THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY© Christopher Earls Brennen
``I am bound, I am bound,
for a distant shore,
By a lonely isle, by a far Azore,
There it is, there it is,
the treasure I seek,
On the barren sands
of a desolate creek.''
From ``A Week on the Concord and Merrimack
Rivers'' by Henry David Thoreau.
Zion National Park in southwestern Utah is one of loveliest places on earth. But if you visit it in the usual way, by driving up into the main canyon where it opens up into the desert and if you do not venture far from the road you will only have seen a fraction of this beauty. Beyond the asphalt, lie magnificient sculptured canyons, luxurious grottoes and awesome carved sandstone ravines that can only be reached on foot and, sometimes, only by swimming and rappelling. This is a mecca for canyoneers and the adventure hikes in Zion must rank as among the best in the world. Many would rank ``The Subway'' as their ultimate favorite.
The Subway is the name given to a section of canyon in the Left Fork of North Creek near the western boundary of Zion National Park. The name derives from the fact that along one stretch of the Left Fork where it has carved a deep slot canyon into the red sandstone, the bottom of the slot opens up into a circular, tube-like cross-section. But there is much more to the Subway than just this odd feature. The hike begins at an elevation of 7000ft, high on the Markagunt Plateau that surrounds Zion (except on the south). It descends through spectacular carved sandstone scenery before dramatically climbing down into the slot canyon. There the adventurer is treated to a marvellously varied sequence of natural sculptures and physical challenges.
On June 18, 1999, Troy Sette, Joel Paslaski, Martin Vanderveen and I set off to hike the Subway on a glorious, crystal clear day. We had obtained our backcountry permit the preceding day and camped overnight in the National Park campground. Early in the morning, we drove two vehicles back out of the Park and west to the town of Virgin about 14m away. There we turned north on the Kolob Reservoir Road and travelled 8.5m to the Left Fork Parking Area on the right side of the road. Leaving one vehicle in that sandy parking area, we continued another 7m up to the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead (7000ft), located a hundred yards or so down a dirt road on the right. Parking the second vehicle there we set off at 9.10am on a trail across the flat, partly wooded mesa.
On the slickrock Slickrock Bowl
It was a pleasant, sunny but cool morning as we followed the trail eastwards over the gentle mesa. After about 1m, the Hop Valley connector trail comes in on the right but we continued on for another 200yds or so to the junction with the trail to Northgate Peaks. Forking left we followed the Northgate Peaks trail for about 50yds to the top of a small rise. This reveals a large slickrock slope on the left of the trail. Leaving the trail, we followed a series of ducks that led us down the slickrock while angling to the right. At the bottom of the slope, the ducks lead to a well-travelled trail that enters the brush and trees alongside a small creek. This is a pretty section with luxurious ferns contrasting with the raw slickrock higher up. After several hundred yards, the trail emerges again onto the slickrock and the route down to a creek crossing is again marked by ducks including one huge one just beside the creek. We reached this point at an elevation of about 6300ft about 35min after leaving the trailhead at an elevation of 6300ft. The trail on the other side of the creek continues to be well-ducked as it crosses some rough rocky ground and traverses over toward Russell Gulch. Just before the Gulch you arrive at a section of steep descent that leads to the Russell Creek crossing at an elevation of 5800ft (2.6m and 1hr from the trailhead).
On the other side of Russell Creek, the route climbs the slickrock toward a bare rock saddle where there are two prominent hoodoos. Only a few ducks mark this section but it is hard to miss the saddle. Once the saddle is broached, there is a spectacular view south into a broad slickrock bowl. Before descending, it is wise to pick out the trail in the distance as it snakes through the trees on the far side of the bottom of the bowl. The route descends straight down into the bowl following the ducks and continues contouring through the woods toward the manzanita slopes high above the left side of Russell Gulch. At this point the Gulch is out of sight in a gorge off to the right. As is the case throughout this hike, the trail is well worn and easily followed; it is particularly important not to lose the main trail during the next section.
