A mysterious slot canyon with deep-blue swimming holes. Desert waterfalls. Red-rock mountains all around. Hiking the Subway in Zion National Park takes you to some of the Southwest’s best scenery.
The “Subway” got its name from the tube-like formation at the entrance of a slot canyon — it looks like you’re walking through the tunnels of a metro system. It was formed by thousands of years of flash flooding forcing enormous amounts of water from the Left Fork of the Virgin River, through this narrow crack in the rock.
There are two ways to explore the Subway’s unique geology — a canyoneering trip (known as the “top-down”) or a long hike (known as the “bottom up”). The top-down route requires ropes, wetsuits and extensive technical skills. The bottom-up route is a challenging hike for sure — but it’s doable by confident backcountry hikers.
I did the bottom-up route on a recent trip to Zion. It was one of my top 5 favorite hikes ever — and not just because of the canyon (although the canyon is WOW). The river ecosystem along the whole trail is spectacularly beautiful. Plus, it’s a fun challenge, as most of the hike is route-finding and rock scrambling. In this post, I’ll share all the details about how I tackled this hike — and how you can too!
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Should you attempt the Subway hike?
The Subway is easily the best hike in Zion. But this is not the kind of trail that you can roll up to for your first-ever hike. It’s quite difficult and dangerous for unprepared hikers.
If you are experienced in the backcountry, you’ll likely find this hike fun and challenging — it’s not so extreme that you’ll be overwhelmed. But if you’ve never hiked in a wilderness area before, and you prefer well-maintained trails, this hike is…not that.
There are four major obstacles to hiking the Subway:
- Unmarked routes
- Lots of rock scrambling
- The river
- A long, extremely steep climb out of the canyon at the end, when you’ll be exhausted
Let’s break down what each of these entail.
On your 7-12 mile hike through the Subway, you will encounter three signs:
- At the trailhead, informing you that you’re in the right place.
- 0.2 miles in, telling you that you’re entering a wilderness area.
- At the only intersection, between the canyon wall and the river, pointing back to the parking lot. The majority of people getting lost on the Subway hike get to the cave without difficulty, but miss this turn on the way back, or try to leave the canyon floor too early. The problems with this sign are a) it’s tiny and b) depending on which social trail you’re on, you aren’t going to see it.
So basically you need to be prepared to do this entire hike with no directions or signage.
There is one tricky navigation spot before you descend into the canyon. What looks like an intersection, and what looks like the trail where you’d take a right, takes you about 0.3 miles to a sheer cliff. The real trail is straight ahead and goes up a series of log/stone steps almost immediately.
Additionally, on the steep descent into the canyon, it’s hard to determine what’s intentionally carved out and what’s dangerous erosion and rockfall. Try your very best to identify the real trail. The rangers told me people have died falling from not-the-trail, but I can’t find any news reports to that effect.
Once you’re along the river, it’s hard to get lost. There are plenty of social trails to follow, and when in doubt, just walk in the river.
The bad news is, some of those social trails require intense scrambling or swimming, or hit dead ends.
That’s why I mentioned the trail could be 7-12 miles. The National Park Service calls it 9 miles on their website, but the rangers told me 6.7, and I recorded 10.5. It all depends on which route you take.
The route-finding challenges mean a topographic map is of little use. You’re better off using AllTrails and dropping a pin on your GPS app as soon as you enter the canyon so you can find your way out. The Park Service also sells a super-helpful route description at the Visitor Center — if you don’t want to pay the $6 for it, take a few pictures on your phone. I found written route descriptions more helpful than maps.
Lots of rock scrambling
Hiking the Subway is considered non-technical. But you could be forgiven for concluding that this isn’t a hiking trail at all, but a 4-mile-each-way rock scramble. (The last mile out and back is more typical hiking.)
There are very few places on the canyon floor where you will be walking on dry land. You’ll spend most of your time pulling yourself up rockfall, sliding down slickrock, scrambling up waterfalls, or wading through the river.
There are only a few places where the scrambling is truly difficult. And most of them are avoidable by backtracking to an alternative route. The worst spot I hit was a 30-foot ledge climb/slide down into the river, but I could’ve avoided it by crossing to the other side of the river a quarter mile earlier.
