Hiking the Subway Top Down in Zion National Park is one of the coolest experiences we’ve ever done! 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 personally 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.
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 freezing 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.
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 because 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.
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 that 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 5th of every month at 10:00 am MT, you can try to get a reservations 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 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 in August 8th
For online requests you have to pay a $5.00 non-refundable fee in addition to the following prices to actually 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.
How Long It Takes To Hike The Subway Top Down
It took us a little under 7 hours. We started at 7:40am and finished at 2:30pm.
Do you need a wetsuit for hiking The Subway?
No. But I wish I had taken the time to put mine on. I was sooo cold at the end that it was hard to enjoy the moment!
Do you need a dry bag?
No. But I wish I had because I ended up having to swim across Navy Seal style holding my backpack over my head. I will totally buy one next time!
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, 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 thin hiking sticks are that necessary.
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 ver 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.
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 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.
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 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 cuts left and goes up the slick rock. Look for cairns! Hike over ridge, then down a gulley path, to a steep gulge that you’ll need to down climb.
Now it’s time to down climb to first pool where, depending on 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 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?!
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 straight forward. 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 to. This hike out of the canyon is steep. be sure to cool off in the water first if it’s really hot out.
Related Utah Blogs:
- Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park
- Ultimate Guide to Bryce Canyon NP
- Best Hikes in Arches NP
- Best Hikes In St George
- Rock Climbing Near St George
- Utah Road Trip Itinerary
- Best Campgrounds in Utah