Zion's Subway

The Subway, Zion National Park
The Subway, Zion National Park

Recently I found several stories I wrote in a college class in 2002. I felt it appropriate to share a few of them, this is one.

October 20, 2001

The day has finally arrived. I have heard many stories of hiking The Subway in Zion National Park, yet have never had the opportunity to do so. As an avid hiker, I have seen pictures of the majestic hike and dreamed of the day that I would get the chance.

Two years ago, my brother and his wife came down to St. George, but due to the popularity of the hike, we were unable to obtain a permit. The Subway is a permit only nine-mile hike along the North Fork of the Virgin River in the backcountry of Zion. Only 50 hikers are permitted to enter each day with a group size limit of 12 people.

This year, I called Todd in early August and asked if he wanted to go. After our conversation, we decided to go in mid-September since the weather would cool down and hopefully, the demand would be down. Permit rules allow you to call no earlier than 1:00 p.m., one month in advance of your hike. I called at 1:02 p.m. on the appropriate day to find out that the permits were filled before I could get the chance.

Our secondary choice would allow us to hike on the 20th of October. On the appropriate day, I was able to make reservations for a group of 10.

10:23 a.m.—We arrived at the trailhead at the top of the hike. We would be hiking down stream, which is also the popular direction. As family and close friends, we decided to offer a prayer for safety. Excited and energized, we were off and hiking. The first 20-minutes was a leisure hike through open meadows and some dense brush.

The initial trail is not clearly marked with signs leading you to The Subway, though as we make the first descent down a sandstone hill, we encounter a sign that points the direction and indicates that it is a "permit only" hike.

The views of Zion's backcountry are breathtaking. The white sandstone cliffs dominate the skyline and the lush juniper forest create an oasis in the midst of this desert environment.

12:01 p.m.—We make a steep descent down a wide, open and long sandstone face that makes the joints in my knees ache. At 27-years-old myself, I can only imagine how my father Gil, Lamar and MaryLee the plus-50-year-olds are feeling.

12:28 p.m.—The deep, narrow canyon that makes up The Subway is now in sight. We approach the canyon approximately 150-feet above the floor and must traverse steep terrain to descend into the canyon itself. My wife, Cheryl finds it difficult to find her footing in the loose rocks as we climb down. After 13-minutes of descent, we arrive at the floor of the canyon. We will now spend our time walking through and over the river for the next several hours.

1:25 p.m.—We approach a large boulder that must be climbed down with the assistance of a rope that Gil brought with him. Cheryl needed some coaxing and help to climb down. The views are breathtaking. Tall trees on the narrow canyon floor reach as high as they can to gain the little sunlight of the day. Dominant sandstone cliffs that seem to be closing in on the small stream of water that meanders through.

The sensation and feeling of the inescapable power and force that formed this canyon looms in your mind as you imagine the possibility that at anytime a flash flood could turn this tranquil place into terror and chaos. A small rainstorm upstream can wreak havoc and devastation to anyone in the canyon within minutes.

2:07 p.m.—Our first required opportunity to swim in the narrow and deep frigid pools presents itself. Once in the water, it is obvious that this water has not seen much sunshine for warmth. The cold sandstone walls seem to insulate the water, keeping it close to a freezing temperature. The last part of this pool requires swimming since the water is too deep to stand.

After a little more hiking, we encounter the next swimming opportunity. With a little more skill and assistance from other group members, we have to climb down five-feet into the next pool. Tossing our daypacks to Todd, standing on a large boulder wedged between the narrow rock walls, where he stacks them to keep dry. I stand at the beginning of the pool, stomach deep in frigid water, helping our group with the descent into the pool. One by one, they walk through the water to the other side. Again, the last part is a deep pool that requires more swimming.

My father is the last to come down the descent, as he has been helping everyone else from the top. As he passes me, walking through the water and under the rock, he approaches the deep part. Knowing that he has to swim, he makes the attempt. Feeling the coldness of the water and the exhaustion that he is facing from this hike, he locks up half way across. He starts going under, thinking that he can go down and push back up continuing across. In my mind, I said, "Oh no, you can't do this." and with fear of the worst in my mind, I immediately jump into the deep, clench my father in my arms, and swim both of us to safety.

The task of carrying everyone's packs to shore through the same frigid pool was left up to Todd and myself. We both made a couple of trips, swimming army style with the packs raised high above our heads.

2:57 p.m.—We reach a very narrow part in the canyon where we have to rig a rope elevator to lower group members down a 10-foot drop. As several other groups were bottlenecked at the same point, this process took about an hour. As I wait my turn, I am exhausted and cold from standing in the cold pools assisting others for so long.

Once down, we were a mere 200-feet from one of The Subway's most photographed locations, and the namesake of the hike. A large curved formation of sandstone walls and the famous log that leans upward from the floor. At this point, the hike seems to turn left and right like a New York City Subway tunnel.

4:13 p.m.—A little further down the canyon, we approach the final rope descent of the hike, and the sound of a small waterfall covered at the top by a logjam creates background noise as we take turns making the descent.

Waiting my turn, I see a spot where with a little adventure and guts, I manage to jump down without the ropes. At the bottom of this final descent, lies another famous location in The Subway. The small pools that are carved out of the sandstone floor are filled with dozens of small autumn leaves.

One of my proudest moments is watching my wife, Cheryl, without fear climb down this last descent. At that moment, she looked like a professional.

4:30 p.m.—We enter a clearing, the widest point of the canyon so far. For a time, we are able to feel the warmth of precious sunlight. For four hours, we have been hiking with no direct sunlight.

4:50 p.m.—The majestic beauty of The Subway has been a spiritual experience to say the least. After this experience, there is no denying the existence of a supreme being, a divine creator, a God! The waterfalls that trickle down countless shelves of sandstone, the amazing solemn pools, the power and force of nature have humbled our group.

5:00 p.m.—We have been hiking for six-and-a-half hours. We are exhausted. We are tired. Unfortunately, there is no end in sight. The wide canyon walls are still too steep for anyone to climb out. The next hour is spent climbing over small boulders, trudging through the stream, pushing our already weary bodies to the limit.

6:00 p.m.—Worried about the little remaining daylight, we decide that Todd and I should run ahead and find the switchbacks that will lead us out of the canyon. Armed with two-way radios, we hurried ahead.

6:45 p.m.—We found the switchbacks and radioed our group. The sun is setting now and there is no time to waste, dry heaving, I try to keep up with Todd as we climb out of the canyon. The switchbacks are nothing more than a 600-foot climb up a steep narrow wash covered in boulders. At the top, we try to increase our pace as we are now in the stretch called "home free."

Todd and I are keeping our lead, as we need to take my car that was left at this end to pick up our other vehicle that we left at the top. By the time we reach my car, it is dark. I am thankful that this ordeal is over.

I have hiked 18-mile hikes that seem like child's play compared to the challenges and strain that 9 miles of The Subway invokes. I have never felt such a sense of accomplishment with a hike, as I have with this one. We have conquered weaknesses and made them strong. I have never overcome so many trials and hardships in one day. Today I promise myself that I will never hike The Subway again, yet deep in my heart, I know that someday, I will.

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