Tricks to Canyoneering the Zion Subway
As this was my first time canyoneering, this post will give a beginner’s perspective on canyoneering the Subway (from the top-down) at Zion National Park. If you have never canyoneered the Subway (or anything), then this post will give you an idea of what surprises to expect and how to prep.
Note for those interested in canyoneering: Canyoneering seems like an intimidating sport to get into (especially since it requires specific gear and training), but the Subway is the perfect place to get your first taste of it! If you can hike long distances, rappel and gather the appropriate gear – you are all set!
Where to stay: Zach and I love staying at airbnb locations! If you sign up for a free account through the image below, you can get $27 free travel credit!
Be warned that all of these photos are compliments of my iPhone. (I wasn’t willing to take my Canon in the canyon on my first trip.)
1. BACKCOUNTRY PERMIT: The first thing to note about the Subway is that you will need a backcountry permit, and you will need to apply for this permit at least three months before you hope to go. The permit system is based on a lottery (luck of the draw) so you won’t always get approved. I hear you can also apply last minute or show up hoping someone has canceled, but I wouldn’t bank on it. To get your backcountry permit for the Subway, click here.
To those like me (obsessive planners) this lottery process is stressful. I understand the logic behind it, but not knowing if the weather is going to cooperate after driving all the way down there is a bit frustrating. However, NEVER hike a slot canyon if there is a chance of rain. Better to be disappointed than dead. My advice is to have a backup plan (the Narrows, Angel’s Landing or Observation Point are all good). There is plenty to do in Zion.
2. WHAT YOU WILL NEED: Along with the items listed below, it is ideal to canyoneer the Subway with someone who has done it before. You will also need to practice rappelling and go on some endurance hikes to prep for the Subway. (It is an all-day hike, parts of which go through icy water.)
Technical Gear: the static rope we used was 70 feet long; rappelling down both strands gives you enough length for the ~30 foot rappels. You will also need a harness, ATC (or other rappelling device), carabiner, wetsuit (check KSL.com – I used a 3.5mm thick O’Niel in October), wetbag (for your phone etc.), backpack, and hiking GPS. The GPS was really helpful for finding the correct spot to get down into the canyon, and will let you know how far you have left to go. (They can be pricey, so check KSL or borrow one if need be. We have an old Garmin eTrex.)
Other Gear: Shoes that drain water well (you can rent canyoneering boots with Gore-Tex socks if you want – I did not), clothes that fit well under your skin-tight wetsuit (I wore a fitted tank and spandex with Under Armour leggings for the approach), sunscreen, camera (I used my phone since I was worried about my Canon Rebel getting ruined. I still would hesitate to bring a fancy camera your first time in the canyon. You will be getting your phone in-and-out a lot, so make sure it is in an easily accessible wet-bag. Snacks, biodegradable toiletries, sunglasses, lots of water are also necessary.
Tip: The one thing I would change on my second visit….wearing some sort of Gore-Tex gloves or bringing some hand warmers. My hands were freezing and it was hard to grip the rope! Granted I have poor circulation, but it was hard to rappel with hands that didn’t wanted to bend…
Sometimes you will get stuck behind large groups trying to coax their inexperienced pals over a ledge. (And if your luck is like ours…it will be when you are waist deep in icy water and have no where else to go.) Don’t even think about trying to fit in another hike the same day you do the Subway. It just isn’t realistic.
The miles: About 10 miles total.
Time: About 8 hours for us.
Best season: We did this in the beginning of October and it was lovely. I’ve read that ideally late spring through fall is good, but avoid hiking this if there is any chance of rain. There is very little chance of surviving a flash flood in a slot canyon. (referencing past news reports – it isn’t pretty.)
4. HOW TO GET TO THE CANYON/TRAILHEAD: If you pass the Zion River Resort (551 E Hwy 9, Virgin) heading east, you’ve gone too far! The Kolob Terrace Road turns north just before the resort (see coordinates below). Follow the Kolob Terrace Road for 8 miles to the Left Fork Trailhead, leave a car at the end of the trail, and then continue 8 more miles to the coordinates of the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead, also found below.
