Zion National Park – The Subway (Bottom up)
April 14, 2017
Mile for mile, this was the hardest hike we’ve ever done.
We arrived at the trailhead at around 6:30 am after spending the night in St George. It was surprisingly warm considering the time of year so our jackets were shed fairly quickly. After about a half mile of following a meandering trail that weaved between a slightly hilly terrain we arrived at the rim of the canyon. From the top of the canyon we could hear the river below us which sounded louder than I had hoped. It was near peak runoff season but I was hoping that the river wouldn’t be too deep.
The trail down to the river was steep…very steep. It was only a about a half mile but it was slow going. When we arrived at the river it was clear that the water was going to be a problem. We’ve never hiked the Subway before so all we had to go from was websites and YouTube videos. All of the those sources led me to the impression that we would be walking through shallow water at most. Of course none of the videos I’d seen were taken in April after a near record high snow year.
I didn’t take long before we realized that there would not be a rock hop over this river so we sat down and prepared for a water crossing. Sandy put on her Xero sandals and I replaced my hiking socks with neoprene socks. We found the best route through the river and slowly made our way across. The water came to up to my upper thighs in the deepest part and it was a very strong, cold current. When I got to the other bank I realized that it would be too uncomfortable to wear the neoprene socks for the entire hike and I would likely get blisters if I tried so I replaced them with my hiking socks and clipped the neoprenes to the back of my pack to dry.
A very short walk further we came to our second water crossing. We walked up the bank a while until we found the best looking spot and plunged through. Again-very cold and very swift. After walking a short distance further we came to a confluence of streams that fed into the main river. It was pretty clear now that we would be walking through a number of water crossings before we reached the Subway.
The routine was now set: we hike on a trail until it grows faint along the river bank, look for signs of a trail on the other side, find the best place to cross and then ford the river again. After following this rinse and repeat process for about six or seven stream crossing it was clear that it would likely continue this way all the way to The Subway. Well, that would have been nice. Instead we were repeatedly faced with climbing up through a waterfall strewn with logs and rocks or scaling the side of the canyon wall to go over a large rock formation along the side of the river.
Needless to say, this was very slow going. To complicate matters there was still no sun directly hitting the river and with the frigid water my feet were completely numb after a couple hours of water crossings. I’m not sure if this is coming across very clearly so I’ll just come out and say it: this was really, really hard. We are not a couple of kids anymore. We do pretty good on a trail, even a fairly steep trail, but not this. We had packed in my SLR camera and tripod but since we were making such bad time I rarely felt like we had time to pull it out and set it up.
Eventually we reached a part of the canyon which appeared to be approaching the narrow section known as the Subway. The waterfalls were becoming more impressive now. The river was now a wide sheet of water over flat rock the spanned the width of the canyon. There were several layers creating very nice looking waterfall tiers. It came as a small shock to us that this was where we needed to cross. We could tell from a distance that the rock under the water was covered with something green and slimy looking. Each step across the river required us to firmly put our weight on each foot before taking the next step to avoid a violent crash onto the rock slab. It took a little while but we both safely crossed.
Now we would see a much more impressive waterfall upstream. After walking up the shore a short distance we could see a route back across the rock stab above the tier we just crossed. We had the very large waterfall to our left as we crossed again. This section has more brown areas to step on with a little less slime so we were able to enjoy the moment much more than our other water crossings. The rock above the opposite bank had the tell-tale curved walls of The Subway. We knew it was just around the corner now.
Once across the river we climbed a steep embankment up toward the curved wall on our right. Once we leveled off we could see another good sized waterfall below us through the trees. We walked along the curved wall until it met with the river. The river was evenly flowing over another large slab of rock again only this time the slab was sloped more downhill. We walked right up to where the river met the wall but we could see that most of the water was crashing against a rock formation in the river just past us and around a sharp corner to the right. It was clear that the only way past that corner would be to try and find a path out in the river up the slope that is not covered in moss. We could see some potential spots about 30 feet out in the river, closer to the other bank, that we might be able to walk up but after a few attempts of stepping into the water it was way too slimy to risk it. We were officially done. We were only a few hundred yards from the official Subway and spent over five hours while going less than seven miles and that was that. The pill was even more bitter to swallow knowing that we would be going through all of the same river chaos that got us to where we now stood.
The trip back was a little better now that the sun was finally shining through. The air temperature was probably 30 degrees warmer than when we first started wading through water early that morning. My feet made it all the way back without going numb again. We soon ran into a couple groups of hikers. One of the groups told us that the ranger told them that the water in the Subway was swift and waist deep and very dangerous. It would have been nice had our ranger shared any information at all with us. We packed a tripod and SLR camera in there for no real reason at all as it turns out.
Unfortunately the trip back did not present us with the memory of where we had crossed on the way up. We got cliffed out a few times on dead end trails requiring us to scramble back across unreasonable sections of rock climbs to only cross the river and make the mileage back on the other side of the river. We did find some dinosaur tracks on the way out thought, that we missed going in.
Eventually we reached the far bank of the last river crossing. We walked a little further until we hiked a short distance up the steep hill where we found a nice sitting rock to change into dry socks. I was very impressed that Sandy hiked the length of that river and back in her Xero sandals.
As we started climbing straight up that hill it at least came with the comfort in knowing that we would not be losing the trail any more causing us to backtrack. That is until about half the way up the trail started to become more and more faint. We probably climbed back down another 50 yards or so before we came across the spot where we were supposed to take a sharp left up a rock rather than follow the obvious trail straight up. We ran into three college aged ladies as we were coming back down the dead end trail who we met when we turned around near the Subway. They, as well as the one other group we saw in the canyon, also turned around at the same spot. It was nice to confirm that we weren’t total wimps. I’ve always prided myself on being a partial wimp.
Once we were back on top and walking through the trees it gave us time to reflect on what our bodies felt about this great adventure. My bunions were screaming at me and Sandy’s back was not happy at all with the way she fell back onto a slab of rock on one of our climbs above the side of the river on the way back. As I lead off with; mile for mile, this was the hardest hike we’ve ever done.
Elevation Gain: 1,300 ft
Start Time: 6:37 am
Duration: 10:20 hours
Here’s a YouTube video of our hike: