The Subway or Left Fork of North Creek Trail is one of the most sought after hikes in Zion National Park. Adventurous hikers must ‘win’ a lottery permit in order to hike The Subway, which is in a Zion wilderness area and outside of the main canyon. We’re going to show you exactly how to day hike The Zion Subway trail bottom up.
Personally, we rate The Subway as one of the very best hikes in Zion. Multiple river crossings, no clear path, pure adventure, an extraordinary climax and a maximum of 80 hikers per day – The Subway has all of the wow-factor and none of the typical Zion crowds.
In fact, we only saw 7 other people all day when we snagged a walk-in permit, hiked upstream alongside and quite literally through the Left Fork of North Creek, and marveled at the spectacular geologic feature known as The Subway.
We will explain everything you need to know about hiking The Subway bottom up, including how to get a permit, a step-by-step trail walkthrough and photos from the entire day.
Let’s hike bottom up to The Subway in Zion National Park, Utah!
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The Subway Trail Zion National Park Hiking Details
- Trail Distance: ~9 miles roundtrip
- Type of Trail: Out and back
- Trail Difficulty: Strenuous
- Time Required: 6-8 hours
- Elevation Gain: ~1,300 ft
- Trailhead: Left Fork Trailhead, Kolob Terrace
Zion Subway Trail FAQ’s
Both are amazing hikes but every other visitor to Zion wants to hike these two trails and they are almost always overcrowded.
However, The Subway is unique. You get to hike a challenging trail to a remarkable crescendo and you’ll barely see another soul all day.
Note: All three of Zion’s top hiking trails are among the best hikes in the United States.
Before we get into the hike, let’s quickly look at some of the most important things you need to know about hiking bottom up to The Subway in Zion National Park.
How Hard Is The Subway Bottom Up Hike In Zion?
Day hiking The Subway bottom up is widely regarded as a strenuous and hard hike.
You will have to contend with one very steep gradient descent right at the beginning, which you also have to ascend right at the end of your out-and-back day hike.
The climb up at the end is by far the hardest part of this hike, and even that part is relatively short, so it’s a quick burst and you’re up.
Aside from this section, you’re essentially following a creek upstream with very gradual elevation gain throughout. But you do have to improvise and climb steep banks, or climb across boulders at times.
Due to the constant bouldering and the fact it doesn’t follow an obvious path, we do agree that The Subway should be rated as a hard hike.
However, (and for reference) while it is challenging, we didn’t think it was anywhere near as difficult as day hiking The Enchantments in Washington or day hiking South Kaibab to Bright Angel via the bottom of Grand Canyon South Rim.
Important – The Subway hike should not be considered if you are not able to step across large boulders and climb up steep banks with use of your hands.
Trail distance and elevation are easy enough, but the climbing adds an element of technical difficulty and won’t be suitable or enjoyable for some hikers.
How Long Is The Bottom Up Hike To The Subway In Zion?
This is a more difficult question to answer than you might imagine.
Due to the constant zig-zagging, river crossings and steep banks, you are inevitably going to hike further and higher than a straight and direct trail.
Zion Subway Distance and Elevation
Rough distance and elevation for The Subway in Zion:
- NPS – Distance 9 miles roundtrip / Elevation 1,300 ft
- AllTrails – Distance 9.1 miles roundtrip / Elevation 1,305 ft
Seems pretty consistent, right?
Well, we actually clocked 9.8 miles and 1,490 ft elevation.
This is because you are crossing the river multiple times, turning back on yourself the odd time when a path doesn’t work out and climbing steep banks to get over deeper water.
If you look on AllTrails recent comments for The Subway bottom up in Zion, you’ll see some hikers saying they clocked over 10 and even over 11 miles.
Zion Subway Hiking Time
In terms of time, day hiking The Subway bottom up can take anywhere between 4 to 10 hours. We know that sounds ludicrous and doesn’t help you plan.
But some hikers are fast, they don’t take breaks and they have favorable conditions. Others will take it slowly, take loads of breaks, stop for photos and have tough conditions.
If you’re quick and actually going for a time, you can hike The Subway in 4 -5 hours. However, if you’re hiking in Winter and typically go slowly, The Subway can easily take 10 hours.
