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Hiking The Subway Top-Down

Hiking the Subway Top Down in Zion National Park is one of the coolest experiences we’ve ever had! If you are adventurous, hiking The Subway Top Down is something you have to add to your bucket list.

There are two ways to explore The Subway, which is also known as the Left Fork of North Creek. Permits are required regardless of which direction you choose to hike it from.

Best Direction To Hike The Subway

Hiking The Subway From the Bottom Up

This is a relatively strenuous 9.1-mile round-trip hike through the Left Fork of North Creek that requires a bit of route finding, creek crossing, and scrambling over boulders.

This hike begins and ends at the Left Fork Trailhead, 8.4 miles from Virgin, Utah on Kolob Terrace Road.

We’ve done a lot of hiking. This hike is not as hard as doing Angel’s Landing. I am surprised it is considered strenuous but it’s certainly not a walk in the park.

Unless you absolutely can’t do a short rappel or swim, I think you should choose the top-down route if you are one of the lucky few to get a permit.

Doing the bottom-up route is a bit boring compared to the top-down and still has some river crossings, scrambles, and a little route finding.

Regardless of which way you go, there are waterfalls and dinosaur fossil prints to see along the way.

subway top down hike,

Hiking The Subway From the Top Down

Hiking the Subway Top Down was one of the best hikes I’ve done in my entire life. And that is saying something because we’ve hiked in 26 countries in the past 6 years! 

This is a strenuous point-to-point 7.8-mile hike that requires rappelling skills, down climbing, swimming through a few cold pools, and a bit of route finding.

It is much more technical than hiking the Narrows!

While we are rock climbers and are very familiar with rappelling, the rappels in the Subway are pretty short, and as long as you have a basic idea of how to safely set up your ropes, you’ll be fine.

Best Hikes in the World- The Subway

The pools, however, are freezing and I think that was the hardest part of the entire thing. We carried wetsuits with us but never put them on and in retrospect, I should’ve just taken the time to. 

One reason we didn’t take the time to stop and put them on is that we didn’t want to get stuck behind slower groups of hikers.

The Subway hike is limited to only a certain number of people each day so it’s never crowded, but everyone tends to start the hike at the same time which means we all get compressed at the rappel stations or pools.

Pools we had to swim through when hiking The Subway Top Down

FAQs for Hiking The Subway Top-Down

How to Get a Permit For Hiking The Subway

Honestly compared to how challenging it is to get a permit to hike The Subway, the actual hike is pretty easy. And the only thing harder than getting a permit is a trip to the California DMV!

You have 4 options for getting a permit:

  • The online advanced lottery happens two months prior (assuming you are hiking April through October). If you win, you will be notified by email on the 5th day of the following month. With the online advance lottery, you can choose three different dates but are limited to one request per individual, per canyon, per month. Argh!
  • One month before, on the 5th of every month at 10:00 am MT, you can try to get a reservation for the next month through the Canyoneering Calendar Reservation System.
  • 7-2 days before your desired hike date, there’s an online Last-Minute Drawing at 1:00 pm MT 2 days before the requested hiking date and you’ll be notified right away by email.
  • Last, you might be able to get a late cancellation the day before your desired hike date if you walk into the Zion Canyon Visitor Center Wilderness Desk.

So let’s say you want to hike on August 9th. You can either apply:

  • in June (and will be notified on July 5th)
  • online on July 5
  • online on August 2nd through 7th
  • or walk on on August 8th

For online requests, you have to pay a $5.00 non-refundable fee in addition to the following prices to get the permit:

$15.00 – 1 to 2 people
$20.00 – 3 to 7 people
$25.00 – 8 to 12 people

Regardless of how you get it, say thank you to the permit gods, and then, you have to go and pick up your permit in person at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center Wilderness Desk the day of or the day before your hike.

Be sure to know your vehicle(s) make and model, color, license plate state and number when you go pick up your permit.

Best Hikes in the World- The Subway

How Long It Takes To Hike The Subway Top Down

It took us a little under 7 hours. We started at 7:40 am and finished at 2:30 pm.

Do you need a wetsuit for hiking The Subway?

No. But I wish I had taken the time to put mine on. I was so cold at the end that it was hard to enjoy the moment!

Do you need a dry bag?

I highly recommend having a dry bag. We didn’t and I ended up having to swim across Navy Seal style holding my backpack over my head.