However, the challenging terrain means sprained ankles, short falls, and other minor injuries are pretty common. I ended up with some nasty bruises and a few scrapes. The Park Service recommends not doing this trail alone because of the risk of minor injuries that can make it a nightmare to climb back out.
The other factor with the scrambling is that it slows you down. I’m usually about a 3 mph hiker. On this trail I averaged less than 2 mph. It took me almost 8 hours to hike 10.5 miles, and I only took one 15-minute break. In other words, start this hike early in the morning — it’ll take you much longer than expected.
The third obstacle on the Subway hiking trail is the Left Fork of the Virgin River. Trail options run along each side of the river, but this is not a hike where you can tip-toe around the water and keep your feet dry. The water can be frigid even in the heat of summer.
As you’re route-finding along the canyon floor, you’ll find spots where you have to choose between a steep, risky scramble or a wade through the river. As the canyon walls narrow at the entrance to the Subway, you’ll be in the river the whole time, with a couple scrambles up waterfalls.
Most people hike the Subway in regular hiking shoes. I saw people in Chaco’s, but that seems like a bad idea given the amount of rock scrambling involved. If you’re prone to blisters, or sensitive to the cold, you can rent neoprene socks and water shoes from Zion Outfitter in Springdale. I rented gear for the Narrows and decided to keep it for the Subway. The water shoes were surprisingly comfortable and had better traction on slippery, wet rocks.
I’d also recommend carrying a dry bag that rolls up and fits into your daypack. I never encountered water that was more than waist-deep, but I hiked during a drought. And if I’d wanted to avoid some of the harder scrambles I would’ve had to swim. My phone ended up in the river when it fell out of my pocket as I slid down a steep rock.
The Subway is not safe in flash flood conditions (typically in July-September). The rangers will give you your permit unless there is an active flash flood warning, but flash flood warnings are only issued an hour or two before the storm hits, at which point you’re probably already in the canyon.
While the river is a challenge, it’s also the hike’s greatest feature. Words can’t describe the beauty of the dozens of desert waterfalls along the way. In fact, I found the river walk to be even more beautiful than the Subway cave itself.
The climb out
So we’ve talked about the challenges of hiking along the canyon floor — but actually, the hardest part of hiking the Subway is after you finish the scrambles and swims. The final mile is a steep, long, hot, exposed, slippery climb of almost 3,000 feet.
You’ll have a sense of what you’re getting into right at the beginning. Climbing down into the canyon is no picnic. If it fees like you won’t be able to get back up, don’t continue down. It’s better to miss out on the Subway than to need a search-and-rescue squad to come get you.
Once you’re in the canyon, there are no shortcuts or easier options for getting out. So make sure you’re prepared with plenty of food and water. I always save a high-sugar snack for immediately before tough climbs like this. Those dried fruits can be a lifesaver!
You’ll need about a liter of water for that last climb in moderate temperatures. At the peak of summer heat, I’d save 1.5 liters. Luckily you’ll have great access to a flowing river for the whole hike, so you can always refill your water. Just make sure you treat it (I use a Steripen). I drank a total of 4 liters on the hike when the high temperature was 72 degrees.
How to get a permit for hiking the Subway
The Subway’s beauty makes it one of the most popular, and coveted, trails in Zion National Park. But it’s also an extremely fragile ecosystem that can’t handle mass tourism. So you need a permit to do this hike.
Zion issues 80 Subway permits per day. Those are for both the top-down and bottom-up routes. That means competition for permits is fierce, and you need to plan well in advance to snag one.
Your first option is to apply for the Advance Lottery. This opens two months before your trip date, and you can submit up to three dates. You won’t know if you got a permit until the 5th of the following month. There’s a $5 fee to apply. As an example: If you want to hike the Subway on June 10th, you need to apply for the lottery on April 10th. You’ll find out on May 5th if you got a permit.
If you don’t get a permit through the lottery, your next option is a calendar reservation. These open on the 5th of the month at 10:00 am Mountain Time prior to your trip date. So if you want to hike on June 10th, you need to apply on May 5th. I got my permit through a calendar reservation (applying on April 5th for a May hike), and my advice is: be online at 10 am MT on the 5th of the month and refresh your browser repeatedly until it’s available. Permits will be gone within seconds or minutes — in my case they were gone by 10:05. There’s a $5 fee if you snag a permit, but unlike with the lottery, you don’t have to pay if you fail to get one.
