, hot, hot. Bad hot, not good hot. Save energy for the strenuous hike uphill to get back to the car, and get an early start.
"The Subway" is a short, spectacular section of the Left Fork of North Creek. The canyon is called Great West Canyon. The Subway section is not marked on most maps, but is where the Left Fork tightens up and twists sharply, between North Guardian Angel and Guardian Angel Pass. The hike is also known as "The Left Fork".
Due to its popularity, the Subway is managed under a quota system. Reservations are distributed by lottery several months in advance and are highly recommended. The same permit is used for the Top Down or Bottom Up Subway, so you do not have to decide which way to do in advance. Lottery and Reservations are made on-line at the Wilderness Reservation System.
Be flexible and plan ahead to avoid being denied. A permit is required for hiking The Subway from the bottom or from the top – and it is the same permit. Group size limit is 12.
Spring - Expect high, cold water due to spring runoff. If the stream is in flood, access to "the goodies" will be difficult.
Summer - HOT! Start early to avoid the heat and be aware the hike out is in full sun.
Fall - Generally a great time for this hike - great fall photography along the creek.
Winter - Possible snow and ice along the stream and at the red ledges.
From Springdale, drive south and west 14 miles to the town of Virgin. Turn right on the Kolob Reservoir Road (KR road, sometimes called the Kolob Terrace (KT) road). The paved KR road winds through town, then climbs a dramatic ridge in making its way to Kolob Terrace. Six and a half miles from Virgin, the road enters the park and three trailheads are soon encountered – the Right Fork, Grapevine Springs, then the Left Fork. Park at the Left Fork Trailhead. The trailhead is not shown on many maps, but is close to the Bench Mark labeled BM 5248. Mileage from the town of Virgin is 8.6 miles. Driving time from Springdale is 45 minutes.
Follow the trail into the woods. In 15 minutes, the trail comes out on the rim of the canyon, with a great view of the Left Fork and the Guardian Angels standing proud to the east. Follow the trail left along the rim to where it drops into the canyon. Take great care to stay on the path as it descends steeply to the canyon floor. The trail is steep and loose. At least one person has died here when they strayed from the trail and fell.
The Canyon Floor
At the bottom, turn around and make a careful mental note of where the trail up starts. You do NOT want to miss this on the way out. Cross the stream and turn left. This is a backcountry, off-trail route, so there is no official path, though well-established social trails provide easy passage for much of the canyon. Follow social trails up the main canyon, crossing the stream numerous times, for about two hours. The canyon starts wide and gradually narrows as it approaches The Subway.
Close to The Subway, the stream gets more rugged and travel becomes slower and more difficult. Picking through a series of boulders and splashing up the stream, the intrepid Subway hiker finally comes to a series of Red Waterfalls, where the stream flows down slabs of dark red Kayenta sandstone. This area can be very slippery, but you are almost there! Hike up the slabs, then turn the corner and you are at the mouth of The Subway.
"The Good Stuff" is a series of slots, alcoves, pools and waterfalls of marvelous beauty, about a third of which can be easily reached from the bottom. With a little swimming and climbing, all of the good stuff can be reached.
From the bottom, it starts with the namesake tunnel-like formation. The top is not closed over to form a true tunnel, but it feels like it is. The bulgy, round tunnel at the bottom of a slot curves into the rock, with the solid red floor spotted with pools, slots and flowing water. Be careful of your footing here, the rock can be very slippery. The pools are filled with clear, clean water and are only a few feet deep. In the fall, red and orange maple leaves accent the red rock making the place almost psychedelic.
Around the corner, the canyon opens up a bit and larger pools block progress upcanyon. Swim the pools and explore the slot beyond. Be sure to step through the waterfall at the end and visit the waterfall-room behind the curtain. Those who are athletically inclined can boulder up to a ledge, then climb right on a series of ramps to gain access to more good stuff above this obstacle. A 60-foot (20 m) rope may be useful for belaying members of your party. Further up is the famous "Log in The Subway", plus a marvelous long corridor and Keyhole Falls.
If it is really hot out, a siesta in the cool area at the exit of the Subway might be in order. Be sure to leave enough time to get ALL the way out before dark.
The Walk Out
Return the way you came. It takes parties two to four hours for the hike out. About halfway downcanyon, look for two large tumbledown boulders close to the water on the right. Their flat, gray faces hold many dinosaur tracks. This is a good place to stop for a snack and rest. Do NOT touch the dino tracks – they are in a soft layer of rock that is easily damaged.
Another hour downcanyon and it's time for the steep climb up to the road. Missing the exit is easy, so make sure you pay attention. Two streams come into the Left Fork from the north (right). One third of a mile (1/2 km) past the second stream, the exit gully will be in front of you. The north (right) wall of the canyon is a 400-foot (120m), steep, tree-covered talus slope with 400-foot (120m) vertical sandstone wall above. Downstream, the sandstone at the top ends and a black lava cliff replaces the steep talus. The trail out climbs the crease below the left edge of the vertical sandstone where it meets the lava flow.
The climb out is hot - the black rock traps the heat. Take a final dip in the stream before starting the steep, 400-foot climb. Find a well-established trail on the right side of the creek that starts up a gully. Do not begin the climb without finding the trail. At the top of the slope, the trail traverses left to the top of the lava flow and works its way left through ledges to the mesa top. Follow the trail through the pinon-juniper forest 1/2 mile (800m) to the parking area. Enjoy the ice-cold beverages you left in your cooler.
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Subway Area Driving Map
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Lower Subway Map
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Left and Right Forks