Zion National Park, Utah – The Subway

Photographers know that if there is one thing that deserves the extra effort in Zion National Park, it is the famous Subway. In order to reach this tunnel-like rock formation, you have to choose one of two routes.  The “top-down” route is very technical and requires rappelling and swimming in cold water with a wet suit.  The more convenient route, though still very strenuous, is the “bottom-up” hike from the Left Fork Trailhead.  This is a 9 mile round trip hike that starts with a very steep drop into the canyon, full of loose rock and dirt.  The rest of the hike involves climbing over rocks, maneuvering up and down difficult trails, crossing rivers, and navigating your way up a slight grade along a creek, then the return trip with repeated obstacles and the steep climb out of the canyon. You know you are nearing the Subway when you encounter the table rock staircase waterfall called Archangel Falls.

Just up the creek from the falls is the often photographed Subway Crack.  This is maybe a 6-inch wide fissure in the rust-colored rock with fast moving water rushing through.

Finally, at the end of the first leg of the hike, and 4.5 miles later, you enter the Subway.  To get to the overlook of the emerald pools and “glowing” curved walls from the bounce light, there is a very slippery climb up the rock.  For me, it was quite the debacle getting up there on tired legs – even with “yaktrax” on my shoes.  Once in the subway, you are standing in bone cold water.  I was wearing neoprene socks and water sandals, and combined with my wet pants from falling, my teeth were chattering within maybe 45 minutes. Fortunately, we were very lucky and the number of photographers up there was minimal.  In fact, towards the end of our time there, we had the Subway to ourselves.

I cannot stress enough that this hike is not one that is suitable to people who have physical limitations.  We had one person turn back within the first mile and another that probably wished he had turned back.  Even I came back with my various war wounds from tree limbs stabbing or scratching my legs, a bruised knee from slipping on the wet rock, and overall muscle fatigue.  I’m sure more experienced hikers might find it to be average, but what I’m trying to do is encourage the non-hikers like me to really think through this decision – is the photo worth the risk of injury? We started the hike at 8:15am, and the part of the group that left the Subway first did not make it back before it was twilight around 6:15pm. Not all of those 10 hours were actual hiking, of course, because when we were not hiking we were standing in cold water shooting photos. The National Park Service suggests 7-9 hours average for the hike without stopping.

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