Do you need a compass?

Only if you are unfamiliar with looking for cairns. Overall the navigation wasn’t too hard, especially if you write down the steps from this blog and watch our YouTube video ahead of time so you are familiar with the markers along the way.

Do you need to rent shoes, hiking sticks, or dry pants?

If you are hiking the Subway bottom up and it’s cold then this might be a good idea. If you are hiking top down, be sure to have hiking sticks that are collapsible so they aren’t in your way for all the rappels and swims. I also don’t think hiking sticks are that necessary. You can rent shoes, hiking sticks, and dry pants at Zion Outfitters.

What’s the Biggest Risk When Hiking The Subway Top Down?

Flash floods. Seriously. Don’t risk hiking this if there are any flash flood warnings. The ranger will go over this in detail when you pick up your permit.

Do I Need A National Parks Pass?

Yep. You can read our Guide to Zion blog for details on getting a pass. More than likely you will just pay for a pass when you go to pick up your permit at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center Wilderness Desk.

Best Hikes in the World- The Subway

Hiking Directions From Wildcat Canyon Trailhead

To hike The Subway Top Down you will begin at Wildcat Canyon Trailhead, which has a pit toilet and small dirt parking area.

To get to the trailhead from the town of Virgin, you head north on Kolob Terrace Road for about 16 miles, passing Lambs Knoll, a popular camping and rock climbing spot.

If you are shuttling, stop at Left Fork Trailhead, about 8.4 miles up the road, and leave a car here.

Our YouTube video will help make these directions make more sense too.

You’ll start off hiking the Wildcat Canyon Trail. When you get to a brown sign that says Hop Valley Trail 4 Mi. with an arrow pointing right and West Rim Trail 4.9 Mi. with an arrow saying straight, stay straight following the directions for West Rim Trail.

Best Hikes in the World- The Subway

In about 20 minutes, you’ll come to a sign saying Northgate Peaks and an arrow pointing right & Wildcat Canyon with an arrow pointing straight. Go right.

You’ll pass a sign that says Subway Route Permit Required Group Size Limit 12.

Hike the slick rock that’s marked with Cairns. You’ll continue down the slick rock.

When you almost reach the bottom, there will be a sort of ledge that you’ll follow for 100 yards. Then, take the path down towards the drainage, into forests, and across to the next section of slick rock.

Hop over the fallen ponderosa log, cut left, and go down the more slick rock.

You should now be about 1 hour in and you should see a sandy trail heading south into the forest. At first, the trail isn’t very well defined but as you continue through the forest and down more slick rock the sandy trail becomes much more apparent.

You’ll follow the trail across a ridge (it’s not scary), then cut left and go up the slick rock. Look for Cairns! Hike over the ridge, then down a gulley path, to a steep bulge that you’ll need to down-climb.

Now it’s time to downclimb to the first pool where, depending on the season, you’ll swim across or not.

Shortly after that, you will come to the first obstacle. Either rappel with climbing gear or… take the rabbit hole off to the side.

Congrats! You are now in the canyon!!! And boy is it beautiful!

From here, it’s a series of pools and mini rappels. You should be warned that the water looks gross but that’s adventure, right?!

Best Hikes in the World- The Subway

After the final rappel, you make it to the famous subway photo spot. This is a good time to warm up in the sun and have a snack.

From here it’s pretty straightforward. You follow the stream, jumping back and forth to wherever you can find dry land or a bit of a trail. Although it’s almost easier to just walk through the water.

2 hours after you leave the Subway, you will get to the exit trail that will take you to the Left Fork Trailhead, which will have a sign.

If you look up at the left side of the red sandstone cliff, there is a black lava field. That’s where you are heading. This hike out of the canyon is steep. be sure to cool off in the water first if it’s really hot out.

I hope this inspires you to give The Subway Top Down a GO. If you need help getting into Fit To Hike, grab our freebies below.

This hike was one of the first big adventures I took Jiraiya on when he was only 9 years old. It’s amazing how confident my children are because we do adventures like this in the outdoors. It’s also the big reason we choose to live in an RV and center our life around adventure, health, and connection.

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Friday 19th of April 2024

From your experience going top down, do we need harnesses and ropes or are there optional ways down if people don't want to rappel?


Thursday 4th of July 2024

On the top-down way, there's no alternative to rappelling. Even experienced climbers would be unable to downclimb.

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