ZION NATIONAL PARK, UT
The Subway - is one of the most remarkable places you will ever visit and is one of the photographic gems of the American Southwest. It is located at the end of the grueling 4.5-mile hike, but when you finally arrive at the tube-like slot canyon, you find yourself completely mesmerized.
This place is simply amazing, and the turquoise pools and the glow on the florescent red walls are absolutely spectacular. For many, this is their favorite hike in the entire southwest.
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 is long (9 miles round trip), 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) – which is 500ft vertical trek down steep and rocky set 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
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 7.4 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 ½ mile until you come to the ledge of the steep descent down into a ravine. The ¼ 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 hike up to get back to the parking lot.
From this point the hike to The Subway is about 3.5 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.
For those interested in the Archangel Falls or the Crack, they are just behind the Subway back down the North Creek. Always be aware of the time and make sure you allow for 2-3 hours to return to the parking lot. Getting lost in this area after dark is not fun.
Best Time of Day to Shoot
The best time to shoot The Subway is early to late morning, as the sun’s rays illuminate the entrance of the tube. Even if you cannot make it when the tube is illuminated, it is still a great shot. As mentioned, always be aware of the time and make sure you allow for 2-3 hours to return to the parking lot.
Best Time of Year to Shoot
This location is great for photography any time of year.
What Lens(es) Do You Need
The shot above was taken with a 24mm lens. The room The Subway is in is fairly small, so you may want to use a wider lens or shoot a multi-shot panorama. 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
You are in a shot canyon, thus the direction of your shot is not important.
Special Nuances of Shot
The primary location that most people shoot from is relativity small and extremely slick. You will be standing directly next to 2 separate large pools of water about 6ft. deep. One mistake and your camera gear is doomed. Additionally, the room is not in direct sun so the shutter speeds are usually longer than a second.
While you are waiting your turn (behind the area of the photographers shown below), collect your thoughts around the composition, which lens(es) you will use, and other equipment you will need, as time in The Subway is precious and others will be waiting their turn.
Another special nuance of the shot is the room usually has water running through it (1/2” or so deep) and there is no dry space to set your camera bag to change lenses.
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, and most are looking to get a shot at The Subway. The primary location for the classic shot holds only 1 or sometimes 2 photographers. I have been there when as many as 15 photographers are lined up for their opportunity. Patience is very important.
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.
The Subway is on the west side of Zion National Park - 7 miles north of the 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 on 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): 1) South campground and 2) Watchman campground. 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. The Zion River Resort 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 airports are:
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/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