Zion National Park, UT
Archangel Falls - are a series of cascading crimson steps fed by the North Creek coming from the iconic Subway, which is just a few hundred yards away. The falls are a fossilized bed of Kayenta shale and are surrounded by red Navajo sandstone towering over 500 feet on either side. When the conditions are right, these simple falls can provide one of your best photographic opportunities in Zion National Park. However, like most great things, this shot is not easy to come by.
The Archangel Falls are located toward the end of a grueling 4 mile hike (Left Fork North Creek - Subway) through the Kolob Terrace in Zion National Park. The hike is not for the weak or the faint of heart, but at the end you are rewarded with 3 GREAT photographic opportunities (Archangel Fall, the Crack, and the iconic Subway).
Trail Difficulty (4.5 out of 5)
I would rate the difficulty of this trail as a 4.5 on a scale of 1-5 (with 5 being most difficult).
The trail (from the bottom up) is mainly a non-technical hike, but it is long (9 miles round trip), and requires crossing the creek multiple times and climbing over and around many large rocks and boulders. The worst part(s) of the hike are the beginning (and the end): a 500ft. vertical trek down steep and rocky sets of switchbacks to the creek below. The total roundtrip will take 7-9 hours, so I would suggest starting the hike as close to first light as possible.
This hike is not for everyone and should not be attempted unless you are in good to great shape and have good coordination. Once you finish the Subway hike you are tired, worn out, triumphant, and feel like you have achieved a mental “badge of honor.”
GPS Coordinates & Elevation
Click on GPS coordinates above for a Google map to the location.
GPS Decimal degree (DD) format: 37.309000, -113.055306
Google Maps Birds-Eye-View
Click on image to enlarge
Directions from Springdale, UT: Take UT 9 west 12 miles to the little community of Virgin. Take a right (north) at Comino Del Rio for 0.9 mile, where the road turns into Kolob Terrace Rd. Continue on Kolob Terrace Rd for 8.1 miles until you get to Left Fork trailhead parking lot. The parking lot holds about 15 – 20 cars.
VERY IMPORTANT: Make sure you have your permit to hike the Left Fork North Creek (Subway) before starting the hike. Keep your receipt on your person and the copy taped to the windshield of your vehicle. There is a good chance you will see a park ranger along the way and the fines are VERY steep.
Once you arrive at the parking lot, the trailhead is on the left side between the restrooms and the park information board. From the trailhead, hike northeast on a fairly well marked trail for about 0.5 mile until you come to the ledge of the steep descent down into a ravine. The 0.25 mile trail down to the creek has a vertical drop of about 500 feet. This part of the hike is steep and slippery in some places, and goes through a series of switchbacks. Just take your time and be careful.
Once you get down to the creek, stop and look around to get your bearings. If you have a GPS, I would mark this spot. It is VERY IMPORTANT you remember this spot, as it will be the place you exit the ravine for the hike back to the parking lot.
From this point, the hike to Archangel Falls is about 3 miles along the North creek. You will be crossing the creek several times and climbing over and around lots of rocks and boulders. Again, this is not an easy hike and should only be attempted if you are in good shape and have good balance.
Along the trail, you will actually come upon 2 sets of red cascading falls (the first is about 2.5 miles from the trailhead). This first set of falls is NOT the Archangel Falls and don’t be fooled by them. Keep hiking for another 0.5 mile or so until you come to the second set of falls (you will know the Archangel Falls by the towering red wall behind and to the right of the falls).
Once you reach the real Archangel Falls, set up shop, look around, and find your best composition. This is one of the most peaceful places in all of Zion National Park.
For those interested in the Subway or the Crack, they are just up the North Creek another 0.5 mile or so. Always be aware of the time and make sure you allow for 3+ hours to return to the parking lot. Getting lost in this area after dark is not fun.
Best Time of Day to Shoot
For photography, the Archangel Falls are only good in the early to mid-morning (3-4 hours after sunrise in the Fall). Once the sun hits the back wall, the shot is blown out for the rest of the day. Additionally, the early morning sun creates a nice red glow on the back wall. NOTE: don’t get in too much of a hurry to get to Archangel Falls - if you get there too early the sun on the back wall does not have the best light. The image above was taken on Nov. 5, 2015 around 10:45 am. Sunrise on that day was at 7:01am.
Best Time of Year to Shoot
This location is great for photography any time of year. The combination of the simple cascading waterfall and radiant red wall is a perfect setting for a great photograph. The VERY best time is in the last week in October to the first week of November when the trees and underbrush around the falls turn yellow, gold, and red.
What Lens(es) Do You Need
The shot above was taken with a 24mm lens. You can use a variety of focal lengths to create different compositions. When hiking the Subway, you want to pack only the minimal amount of equipment. For all 3 shots: Subway, Archangel Falls and the Crack - you can get away with a single 16-35mm lens.
Due to the popularity of the Subway, a special national parks service permit is required to enter and hike the Left Fork North Creek (SUBWAY). A limit of 80 permits are available each day. The registration for a permit is available by advanced lottery, registration, or walkup. In the peak season, the advanced lottery is a must to reserve your spot. Cost for reservation is $5 and the permit is another $15. Here is the link to the NPS Wilderness Reservation System choose the Left Fork North Creek (Subway) and follow the instructions to obtain a reservation.