One way to speed up is to take a more direct route through the river, especially on the way back. Criss-crossing and path finding takes up a lot of time.
We personally hiked The Subway bottom up in a total of exactly 7 hours. That time included at least 45 minutes at The Subway, a 30 minute lunch break near Archangel Falls and plenty of photo stops.
If you only have time for a one day Zion National Park itinerary, hiking The Subway will eat up your entire day.
Do You Need A Wetsuit Or Dry Pants Package To Hike The Subway In Zion?
Hiking through water in Zion is incredibly enjoyable, but only if you’re warm enough.
There are a number of places you can hire neoprene socks, walking poles, waterproof boots, pants and backpacks around Springdale.
The hire gear is great, but it is expensive and not always necessary.
We hired Zion Outfitters dry pants package to hike The Narrows in mid-October during our first visit to Zion and we wouldn’t have made it to Big Spring otherwise. But in The Narrows you are constantly submerged in water.
The Subway is completely different to The Narrows.
You do not need to wear a wetsuit to hike The Subway. The dry pants package might be worth paying for if hiking in the Winter to stay completely dry and warm but otherwise you do not need the waterproof pants.
Tip – Consider buying your own waterproof gear and neoprene socks before arriving into Zion. Amazon has loads of cheap options and then you have the equipment for similar activities in future.
Should you hire Neoprene Socks and Waterproof Boots?
Hiring socks and boots to hike The Subway is a personal choice and completely up to you.
- Spring – Water levels are higher in Zion, certain parts of the hike to The Subway may be more submerged, so you might be better off getting the boots and socks on colder days.
- Summer – Water will be warm enough to go in your own footwear and socks even if submerging.
- Fall – You can expect low water levels but the water can be cold so the socks are a good idea but you don’t need boots.
- Winter – We would definitely wear socks and boots.
We hired neoprene socks for our hike to The Subway on November 30. In the end, we didn’t even get our feet wet until the very last part when approaching The Subway itself and could have gotten by easily without them.
Unless you intend on wading heavily through water on cold days, boots and socks are not essential.
Getting A Permit To Hike The Subway Bottom Up In Zion National Park
In order to hike The Subway in Zion you have to buy a wilderness permit. You will not be able to hike this trail without a permit, so please make sure you don’t turn up to the trailhead without one.
Obtaining permits for certain famous hikes in the US can be a real challenge. Thankfully, The Subway is not one of those and you should be able to get one relatively easily.
How Many Permits Available Per Day For The Subway Hike In Zion?
There are 80 permits available per day to hike The Subway, including up to 60 advanced reservation permits and a minimum of 20 available as last minute draws or walk in permits.
Permits are per person and not per group. You have to pay for them and you have to pick them up in person at the Zion wilderness desk in the main visitor center.
There are four ways you can get a permit to hike The Subway in Zion.
The first is through an advanced lottery system, the second is via a calendar reservation, the third is through a last minute draw and the fourth is by turning up at the park to try getting a next day walk in permit.
Let’s take a look at all four options:
Advanced Zion Lottery Permits For The Subway
Advanced permits can be purchased for hiking The Subway between April and October. There is no advanced lottery in Winter due to reduced demand.
Online applications must be submitted 2 months before you want to hike The Subway.
Rarely, there may be a small number of permits available after the 2 month in advance reservation system. At this point, you can reserve a permit for the next month ahead.
Here’s the important part – All permits for the next month will be available on the 5th day of the month before.
For example, you want to hike on May 23rd so you need to apply on April 5th.
Last Minute Drawing
For any remaining permits left after both advanced draws, you can apply online for permits between 2-7 days away.
This is great if you’re visiting in shoulder season and you’re also not exactly sure of which dates you will be in Zion until nearer the time.
Walk In Zion Lottery Permits For The Subway
Finally, if there are still permits available after each of the stages listed above, you can simply walk in to Zion visitor center and purchase a permit directly at the wilderness desk.
Walk in permits are for next day only, not same day. This is the perfect way to get a permit if you are traveling day-to-day and decide on a spontaneous visit to Zion.
The best way to get a walk-in permit for The Subway is to hike out of peak season. We picked up a next day permit on November 29 to hike November 30 and we only saw 7 other hikers all day.