As noted, you will need two cars (to park at the end of the trail and one at the beginning) OR find someone to drop you off and pick you up at the end of the day. We had family drop us off, and it worked great. You can also look up a shuttle service if need be.
Tip: Do not give rides to people unless you have a seat belt for them. If a park ranger catches you doing this, you can get a hefty fine. I’ve heard of this happening to a family-friend, so play it safe and follow the rules.
Your trail starts with the last port-o-potties you will see till the end of the trail, so make a quick stop before you start!
5. THE TRAIL: There are two ways you can hike the Subway, but both require a backcountry permit. The first way, is from the top down route and requires westuits and rappeling equipment. The second way is the bottom up route, which do not require those things. I’ll be focusing on the top down route.
Top Down Route: This can get confusing to first timers, so let’s tackle this in four parts: the trailhead, the approach, the descent and the actual Subway canyon.
Trailhead: The start of the trail is marked clearly next to the parking lot and it is called the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead.
The Approach: The trail will eventually split, and you will need to know which way to go for the Subway approach area. (The approach area looks like petrified sand dunes.) The approach has no clearly marked trail and finding the correct descent into the canyon is tricky. You will want a hiking GPS with the coordinates AND common sense in following the cairns/a map. (Ideally, I recommend hiking this with someone who has done it before and is familiar with where the correct descent is located.)
The Descent: Rappelling down or climbing down into the canyon from the wrong spot could be deadly. The correct spot to access the canyon will have a sign next to it (that’s how you know you are in the right spot). No sign? Wrong spot. We provided coordinates for the descent location on the map below, but even with the coordinates it took us a while to find the right spot – keep an eye on the cairns, and they will lead you to the correct descent. And again, there should be an official sign that says it is the correct spot!
Warning: Some people put anchors in incorrect spot: you want to avoid these! The park rangers try to remove these anchors whenever they see them, but (sadly) they are replaced. If you try to rappel from these unauthorized anchors, you may find your rope is not long enough!
At the correct descent, you will actually down climb into the canyon which came as a surprise to me (I was expecting a scary rappel into the canyon).
The Subway Canyon: Once you are in the canyon it is pretty straightforward – you will see anchors on the spots you need to rappel down. None of the rappels in this canyon were that high, but if hanging off a ledge isn’t your thing…maybe reconsider or at least practice beforehand. Some groups just down climbed the first rappel (an easy rappel down a giant boulder blocking the canyon), but imagine the trouble you would be in if you twisted your ankle right at the start? No thanks! Just use your rope and rappel.
The second rappel is not tall, but a bit scary because you have to lean over to set the rope up and swing out off the ledge to rappel. (Note: I also remember there being an optional rappel in a very narrow watery section of the hike. It was either right before or right after this rappel. We chose not to set the rope up at the optional rappel spot because it would only have been three or four feet (due to the water level). The taller people in our group down-climbed it and helped us shorties down after.)
The start of the canyon is not the photogenic spot you see pasted all over the internet; the actual “subway” of the subway is towards the middle-end. (And yes, it lives up to all the hype.) Once you pass through the subway portion you will be on your last rappel, which is my favorite. You rappel into these beautiful blue-green pools and make your way out of the slot section of the hike.
This is where you will see all the bottom up hikers eating their lunches at the end of their hike. There are some amazing cascades and water formations right near this point too, but you will no longer need your wetsuit so feel free to take it off.
You might be surprised how long the rest of the hike will take to finish. This last portion of the trail is not as shaded and can get pretty hot. It also ends in some very steep switch backs so be prepared.
Once you reach the lower parking lot at the end of your trail, you will find restrooms and can change out of your wet clothes for the drive home.
Kolob Terrace Road Turnoff: 37.20373, -113.18594
Left Fork parking lot where you will be ending your hike: 37.28483, -113.09576
Upper parking lot where you will start hiking along the Wildcat Canyon trailhead approach: 37.34036, -113.07586
The Subway trailhead/decent into the canyon: 37.3401, -113.05974
If you have additional questions feel free to ask in the comments! Feel free to pin this for later reference!