Zion National Park in southwestern Utah is a photographer 's dream, especially in the Fall with the Cottonwoods and Maples on full display. And high on the list of locations to photograph in Zion is the iconic Subway. It's just an incredible place that's impossible to describe or even tell the complete story through photographs. The Subway consists of deep emerald pools carved out of the red rock river bed of the left fork of North Creek. Above the emerald pools are the remarkable subway-like canyon walls which give the Subway its name. Because the canyon walls are high and quite narrow at the top, very little light comes into the Subway from above and it's the warm light entering from the entrance that renders an amazing glow in the distance.
HIking the Subway alone is not recommended and I was really happy to hike and photograph with my good friend and fellow photographer, Ken Koskela. We decided to start the hike about 15 minutes before sunrise in order to photograph some of the scenes along the way in softer light and we didn't want to push our luck with a major storm that was approaching. In order to start early you'll need to pick up your permit from the Visitors' Center a day in advance. We were a little surprised to see 3 or 4 vehicles already there when we arrived at the trailhead, thinking not too many people would be as fired up (or lacking good sense!) as we were. But, we headed down the trail and began the adventure just be fore the sun rose above the canyon walls to the East. First, we hiked through some fairly flat sandy areas before descending down the steep canyon wall. The hike down the canyon wall isn't too difficult but it's important to take your time and go slow as there are lots of opportunities for a fall or ankle sprain. So it took 30 minutes or less to make it from the trail head to the base of the canyon at North Creek. And it's really important to mark this spot with your GPS as it's easy to miss the canyon exit on your return, especially if it's late and the light is fading. We crossed the creek after a short distance and then the going gets very slow as you route find your way through the boulders in the canyon. We found that hiking on the West side of the creek as much as you can tends to be the better way to go. But keep in mind the canyon and routes change with each rain storm. It's never quite the same hike.
And it's hard to describe what makes this hike so challenging. There was a guy we met at the trail head and he asked us about the hike. He was hiking solo. We told him it was very hard and to go slow as it's mostly boulders for the 9 mile round trip. Unfortunately he fell somewhere around the half way point and broke a finger and decided to turn back. He made it out but needed some immediate medical attention. The hike is just route finding your way through boulders at the base of the canyon walls and crossing the creek as your path gets blocked on one side or the other. So, you'll be going over, around and under boulders for much of your hike. It requires a fairly high level of fitness to hike the Subway safely as you're much more prone to lose your balance as your muscles get fatigued. Water is also important. I drank about 64 ounces for the round trip on a day that had ideal weather, maybe starting out at 35F and finishing in the afternoon at 55F with overcast skies the whole day.
On your hike to the Subway you'll be mainly focused on your route finding but don't forget to stop and photograph the creek scenes and fall colors. And take some breaks to hydrate and eat to keep your energy up, you'll need it for the hike out! One of the places you'll explore photographically is Arch Angel Falls just below the Subway. It's a nice place to compose at the falls with the autumn colors and red canyon walls of the subway in the distance. And definitely make time to photograph "The Crack" which is between Arch Angel Falls and the heart of the Subway. I love photographing The Crack and there are tons of ways to compose images there if you can manage to stay upright. The Crack is about a 6 inch wide break in the deep red river bed and is surrounded by brightly colored leaves during the fall season. It seems like it goes on forever in the distance but you'll want to photograph it early before the light gets too harsh later in the afternoon. Somehow we managed a bunch of compositions with gear and bones in tact!
And then you come to the Subway and nothing can really prepare you for seeing this sight in person. It's a cascading collection of emerald pools with the creek gently flowing over them and the circular walls of the Subway above. Definitely a place for a wide angle lens and a opportunity to explore with different points of view. One of the most enjoyable ways to compose your images will be to include the glowing light from the Subway entrance in the background. So take your time and explore. And remember that being there early during a busy time of year can give you time to photograph without working around hikers and other photographers. We arrived first and were able to photograph for about an hour and a half with no other photographers there.
It was a great hike out and we enjoyed chatting with hikers and photographers along the way and swapped a few Subway stories. We managed to find the canyon exit easily but this was our second visit and we had a good visual feel for the location and took time to hang outwith some hikers (and get some rest...) before the steep climb up the canyon walls. Maybe 2.5 hours from the trail head to the Subway of very steady hiking without stopping and not too much backtracking while route finding. It was just a fantastic day for us and the weather and photographic conditions were ideal. We had a blast and celebrated our day's effort with a juicy cheeseburger back in Springdale. Figured we burned more than a few calories on the day's hike!
So with good preparation, fitness and route finding skills, put the Subway on your short list to hike and photograph. And be prepared for some muscle soreness the next day!