Explore one of southern Utah's famous and extraordinary places - the enchanting "Subway" and its beautiful waterfalls.
Walking into the "Subway", one of Zion National Park's iconic places.
Trip Stats for bottom-up (non-technical hike)
Location: Zion National Park - Kolob Terrace - Left Fork of North Creek
Distance: ~ 8 miles out and back
Difficulty: Moderate - strenuous boulder-hopping, stream wading and walking on slippery/uneven surfaces.
Permit: permit required for all Left Fork/Subway hikes. Zion Wilderness Permits for Left Fork Subway.
Date Hiked: November 5, 2023.
Maps/Apps: AllTrails, Topo Maps U.S., USGS The Guardian Angels 7.5 min Topo Map
Photo Advice: Summer: best light is mid-morning or mid-afternoon (pools are in full sun at mid-day). Autumn: mid-day is best light.
Geology: Volcanic flow < 500,000 years from vent located north of trailhead: descend into Kayenta Formation (sandstone and mudstone). Navajo Sandstone towers overhead.
Considerations: * Do not hike this canyon if there is a threat of rain/thunderstorms. * Make sure to take a waypoint of the canyon entry/exit and look at where you descended from the rim to get a good mental picture so you don't miss the exit point on the way back. There are signs but they may be easy to miss.
"The Subway" at the end of a four-mile hike from the Left Fork Trailhead.
Waters over the millennia have carved out tube through this sandstone.
This ultra-popular journey through Zion National Park's Left Fork of North Creek to the "Subway" and all of its gorgeous and calming water cascades - one after the other - exceeded my expectations and turned out to be a favorite hike for 2023. Having scored a permit only two weeks before, we were able to park in the Left Fork Trailhead parking lot (you have to put a permit tag on your dashboard), descend from Kolob Terrace to travel this stream to a magical world of green pools, red waterfalls and a tunnel of fern-covered sandstone walls. It takes about three miles of boulder-hopping and clear stream wading to get to the spectacular stuff, but it's so well worth it.
I went with three friends who knew the route, and other friends who were seeing Subway for the first time also. The pathway up the Left Fork is pretty straight forward: it heads up-canyon, and around a major waterfall in about 3.5 miles from the trailhead. Much time is spent walking in the crystal-clear water.
Less-Traveled Kolob Terrace: Beautiful Forests, Wondrous Canyons and Colorful Sandstone Peaks
Compared to Zion Canyon, which received a record number of visitors - five million in 2021 - Kolob Terrace, Zion's west section, is a much-less visited area of Zion National Park. It's accessed via Kolob Terrace Road that ultimately ends at the Kolob Reservoir at an elevation of 8,100 feet - a marvelous place to see in autumn with the blue water and yellow cottonwood trees. A good list of adventures is posted in Joe Braun's Hikes in the Kolob Terrace. Kolob Terrace is also a great place for star-gazing and astrophotography. Zion NP became certified as an International Dark Sky Park in 2021.
Das Boot is another classic Zion canyon on Kolob Terrace. It involves dark, convoluted narrows and long swims. If you prefer to be above the land instead of below, there are knolls named Spendlove, Cave and Tinaja to climb.
Peak time on the Subway hike for fall color is late October/early November to capture the bright red and yellow leaves that fall in the round potholes and decorate the deep red sandstone cascades. Looking down into the Left Fork from the rim, yellow cottonwood trees line the bottom water course.
The hike begins in a volcanic rock flow for ~ 0.5 miles from trailhead to rim, and in fact, it's important to note these black volcanic rocks on the rim when you get down into the creek, so you have a mental picture of the place you came down, and you don't pass it up on the way back out of the water. The 400' descent from the rim is steep and slippery in a few places.
As you hike upstream, negotiating many pools, boulders and rocks, you occasionally catch glimpses of the magnificent Navajo Sandstone formations on the plateau above. We didn't pause too long because we had four miles of relatively slow hiking and the day was short.
And then you reach the almost supernatural world of the "Subway". Hanging ferns thrive on the dripping curved walls and round-sculpted lime green pools appear with water continuously pouring in and out. How did this stream sculpt this almost perfect tunnel? Crimson sandstone, polished by continuous water flow is slippery, I saw a few other hikers take minor tumbles. A few in our party waded through the cold deeper pools at the end of this section to a small waterfall.
A few climbers with full wetsuits were descending from the Subway top down route which involves rappelling and deep water swims - the canyoneering route that begins further upstream. Sounds like a worthy goal for a future hike!
Finding the point at which the trail leaves the canyon to ascend steeply to the rim was not difficult. I had the waypoint recorded on my GPS, so I knew we were getting close. Signs mark the way out of the stream, but it's best to remember the scene you memorized on the way in: the black volcanic rocks next to the orange sandstone on the rim.
Grateful to be hiking in the American West - Keep Exploring!
The Subway (Left Fork) hike is located west of the main Zion Canyon in the Lower Kolob Plateau.
Left Fork Trailhead (blue circle) is 8 miles up Kolob Terrace Road.
Beginning the descent into the Left Fork - looking forward to getting closer to those yellow cottonwood trees!
Once into the canyon, the autumn colors are beautiful and the sandy trail is easy to follow.
The canyon begins to narrow after ~ 1 mile and you get to walk by/through many pools past waterfalls.
The shade, constant water flow, ferns and green pools create cool and calm.
Lydia and Colin walking through the Subway.
The end of the Subway hike from lower trailhead. You can walk in those gorgeous pools to a small waterfall. If you look at the middle of this photo closely , Lydia is wading in the cold pools!
The beautiful emerald pools in the Subway.
Both images above: having fun with Photoshop oil paint filter.
Google Earth map of my GPS tracks, beginning at Left Fork Trailhead, descending into canyon, and reaching the "Subway" after four miles. You pass under the North Guardian Angel and the South Guardian Angel (two peaks at end of this hike).
My GPS tracks and elevation profile on CalTopo Maps.
Note that the inaccuracy of GPS (extra-long lines that deviate away from actual hike course) occurs in a deep canyon because the GPS device cannot connect to all the satellites that are required to give an accurate position. This overestimates the hike distance.
Sue and Fred
About this blog
Exploration documentaries – "explorumentaries" list trip stats and highlights of each hike or bike ride, often with some interesting history or geology. Years ago, I wrote these for friends and family to let them know what my husband, Fred and I were up to on weekends, and also to showcase the incredible land of the west.
To Subscribe to Explorumentary adventure blog and receive new posts by email:
About the Author