VERY IMPORTANT: your reservation is not a permit. It just reserves your spot to get a permit. Obtaining a permit is a two-step process: 1) reserving a permit and 2) paying for and picking up the permit at the Zion National Park visitors’ center the day before your hike. The Zion National Park visitors’ center closes at 5pm. Do not attempt to hike the trail without a permit as the fines are severe.
Direction of the Shot
The direction of your shot into the falls is north by northeast @ 65°.
Special Nuances of Shot
What makes this shot is the water flow and the red glow on the back wall with the surrounding trees and bushes. There are MANY different angles to shoot the falls. I would suggest arriving as early as possible and look around the area for your preferred composition.
Special Equipment Needed
You will need a tripod, a polarizer and potentially a neutral density filter to reduce your shutter speed to ½ second or longer to create the silky water flow.
Other items you may consider are waders / wet shoes and a walking stick (trek poles), as you will be walking/crossing the North Creek many times. You might also consider bringing a small broom to sweep away the sand that sometimes settles on the lower steps.
For the hiking equipment (dry suit/wet pants, neoprene shocks, wet shoes, and walking stick), there are several good outfitters in Springdale, UT, that rent by the day/week.
Zion Adventure Company
36 Lion Blvd, Springdale, UT
7 Zion Park Blvd, Springdale, UT
792 Zion – Mount Carmel Hwy, Springdale, UT
Number of Other Photographers to Expect
Roughy half of the 80 hikers each day are photographers. The shooting area around the Archangels Falls is not very big (holds about 5-7 photographers at a time), so unless you arrive early you will have to share the area with several others.
Zion is known for a wide range of weather conditions. Temperatures in the summer can exceed 100° and get below freezing in winter. Temperatures vary with changes in elevation and the day/night temperatures may differ by up to 30°. The most important thing to be aware of is the possibility of flash floods. They come quick and can be deadly.
I have Verizon and I had cell service until I reached the Subway Hike parking lot. Cell service on the walk is hit and miss, and unreliable.
Archangel Falls is on the west side of Zion National Park, 7 miles north of small community of Virgin, UT. Virgin is located between La Verkin (7 miles west) and Springdale (13 miles east). Springdale is a GREAT little town at the south entry point to Zion National Park and has an abundance of nice lodging and outstanding eating establishments.
There are two nice campsites just inside the south entry to the park (just north of Springdale). The South Campground has 117 campsites on a first-come basis. The Watchman Campground has 175 campsites and can be reserved up to six months prior to your arrival date online at www.recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777. Reservations are strongly suggested: The campground is full every night during the reservation season.
There is also an excellent RV Park call Zion River Resort, with campground and cabins located in Virgin, UT, just by the Kolob Terrace Road turnoff of UT-9 to get to the Left Fork Trailhead. This is a very nice place with a grill and self-service, coin-operated laundry mat.
Nearby camping and lodging
Camping - click on the campground below for directions
Lodging - click on the lodging below for a TripAdvisor review
Desert Pearl Inn
707 Zion – Mount Carmel Hwy, Springdale, UT
Cable Mountain Lodge
147 Zion – Mount Carmel Hwy, Springdale, UT
Hampton Inn & Suites Springdale
1127 Zion – Mount Carmel Hwy, Springdale, UT
As mentioned, Springdale is a GREAT little town with no shortage of excellent restaurants and brewpubs. I have my favorites for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For breakfast, I split time between Oscar's Café and Meme's Café. For lunch, Oscar's Café and Cafe Soleil are always good. For dinner, the Spotted Dog Café and King’s Landing Bistro are good choices. Again, there is no shortage of good dining in Springdale.
Nearby Restaurants - click on the restaurant below for yelp review
The Spotted Dog
428 Zion – Mount Carmel Hwy, Springdale, UT
948 Zion – Mount Carmel Hwy, Springdale, UT
205 Zion – Mount Carmel Hwy, Hurricane, UT
849 Zion – Mount Carmel Hwy, Springdale, UT
Other Photography Opportunities Around
The closest airport to Zion National Park is in Las Vegas, NV. McCarran International Airport (LAS) services most of the major airlines in the US.
Area Guides and Workshops
The Photographer's Ephemeris is a very valuable tool for landscape photographers to determine the direction of the sunrise/sunset & moonrise and moonset from any place on earth on any day (past and future). Click here to take you to The Photographer's Ephemeris for this location.
Here is a link to a great recourse for all things Zion National Park (Joe Braun’s Zion National Park visitor’s website). It is packed with excellent material for the Subway hike and many other features in the park. This link takes you to Joe's detailed description of the Subway trail - Joe's Guide to Zion National Park (The Subway from the bottom).
As mentioned, the Subway hike (to Archangel Falls, the Crack and the Subway) is long - 9 miles roundtrip - and strenuous. Here is a link to a good article for beginning hikers by Jenny Hobby. It is very much worth reading. The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Hiking