Zion has three extremely popular, highly sought out hikes in the park. The Trifecta includes The Narrows, wading up the Virgin River between 1,000 ft walls, Angel’s Landing, climbing a sliver of a 1,500 ft high backbone, and The Subway. Of these three, only the Subway requires a permit from the Zion Wilderness Center to enter. They only allow 80 hikers into this area on any given day, sometimes requiring a lottery to manage the demand. This hike is, according to NPS, “a strenuous 9-mile round-trip that requires route finding, creek crossing, and scrambling over boulders.” No joke.
This challenging hike comes up in conversation off and on since we first convened in Zion National Park at the beginning of November. Some are intrigued, while others pass without further consideration. We all have our reasons for hesitation. For some, it is distance. For others, it is the inevitable warning of “You WILL get your feet wet on this hike!” For me, it is once again my fear of holding the group back. But after being a “strap hanger” for 10 years, my sole means of daily commute in Manhattan, how could I not attempt a hike called “The Subway??”
As soon as I pull into the trail head, I get my first clue that I am unprepared. Although the forecast calls for sunny skies with a high of 66 degrees, the first thing I notice as I whirl into the parking lot is that Mark, Bobbie, and John III are all wearing gloves, knit hats, wool headbands, fleece jackets, something I have not seen in my 3 weeks hiking with these guys. I am in my usual shorts and a tee shirt. Or as Mark says, “dressed for Florida.”
Next, I would like to attempt to set the record straight on other blogger reports where my tardiness was grossly exaggerated. I was a mere seven minutes late, and I have the voice mail stamp to prove it. Still, as the last one to arrive, the monkey is now on my back should we have to “sleep in the subway!” No pressure, as Mark reminds us going down the steep 400 ft drop to reach the river that those of us newbies might have thought to bring a flashlight. A flashlight?? But the sun doesn’t start going down for another eight hours! No way I plan to still be in this canyon in another eight hours!
Once we reach the cold, dark, shady canyon, it is f-f-f-frigid. I have brought along a spare change of clothes rolled up in my backpack in case I get wet. I pull them out and put them on over my shorts!! The double layer is a welcome comfort, not only from the cold, but for the time I am about to spend on my butt, sliding down boulders the size of my Winnie!
I foolishly start out with the dumb idea to count the creek crossings. I lose count after only three crossings, all in the first ten minutes. Determined not to be the first one who gets wet, it takes every ounce of concentration when crossing to avoid pitfalls such as loose sand on the boots, wobbly, unsecure rocks, logs that roll, and even in some areas, a thin, well disguised coating of ice! My silly counting game quickly turns to one to rival a Survivor Immunity Challenge!
The terrain is rugged. Soon, there is no visible trail, and we are picking our way back and forth across the stream, up over giant downed trees, and scrambling across massive boulders, trying to find the path of least resistance while making our way 600ft of gradual elevation upstream.
At one point, I stop and ask, “Do we have to go so damned FAST?” It seems to me that we have never gone this fast before, and I am not going to be able to sustain this pace on such a strenuous hike. I am not sure if the pace is so much faster because there are only four of us now? And of the four, I am now hiking with the three fastest hikers from the Red Rocks Gang? But no, it soon occurs to me that a new element has been introduced into this hike that I have not seen before. A watch. Bobbie is continuously cognizant of what time it is and how far along we are on the trail. Another clue that they are not joking about sleeping in the subway!
Just as the New York subway involves numerous flights of stairs, so does access to the Zion Subway, only they come in the form of multi-tiered waterfalls. Mark says the waterfalls are an indicator that we are getting close. Up until this point, I have tried memorizing landmarks to find my way out in case I have to turn around early, but it is at this moment that I actually start to believe I might make it to the end!
We have miraculously made it this far without getting our feet wet, but now must cross the shallow stream at the top of the waterfall where there are no stepping stones. Bobbie instructs, “Step flat footed, not toe-first, to help keep the water out of your shoes.”
Finally, the oval tube shape appears up ahead. It is a fascinating rock formation, the likes I have never seen before. The seeping water running down the sides of the tube really does resemble the New York subway! Between the visual beauty and trickling water sound effects, it is one of the most evocative spots I have seen in the park…and so vastly different than any of the scenery we have seen yet! By now, the sun is overhead in the canyon, reflecting light into the tube from the outer red rock walls. This casts a shimmering golden light into the grotto. As we walk further in, we come upon beautiful emerald pools of water on the subway floor. By now, I have given up all hope of keeping my feet dry, as the desire to see more of the formation outweighs the desire for dry feet. As I decide to just go for it, Mark says “May as well….this is what you came for.”
Bobbie tells us it is now 1:00pm, and it is inconceivable to me that we have been walking up the canyon for 4 ½ hours! She also advises that the goal was to be here by 12:30pm, so we are half an hour behind schedule. Mark says, “Get your photos and grab a bite to eat, as we need to head back soon. Time is not urgent, but it is critical!” I realize if it takes us the same amount of time to exit the canyon as it did to enter, we will be looking for the exit after dark! So I know I must pick up the pace on the way back. I start to look forward to the stream crossings, because it is the only time we slow down. This gives me a few seconds to catch up and rest while others navigate the crossing, then I follow in their footsteps.
The dinosaur tracks are the mid-point, so I am relieved to learn we are making good enough time that we can actually stop for a short break. In the end, we make it out of the canyon in an hour less time than it took to get in. We are back to the parking lot by 4:30pm, eight hours total. There are “high fives” all around. I am elated to have made it, and we are all relieved to have done nine miles of “injury-free bouldering!”
“Don’t sleep in the subway, darlin’, don’t stand in the pouring rain
Don’t sleep in the subway, darlin’, the night is long
Forget your foolish pride, nothing’s wrong
Now you’re beside me again”