If neither of those work, you can apply for a last-minute permit. These open 7 days before your trip date, and you can submit your application until 2 days before at noon MT. There’s no advantage to submitting earlier vs. later. The lottery occurs at 1 pm MT, at which point you’ll find out if you got a permit. There’s a $5 fee to apply.
Finally, if there are still permits left, you can obtain a walk-in permit the day before you want to hike. You’ll need to be in line at the backcountry permit office at 7 am (which means get there at, like, 5:30 between April and October). Your odds of getting a permit this way are very low except in the dead of winter or in the event of no-shows.
Keep in mind that the permit application system is constantly changing. Check in with the Park Service two months before your trip for the latest guidance.
Picking up your permit
Once you have a wilderness reservation, it doesn’t mean you have a permit. It just means you are guaranteed a space. You still have to pick up a physical permit in-person.
The backcountry permit office is located outside the Visitor Center in Springdale (there is no office in the Kolob Canyon area). It’s open 7 am to 5 pm. Plan to be in line by 4:30 the day before your hike.
When you go to pick up your permit, you’ll need to show ID and provide a bunch of personal information, including details about your vehicle. If it’s a rental, make sure you know the make, model and license plate number.
The ranger will issue you a paper slip with your permit, for which you’ll pay $15. You must carry it on your hike — fines for being caught in the backcountry without a permit are steep, and rangers do patrol these areas.
Additionally, the ranger will give you a detailed safety briefing. This is your best chance to ask about flash flood risks, route-finding challenges, water quality issues, and anything else that’s making you nervous about the hike. You can also ask about the history, geology, wildlife, etc. The rangers are incredibly knowledgeable so don’t miss out on tapping into this info source.
I know, the permit system sounds like a huge hassle. And it is a huge hassle. It was almost enough to stop me from attempting this hike. However, once you’re on the trail, all the headaches are worth it. This is one of the least-crowded hikes in Zion — I had the entire outbound hike to myself, including about 45 minutes in the Subway itself.
The Subway bottom up hike description
The Subway hike begins from the Left Fork trailhead. It’s in Zion National Park, but not Zion Canyon — it’s about a 30-minute drive from Springdale. The parking area is clearly marked from the road. There’s a pit toilet at the trailhead.
The hike in
The trail begins with a short walk along the canyon rim. You won’t get much in the way of views here, but in May there were lots of wildflowers.
After about a third of a mile, the trail drops…and drops…and drops to the canyon floor. Expansive views of the canyon open up on all sides. But don’t spend too much time looking at the scenery — the trail is laughably steep, narrow, rocky and eroded. I don’t know what I would’ve done without my trekking poles. Collapsible poles are ideal so you can free up your hands for the scrambles later.
At the bottom of the canyon wall, you’ll reach the Left Fork of the Virgin River. The remainder of the hike is in the riverbed. Take a left and follow the social trails, or walk in the river. There are a bunch of stream crossings right away but it’s fairly flat and easy terrain for about a mile.
You’ll notice the canyon walls start to narrow a bit. This is where the Subway’s magic begins in earnest. You’ll hit your first scramble on the left bank, beginning the boulder-scramble-swim adventure. You won’t encounter flat land again until you’re on the way back out.
At about the three-mile mark, you’ll start to notice more waterfalls. There are probably 10 major ones and a couple dozen minor ones. (By “major” I mean 2-3 feet high — this is still the desert, not Appalachia — but they are gorgeous.) I took my time through this section and explored both sides of the river bank, which gave me views of cascades I would’ve missed if I were trying to get to the cave as fast as possible.
You’ll know you’re close to the Subway slot canyon when the canyon walls narrow to about the width of the river. There are a couple steep scrambles that drop you into the water. The major geological feature marking your final climb to the cave is a magical stair-step waterfall that you’ll scramble up. Then it’s a short walk through the river to the mouth of the Subway.
In the Subway
You might be surprised to learn that this hike’s most famous feature is a short section. You can only go about 200 feet into the Subway before you hit areas that require ropes, swims, and technical canyoneering skills.
But really, that’s okay — what you can see is so mind-blowing that you’ll need a full half hour or more to explore.