Here’s all the information you need about how to get a permit for The Subway on the NPS website.
Is It Worth The Effort?
In a word, yes. Getting permits for these hikes is almost always stressful, disappointing and frustrating. But when you manage to snag a permit, it’s always for a fantastic hike and The Subway is just that.
What we would say is this:
Please do not hike The Subway because it requires a permit and so it “must be cool”. We saw this with permits for hiking The Wave near Kanab Utah. Some people going for walk-in permits didn’t even know what The Wave was.
Turns out hiking The Wave is spectacular and as much as we loved The Subway, The Wave was on another planet.
Most people who try to get permits for The Subway genuinely want to hike this trail, so don’t take a permit from them unless you’re sure you can make it.
Top Tips For The Hike
- Parking is very limited at Left Fork Trailhead so arrive early in Summer
- You will be shaded from the sun until late afternoon
- Consider wearing waterproof boots and neoprene socks on cold days
- The Subway is NOT dog friendly
- Take plenty of layers on cold days – it gets cold in The Subway
- Do not forget your camera, this is a stunning landscape
- Download your offline map the night before
- Buy water and food the day before so you don’t waste time in the morning
- Do NOT drink from the river at any point due to toxic bacteria
Our number one tip for The Zion Subway hike:
One thing we didn’t consider before hiking to The Subway was what the terrain would be like once we actually got to The Subway.
It is incredibly slippery underfoot. Even with our hiking shoes and good traction we were dancing around The Subway like Bambi on ice.
Luckily, none of us had a fall but we know for sure people must fall all the time, especially on part of the final approach moments before you see The Subway for the first time.
So our top tip for hiking The Subway is to make sure your footwear has excellent grip AND you take care when walking on the wet and slick rocks right before the big finale.
Need a hand organizing your visit to Zion?
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The Subway is a true wilderness trail and does not follow a clear cut route. You will have to forge your own path as you follow the Left Fork of North Creek.
But it isn’t as bad as it sounds.
After reading the NPS website, looking at comments on AllTrails and listening to the hype, we got ourselves a little worried about losing the trail or not being able to find The Subway.
However, it’s really not very difficult.
OK, so there aren’t many trail markers (but there are some). And you do have to work out how to advance at times, whether through the water, over boulders or even climbing up a steep bank.
But that’s what makes this trail unique and so much fun. And you know that The Subway is in the creek. So all you have to do is stick to the creek. If you’re ever in doubt, just wade directly upstream.
We’re not saying it’s easy and you shouldn’t be responsible by taking precautions and researching thoroughly, which you’re doing right now.
We’re saying, don’t let what you read worry you too much. You will make it to The Subway.
Using Offline Map Apps
With all that said, you should always play it safe by downloading an offline map on one of the popular hiking navigation apps.
Important – You will get no cell service on the hike so DO NOT rely on loading up a map live in real time. Download offline map for The Subway when you have service or wifi at your hotel.
We always download a Gaia GPS offline map to each of our smartphones before any hike. The Subway in Zion is the perfect hike to make use of your offline maps app. This hike is in the wilderness and there aren’t many others around.
Where Are Those Morgans has an exclusive 20% discount on annual subscriptions with Gaia GPS Premium. You can follow this special 20% discount link for more information.
Alternatively, AllTrails has a similar function that allows you to download offline maps to your phone.
We personally prefer Gaia but we do always look at recent comments on AllTrails to see if anyone has an important update in the days leading up to when we hike.
You should also check live and current trail conditions in Zion before hiking.
How To Get To Left Fork Trailhead To Hike The Subway In Zion
Left Fork Trailhead is 21.5 miles from Zion’s main visitor center in Springdale. It will take you between 30-35 minutes to drive from Springdale to The Subway trailhead.
From Springdale, head South and West on UT-9, before taking a right turn onto Kolob Terrace Road when you reach Zion Wildflower Resort near Virgin. The 8 mile drive up Kolob Terrace Road is narrow, bumpy and undulating.
The parking lot at Left Fork Trailhead is surprisingly small with space for maybe 25 cars if everyone does a good job of squeezing in.
We’re not quite sure how 80 hikers can park here on a day when all permits are taken. In Summer, we would suggest you arrive early enough to guarantee a spot.
