I Did Everything Wrong At Zion National Park

In April 2010, aka Month #9 of Funemployment after quitting my first-ever corporate job, I took a spontaneous trip out west, flew into Vegas, rented a car, and roadtripped for a week with my old Brooklyn roommate Lauren. We hit Death Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, and Route 66. Totally a case of cramming in too much driving and too many sights into a short period of time… but, you know, it’s what I wanted at the time, so no regrets.

If I were to redo this trip today though, I’d probably limit it to just one state (come to think of it, I did a long weekend roadtrip to Moab last year, so I guess I did learn my lesson!).

But let’s talk Zion for a second. On that whirlwind 2010 roadtrip, I’d only allotted 1.5 days to the park (strike 1), and was absolutely fixated on doing a day hike to The Subway. No, not the classic Angel’s Landing hike through orange rock (strike 2) – this one goes down into a canyon, leading to a natural tunnel carved out by a river. It’s probably best seen canyoning from the other side of it.

I’d seen such stunning pictures of The Subway (thank you, flickr) and had it in my mind that I just HAD to see it for myself. I mean, look at that blue pool!

The Subway - Darren Anderson Photography
Photo Credit: Darren Anderson Photography

Zion Subway by Ninety Seventy on Flickr
Photo Credit: NinetySeventy on Flickr

Believe you me, I did my research beforehand. I knew we had to reserve a special permit because they only allow 20 visitors a day on the trail. I also knew that it would be a good idea to rent water shoes with special grips on the bottoms because we’d be walking on very slippery rock in some parts.

Armed with permits and special shoes, we set off on the trail to The Subway. When I do a serious hike, I expect to be rewarded with beautiful scenery, otherwise it’s not worth it to me. Most of this trail is not particularly scenic; rather than enjoying the picturesque views of the canyon from above, we were mostly walking through bush and the river bed. I wasn’t thrilled about it.

The hike itself is not super strenuous, but in the desert heat it’s a doozy. Clearly this was back in my amateur days, because I hadn’t thought to pack more than a tiny Poland Spring water bottle to last me the entire day (strike 3). Needless to say, I downed it in under an hour.

The Subway at Zion National Park

After about 3 hours, we reached what looked to be the end of the trail as it merged with the river. I gingerly crept across slick rock and continued walking upstream toward the finish line. Upon approaching the canyon wall, I surveyed my surroundings. It didn’t quite look like the photos I’d seen, but it bore some resemblance.

With no dry rock left to hike on and expensive camera gear on me, I debated carrying on a bit further and walking deeper into the river; but I figured there probably wasn’t much more to see 50 feet further, turned around, and headed back utterly underwhelmed by what we’d seen.

zion national park

Later that afternoon, we drove out of Zion and crashed for the night at a motel on the way toward Monument Valley. I still couldn’t get over the disappointment I felt over the hike to The Subway, so I took to Google to see if I had missed something. Turns out, if I had walked just a bit further on, I would have turned the corner and seen exactly the spot in which all those photos I’d seen were taken.

Can you imagine going all the way to somewhere extremely specific and out of the way, and turning around after getting 99% of the way there? I unknowingly did this and it is the worst.

Well, let’s say second worst after being up all night long vomiting in the motel bathroom, then driving the entire following day with motion sickness that only made it worse. Was it food poisoning? Some random illness? I’ll never know for sure, but I suspect it had to do with being so dehydrated after a physically demanding day in the sun with little water.

The Subway at Zion National Park

What could I have done differently?

I suppose I could have obtained more specific instructions on exactly where to walk to reach The Subway, but being an actual hiking trail, you usually expect it to lead you where you’re meant to go, right?

In retrospect, I wish I’d done the Angel’s Landing trail instead (or in addition). It’s the quintessential Zion hike and I totally missed out on it!

Oh, and instead of crashing at a cheap motel away from the park because I didn’t know where to stay near Zion, I should have camped or booked an Airbnb nearby and given myself more time in the park. 

The only REAL mistake I made, though, was not bothering to bring an adequate supply of water for the hike. That was just foolish on my part. I’m terrible at drinking water on a daily basis anyway, but 5 years later I’m pleased to report that I’m now extremely diligent about staying hydrated when I go hiking.

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How NOT To Hike The Subway Trail in Zion National Park

Frugal Facts

As of July 2015 —
The hike to The Subway in Zion National Park is about 6.5 miles return from the Left Fork Trailhead and takes 5-9 hours. Alternatively, you could do the “top-down”, more technical version of the hike which begins on the other end with some rappelling.

You’ll need to obtain a backcountry permit in advance of hiking from the National Park Service (under Canyoneering Day Trips, select Left Fork North Creek (SUBWAY)). 20 permits are available each day for The Subway hike and it costs US$5 to apply for one.