You can get a little further into the cave if you’re okay with a very-very-cold deep-water swim through three large pools. The temperature in the cave is a good 20 degrees cooler than outside, so if you’re not super-confident you’ll be able to warm up once you leave the cave, swimming is probably not a great idea. The water in the cave is much colder than the water in the river. If you plan to do a lot of swimming, a wetsuit is essential, even in summer.
Sometimes you’ll encounter gear that canyoneers have left behind. Use it at your own risk — Zion attracts a lot of beginner canyoneers (the top-down Subway is a popular first-canyoneering-trip option), and it’s hard to tell how skilled the people who set that rope/webbing were or how long it’s been there.
The light is pretty good for photography until around 11 am. But that’s also around the time more people start to show up. I got to the Subway by 10:30 and there were only two groups ahead of me, both of which finished before I arrived. By the time I left at 11, there were 5 groups on each others’ heels. Since the area is so small, you won’t get the photos you want with others hanging around.
If you’re using electronics in the cave, tread carefully. You’ll be walking on slippery rocks with water flowing over them. The water spills into pools that are 6+ feet deep, although they look shallower.
The hike out
On your way out, you basically retrace your steps coming in. You’ll probably end up using different paths since some scrambles that were ok to come up look a lot scarier to go down.
One of the trickiest spots is the scramble back down the stair-step waterfall. The rocks are so slippery! There is an option to hike around it, but it’s steep and eroded. If you feel nervous descending, you can slide down on your butt (but you’ll need a dry bag to keep your phone/camera/permit safe).
Even though I knew the route better and I wasn’t stopping for photos as much, it took me 45 minutes longer to hike back along the river compared with the hike in. There were a couple rough boulder climbs where I tried several route alternatives, realized they all sucked, ran into a few snakes on the rocks, and eventually gave up and jumped from the boulders into deeper pools in the river. If I’d sprained an ankle or busted an elbow it almost definitely would’ve been on the way back.
Finally, you’ll reach the spot where the trail flattens out. Pay close attention here to make sure you pick up the right trail out of the canyon. (Remember, it’s about a mile.) You’ll want to be on the right side of the river for this stretch. At a certain point, the trail will end up 5 feet above the water, with a steep drop into the river. Three social trails diverge for about a tenth of a mile, and one of them — not the one directly beside the river — takes you straight to the sign to the parking lot. If you end up directly beside the river like I did, look to your right until you spot the trail.
The social trails continue past the route up to the parking lot, making it hard to know if you’ve gone too far. So having a GPS pin or an AllTrails recording to make sure you’re in the right place is super helpful.
Hopefully you’ve saved some energy (and water) for the steep climb out. You’ll get to see the canyon in different light, with those amazing views all around again. Then it’s a quick walk along the rim back to your car.
A few final thoughts on hiking the Subway in Zion National Park
- I talked a lot about practicalities in this post, but it’s worth re-emphasizing: This is one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done. If you feel comfortable with the challenging terrain and the permit logistics, I would 1000% recommend it.
- The Subway takes a long time to hike — much more than you’d anticipate given the distance. (And your distance will be more than the official Park Service records — if you don’t think you could hike 12 strenuous miles, don’t attempt this trail.) Plan on 7-10 hours, even if you’re very confident in your ability to do it faster. Check sunset times — I would not want to be boulder-hopping and river-walking in the dark, even with a headlamp.
- Camping is not permitted in this part of the backcountry.
- Pack out everything you carry in.
- Because this hike takes so long and is so challenging, bring more food and water than you normally need. 4-5 liters of water is a good bet, and plan on 5-7 snacks and a lunch. Salty snacks help replenish electrolytes in the heat. Springdale’s Sol Foods has a great selection of snacks.
- I saw one family with pre-teen kids on this trail, but I wouldn’t recommend it with kids. People with shorter limbs may have trouble pulling themselves up the rockfalls. It’s not always possible to help other hikers up due to narrow passages. Plus it takes 7-10 hours for a solo hiker, so it could be a 12+ hour day with the whole family.
- Pets are not permitted on the Subway trail in Zion.
- I recorded 10.5 miles and 3,700 feet of elevation gain. When I looked at the log afterwards, I was shocked by the elevation, even knowing the climb out of the canyon was almost 3,000 feet. All that bouldering really adds up.
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