Date of Trip: Sunday, January 14th, 2018
How to do it like we did:
This is a must-do at Zion! Prepare well – this intro to canyoneering demands careful planning and healthy bodies.
Plan your trip early because permits are necessary to visit The Subway and you will want to reserve yours in advance. Reserve your permit here.
The permits are awarded through a lottery system. We reserved our permits in late October even though we were not going until January. When you get to the park, you can retrieve your permit and get more information at the visitor’s center inside the park.
We camped at the Watchman Campground just inside the Springdale (south) entrance. Since this was such a mild winter camping was actually very comfortable. I’ll be posting soon about how we make cold weather camping a warm experience. The campground was surprisingly full for the middle of winter. We pulled up around 2 pm and there were only nine spots left. If at all possible, it is always a good idea to make your reservations early.
My wonderful husband lined up our drysuit and shuttle reservations early so this was our next stop. We had to check in and pick up our gear from Zion Adventure Company the evening before our hike. We rented drysuits, neoprene socks, and canyoneering boots. Zion Adventure Company was very knowledgeable, down to the most updated conditions for the Subway.
The trailhead is 40 minutes from the Watchman Campground in Zion. We decided to leave at 5:45 am to insure we would make the shuttle. Kenon is really good at getting everything prepared the night before. When you are waking up before the sun it is easy to misplace and forget things. We had all of our gear ready, organized, and in the car before the sun went down at camp. And yes, our gear included protein muffins and cold coffee so we could fuel up before hitting the trail.
As far as route finding goes I am going to refer you to Joe’s Guide to Zion National Park because I couldn’t describe it better if I tried. Also, AllTrails is an incredible resource for this hike. I will add to this outside information my own timeline, though. We had a group of three and started around 7:30 am. We were down the last rappel just after 12:30. We returned to our car at 3:45 pm. We took one half hour break and two ten minute breaks. We only had about ten hours of sunlight to work with so we had to keep moving.
Remember: There are two ways to tackle the Subway. The first is top down, via wildcat canyon trail. For this, you park at the Left Fork Trailhead, shuttle to the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead and begin your hike. This is an 8.9 mile point-to-point trail that takes you down rappels, through swimming holes and to the most famous part of the Subway. You finish the trail by hiking down the watercourse, up the canyon, and returning to your car at Left Fork Trailhead.
The second is bottom up. This is an out and back trail that starts you at the Left Fork Trailhead. You hike up the watercourse, and turn around when you hit the bottom of the last rappel of the top down trail. You do not have to rappel and, while you do get a little wet, you will not have to swim. You spend most of your time walking in or beside a riverbed. This route does not take you to the most famous part of the Subway but it is still a beautiful, fun trail. For BOTH routes you must get a permit!
The beauty and technicality of the Subway are delineated on many sites so I will use my time talking about something else: the hike out. We left the Subway exhilarated! Our spirits were slowly shredded as we hiked along the riverbed. Why? You have to climb over, hike around, and try not to slip on hundreds of small boulders to complete the excursion. Three hours of picking our way over rock after rock broke us just a little. This obstacle was magnified when we finally reached the Left Fork Trail and realized the last half mile was a steep uphill scramble. We were thrilled to get back to flat land! Save your energy, snacks, and water – you’ll need it for this last leg.
We finished the hike thoroughly exhausted yet energized with the sense of accomplishment adventurers know so well. We drove into town, returned our drysuits, and headed to Oscar’s for dinner. Oscar’s is a fun burger/Mexican joint in Springdale. It has indoor AND outdoor seating year-round and the patio stays cozy thanks to some high-powered warmers hanging over the tables. Try the turkey burger – it comes highly recommended. Then again, so does everything on the menu at Oscar’s.
- Pack a reliable LifeStraw or other filtration device. You need a lot more water than you think you do. Once you exit The Subway and start hiking the watercourse, the water is flowing enough to safely use as a refill for your bottles. If you pack a filtration system you can save on water weight at the beginning of your hike.
- Listen to all advice about route finding. I used this website to keep me on track. Be patient to find the cairns. Sometimes we had to back up to the last cairn we saw to try and get back on track. Yes, it felt like a waste of time but it was better than getting lost.
- Depending on the season, pay for the wetsuit or drysuit. Since we went in January, we got drysuits, neoprene socks, and canyoneering shoes. We did regret not bringing neoprene gloves. Our bodies stayed warm in the water but our hands were FREEZING. Our freezing hands were the only way we could tell how cold the water truly was. It also made rapelling that much more difficult and dangerous.
- We got our rentals from Zion Adventure Company. This was a GREAT company to work with. They were very knowledgeable, quick, and affordable. They also supplied our shuttle from the bottom parking lot to the top.
- You absolutely, positively need rappelling gear. We read a lot of reviews that said rappelling gear was unnecessary. True, the first two rappels are super easy with a simple rope. The last one though is very serious. It is a 40 foot straight drop. There is no way to safely down climb this without a harness, rope, and ATC. Please bring the necessary rappelling gear to keep your party safe.
Gear of the trip:
AllTrails and iPhoto. The route finding on this hike is serious business. We made sure that both packed cellphones had a DOWNLOADED version of the AllTrails map. There is NO service once you are in the canyon and it is very easy to get off track from the trail. I also used Joe’s Guide to Zion National Park to help with landmarks. I took screenshots of the whole webpage so I could have it with me at all times. This guy is so detailed that I could always rely on him to get us back on track when we were feeling a little lost. Even if you are thoroughly researched and have someone with who has completed the Subway before, take these two tools with you. Scenery changes, humans forget key pieces, and adrenaline masks our judgement. Be as prepared as possible.
My biggest take-a-way:
Tackling The Subway in January has one major perk: No Crowds. We said goodbye to our shuttle driver at 7:30 am and did not see another person until after the last rappel around 12:30 pm. We had ample space to truly enjoy the journey. We were able to patiently work out the route without a single hint of rush. Sun up and sun down were our only motivators.
I did not realize how special this was until the last leg of the hike. We were hiking along the watercourse, grumbling because the rocks were far too plentiful for our energy level, when it finally hit me what a special experience we had. Even in the afternoon we only encountered three other groups. To be able to experience a national park with so little interference is incredibly unique.
I hate the cold. Once the thermometer hits 50 I am bundling up. For years I have entered my own form of hibernation instead of facing low temps. I have come to a new appreciation of the winter months because it means we have entered the “off season.” Sure, the planning is more involved because not everything we normally count on is open. Winter excursions require extra supplies to make up for the closed stores or cold weather. It takes extra muscles to carry the weighed-down packs and additional layers. It is so worth it for five hours of uninterrupted nature.