The Subway – Zion National Park Left Fork, Great West Canyon
The Famous “Subway” is one of the great, fairly easy and incredibly scenic canyoneering adventures of Zion National Park . While the preferred adventure is starting from the top, doing a few rappels, downclimbs and a couple of chilly swims, the hike up from the bottom is also very enjoyable if it is not too hot out. A permit is required for either version, and flash floods are a serious concern for the through hike.
From Zion Main Canyon , drive south on Highway 9 to the town of Virgin , and turn right on the Kolob Reservoir Road . The well-signed Left Fork Trailhead is on the right 8.1 miles from Virgin. Spot a car here. Hitch or drive another 7 miles up the Road to the “Wildcat Canyon Trailhead”. If using one car, it is much better to leave a car at the bottom and hitch first. Hitching on the KT road is pretty easy, especially early in the morning.
From the Top
From the ” Wildcat Canyon ” trailhead, follow the trail 30 minutes past the first trail junction (The Hop Valley Connector), then right (South) at the second trail toward Northgate Peaks . Follow this a short way (2 mins) before leaving the trail to the left and dropping into a slickrock bowl. There is a prominent, unmaintained, but well cairned trail along this entire “backcountry” route. IF you are not following a prominent trail, you are getting lost. Hike down slickrock into a beautiful forest. Follow the trail through the forest and out onto a ridge, that then heads left, dropping into Russell Gulch. Cross the watercourse and continue at the same level on the opposite side, climbing to a slickrock pass. Descend the gorgeous slickrock bowl on the other side, then pick up a trail going straight ahead and into the woods. The trail eventually heads right to a prominent point overlooking the junction of the Left Fork and Russell Gulch. A steep, sandy gully drops from the point to the floor of Russell Gulch a few hundred feet from the intersection with the Left Fork. If it is hot out, you are now very happy to be in the nice, cool canyon.
Proceed down the Left Fork
Passing a few obstacles. The first is a large boulder blocking the canyon. There used to be a log that could be downclimbed, but it disappeared this past winter (2000/2001). The front of the boulder can be “boy-scouted” (ie, slid down with a reckless disregard for the frailty of the human body), but people firing on all cylinders will want to do a short rappel down the front of the boulder. There are slings around a chockstone on the right side that can be used, but bring a few slings in case they are needed. After a short while, the canyon passes through an aquifer layer and cold, clear water begins to flow. Some short pools require swimming. This section of canyon is incredibly cool – wet, shady, beautiful. The longest pool can be bypassed by traversing on the left hand side, then rapping or downclimbing into the end of the pool, but the swim is much more fun.
Arriving at Keyhole Falls marks the entrance to the actual “Subway” section. This can be rappelled using the anchor on the right, or downclimbed using the Keyhole Arch to the left. Either method ends up dropping you into a cold pool. Follow the pools down to a great alcove with a giant log standing on end. Past here, the canyon opens out a little bit. The final obstacle is passed by crossing the stream on a log above a waterfall left, then traversing about 40′ to where the rock can be downclimbed in three sections to the stream floor near the waterfall. There are also rap anchors further out along the traverse, for those to whom the downclimbing does not appeal.
Swim a chilly pool and you are at the mouth of the subway.
The canyon opens up and remains scenic for quite a way. Lovely cascades over red rocks, lush trees and sweeping sandstone walls – good stuff. There is a hidden spring on the right hand side (north side) just after the red cascades. From here the canyon opens out into a wide, rocky-bottom canyon with a healthy flowing stream. But then again, it’s a rough and slow 3.25 miles out to the exit trail.
About half way out the canyon (1 hour from the Red Falls ), there are some nice dinosaur tracks on canyon right (north side), just off the stream. Look for them.
The exit trail up a steep lava slope and gully is well marked, but keep your eyes open when you get in the area. Save some energy for the 400 foot hump up to the road. The trail climbs the right side of the obvious lava slope to the left margin of the sandstone cliffs above. Be sure to find and stay on the trail – at one point a small trail proceeds straight ahead, and the main trail switches back – don’t take the small trail. As if to add insult to injury, at the top of the lava, the trail takes its bloody time (well, 3/4 mile or so) getting to the parking lot across the Pinon-Juniper mesa top.
Note on Rating
If everyone in your party can lead 5.8 trad, you might not need a rope. But I would still recommend it. Since the log disappeared from the first obstacle, downclimbing the face of the boulder is much more difficult and risky. There has been at least one Tibia/Fibia fracture at this location in the last few years, and the vertical extraction was extremely difficult. Be smart, be safe. Its better to bring a rope and not need it, than the other way around. The logs that aid in passing obstacles move from time to time.