There were only 4 cars in the lot on November 30th when we hiked The Subway.
Zion Subway Trail Walkthrough
OK, now that we’ve covered all of the important (and boring!) details, let’s get to the fun part. The Subway is an amazing hike that is about more than just the ending.
Make sure you get a good night’s sleep, you eat well and hydrate in the days leading up to the hike. Bring plenty of water, food and snacks for the day to help with energy and morale.
Let’s get into the step by step walkthrough of hiking The Subway in Zion National Park, one of the most fun things to do on a visit to Utah.
Park At Left Fork Trailhead
Arrive early to get a parking spot. Get all of your food, snacks and water the night before so you don’t have to do it in the morning.
There are restrooms at the trailhead. You will see information signs pertaining to the hike but also an important one about toxic cyanobacteria in the water throughout Left Fork of North Creek.
It tells you not to fill your water bottle up or drink from the river at any point. You will see pockets of bacteria growing in the water and they are potentially harmful.
Nice Easy Start
The start of this hike is flat, easy going on hard packed dirt trail. It’s the perfect warm up for what is about to be an amazing day. Blow off the early morning cobwebs on this section before you begin your descent.
You’ll cut through a lightly forested ridge-top, passing dry creek beds and rabbit ear shaped cacti. After 10 – 15 minutes you’ll see a huge drop off to your right side.
At the bottom of the enormous V shaped gorge you can see the Left Fork river running at an angle. You will be following this river for 4 miles … once you get down to it.
Steep Descent To Left Fork Of North Creek
How do you get down to the Left Fork of North Creek? You descend a very steep rock face via uneven improvised switchbacks.
It’s amazing how quickly you lose elevation on steeper gradients. This descent begins reasonably gradual but it quickly turns steep and you know you’re going down when loose stones begin to slide out underfoot.
Take care on the way down and leave space between hikers incase any rocks avalanche down the trail.
The dirt isn’t completely hard packed here, it’s soft and it will cause your feet to move as each step tries to gain traction on the harder dirt below.
There’s no right or wrong way to go down and you’ll see multiple path leading in the same direction. Take whichever feels most comfortable.
Begin The Hike Up Left Fork
Once you reach river level, you’ll see an important trail marker pointing back up the way you just came stating Left Fork Trailhead. Take a mental note of this marker so you know exactly where to leave the river on your way back.
Turn left (heading north – northeast) and begin your hike upstream. You do not have to follow any particular ‘path’ and at times you will not even see a path.
Try to follow lighter white or golden sand when possible and always look for footprints in the sand.
Multiple River Crossings
You are going to continuously cross the river on your hike to The Subway. If you can’t find a safe path on the left side, cross over on stones and pick up a track on the right side.
You will do this countless times through the hike. Sometimes the river will be deep and you might have to scurry up a steep sandy bank or climb boulders requiring use of your hands and upper body strength.
You do not need a pole like you do for The Narrows. Despite being useful at the end when you reach The Subway, it will get in the way for most of the hike.
Chances are high you will try to stay dry on the way to The Subway and as a result you will end up taking ‘the long way around’ an obstacle.
Once your feet do get wet at The Subway you will likely be more inclined to take the quicker and more direct route through water instead of going round those same obstacles on the way back.
You will pass by a number of small staircase-like waterfalls throughout the hike as you climb boulders, hop between big stones, follow sandy trails and walk through long grass.
But the scenery begins to change after around 3 miles and it all starts with the stunning Archangel Falls.
After fairly repetitive sections of trail, you’ll begin to notice the change when you have to navigate around enormous boulders in the river. Steep climbs up and over lead to a widening of the river and eroded area.
You will know Archangel Falls when you see multi-tiered staircase like rock ledges and dozens of tiny waterfalls cascading between layers.
Right after the waterfall, your excitement will begin to build. The final half mile before reaching The Subway is amazing.
Your path is now wide open and flat, with staircase rocks and smooth rocks sloping like ski jumps. The water is shallow but you will find pot-hole like pockets of deeper water so take care with your footing.
An unexpected long and very narrow crack with water rushing through is located on the right side of the wide river bed. This is where the going starts becoming slick underfoot.
Try to find dry patches of river bed to use as traction for your steps. But in truth, you’ll be too excited to see The Subway by now. Your feet will be soaking wet but you won’t care.
A long sweeping meander to the right is all that stands between you and the iconic formation.
The Zion Subway
As you begin to take that right meander, The Subway is instantly and unmistakably recognizable as a tunnel filled with light.
You have a wide open and flat approach, but it is ever so slightly uphill and despite the shallow water, it is very slippery. Keep your eyes on the rocks and your footsteps rather than the tunnel.
We have to say we were uncharacteristically over-excited to finally get inside The Subway. Partly because we love unique formations but partly because the trail had been very repetitive for quite some time and it finally felt worth it.
You will be blown away by The Subway the second you enter. Beautiful small, deep and rounded emerald green pools line the tunnel as it bends upward and left around a corner.
Once you turn that left corner you will see more pools of varying shapes and you will reach a dead end. It is a dead end because water is deep in pools leading through a narrowing rock formation.
But you can hear water falling. And you so desperately want to go and see these waterfalls.
Turn around and look back at the iconic shot of The Subway. Light streaming through the tunnel creating an orange glow effect as it illuminates the rounded tunnel like walls. This is where to get your money shot.
The Way Back
In Summer, you can quite easily jump in and swim through the narrowing rocks. However, we did not fancy it on November 30th. This point marks the end of your permitted bottom up day hike to The Subway.
You would have to apply for and win the top down permit for canyoneering and hiking The Subway to see what is on the other side of those rocks.
So it’s time to turn around and hike downstream. It turns cold quickly inside the tunnel, so once you’ve gotten your fill of incredible scenery, head back out to find a place for lunch.
Walk very carefully down the rocks until you reach Archangel Falls, which is where we ate our lunch. Going down is even more slippery.
Then it’s time to slog it back along the river. We found ourselves taking a more direct route back now that our feet were wet and it wasn’t so bad.
Climb Out Of Left Fork
Admittedly, the hike back did become tedious for us and we couldn’t wait to finally reach the climb out. It’s still fun gliding between rocks and figuring out the trail.
We tended to stick to the right side of the river on the way back (which would be left on the way upstream). The sun also began to pound down on us at around 2pm as it headed westward through the sky.
Keep your eyes peeled for that Left Fork Trailhead sign you saw hours ago. Don’t miss it otherwise you’ll end up going too far down Left Fork.
The climb out is steep and it is exhausting after a long day of hiking, but it is very short and you’ll be up in no time. Not long after beginning the climb you should go back into shade which is a huge relief.
Back on top, the final 10-15 minutes are easy and flat. You can relax knowing that you made it out before dark.
And that’s the end of your hike to The Subway in Zion National Park. We have seen some people saying it isn’t worth it for the ending, but we think it is.
Zion is one of the best USA national parks and The Subway is a classic wilderness hike for the adventurers. If you’re into photography you will love The Subway tunnel and emerald pools.
Pros To Hiking The Subway
- Very adventurous Zion hike
- Spectacular ending at The Subway
- Limited amount of hikers per day
- Protected from sun until afternoon
Cons To Hiking The Subway
- Permits can be hard to get in Summer
- Trail does get a little repetitive
- Parking is limited
- 30 minute drive from main Zion Canyon
Best Time To Hike The Subway Trail In Zion
Visiting Zion in any season has pros and cons but if we had to pick the best time to visit Zion solely to hike The Subway, we would suggest planning your visit for Fall.
You will avoid the bigger crowds of Summer and the higher water levels of Spring.
Visiting Zion National Park in Winter would give you the best chance of picking up a next day walk-in permit for The Subway bottom up hike, but it would be colder and potentially icy.
Anytime in September or October would be perfect. A day with cooler temperatures and after very little rainfall would be even better.
- Winter can introduce challenging conditions like ice, snow and harsh temperatures but it is peaceful and isolating.
- Spring would be good fun if you wanted to get wet and had appropriate gear.
- Summer is going to be hot and crowded but you could swim through the pools in The Subway.
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We hope this guide to hiking The Subway Trail helps with planning your visit to Zion National Park!
Please let us know if you have any questions about hiking The Subway Trail, Zion National Park or your visit to Utah in the comments below.
Mark and Kristen
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