About 3.7m into the hike at an elevation of about 5600ft, the trail quite suddenly arrives at a spectacular viewpoint high above the junction of Russell Gulch and the Left Fork of North Creek. The view here is quite awesome; you can look both upstream and downstream into the vertically walled Left Fork ravine and, simultaneously upstream into the canyon of Russell Creek. It is hard to visualize how you will be able to make the descent into the canyon below you. However, just around to the right, you will arrive at the top of a steep and narrow gully by which to make the descent with some Class 3 downclimbing. In this gully you drop over 200ft, arriving at the bottom beside a large pool in Russell Gulch. The confluence with the Left Fork is only 20yds downstream at an elevation of about 5300ft.
This marks the start of a beautiful transit through the scenic and wondrously sculpted gorge of the Left Fork of North Creek - known throughout the hiking world as ``The Subway''. In contrast to the reflected heat of the slickrock higher up, it is cool here in the canyon depths and you should take your time over the next few miles to truly enjoy this marvellous canyon. About 200yds from the Russell Creek junction, a small boulder field leads to the first serious obstacle, consisting of a large canyon-blocking boulder forming a 12ft drop. The easiest descent is to chimney down the gap on the right between the boulder and the canyon wall. A large log in the chimney currently allows relatively easy descent by straddling and sliding down it. A short distance further on the canyon closes in and you arrive (4.3m from the start at an elevation of 5240ft) at two deep pools in a section of canyon only about 6ft wide. At the ends of the pools (30ft and 15ft long) are small cascades that are easily negotiated. However, both pools can be deep enough to require swimming. We lunched on a sunny little beach just downstream of these pools and about 2hrs into the hike.
Chockstone boulders The Subway
About 100yds beyond the pools, you will encounter a more challenging and interesting obstacle where the stream flows through a very narrow slot only about 2-3ft wide. The less challenging route is to bypass this slot by climbing to a ledge on the left about 12ft above the stream at the entrance to the slot. Though somewhat wet and slippery due to water seepage, this ledge can be used to travel (crawl) downstream to the end of the slot; there you can descend to the canyon floor by rappeling or downclimbing a tricky and steep rockslope (a conveniently placed tree provides a good anchor for the recommended 30ft rappel). However, it is more fun to take the direct route and proceed down the narrow slot in which the water is initially only a few feet deep. However, you quickly arrive at a small two-stage waterfall by which the water falls into a small cavern with chest deep water. The waterfall can be downclimbed using several convenient footholds. The exit slot downstream of the cavern is even narrower - about 18in wide and at one point two round chockstone boulders are jammed between the slot walls, one above the other. The best way through is to place your pack on top of the lower boulder and then slide under it almost completely underwater, retrieving the pack after you have emerged on the other side. The end of this intriguing obstacle is just beyond the chockstone boulders.
Downstream the canyon widens again but the walls seem to grow in height. About 0.3m from the chockstone boulders (and 4.9m from start), the canyon again narrows to a slot and you arrive at Keyhole Falls, a 10ft drop easily recognized by the hole in the rock just above the lip on the left. Bolts in the rock on the right provide a convenient anchor for the rope or webbing used for the small downclimb or rappel. We reached this 5250ft elevation about 3hrs 15min into the hike.
The Subway Red stone cascade
The Keyhole Falls lead to a narrow slot that continues for about 50yds with some curious geometric shapes in the rock. It then widens, the walls steepen and the overhangs characteristic of a subway appear. This spectacular subway shape proceeds for several hundred yards until you arrive at another place where the stream drops into a narrow slot in the canyon bottom as the canyon makes a right turn. A series of contorted pools in the bottom of this slot make it easier to descend a short distance downstream of the falls by following the prominent ledge on the left to a place where bolts have been installed on the sloping rockface. This is the longest rappel on the hike, a descent of about 35ft that requires a 70ft length of rope for a safe double-rappel. Here, at about 5200ft, we were 4hrs from the trailhead.
There is a short but magnificent section of subway downstream of the rappel before the canyon opens up into a more conventional shape. This marks the end of the technical descents and the rest of the hike only requires negotiation of boulder fields. In the next half mile there are a series of beautiful and gentle cascades over red sandstone. This rock surface is less slippery than one might guess at first sight and it is relatively easy just to hike down the water-covered rock. In several places it is necessary to follow the use-trails through the vegetation on the left in order to circumvent larger falls formed by boulders. The canyon bottom gradually becomes more benign and soon the use-trail is almost continuous, mostly following the right side.
The next challenge is to recognize where to begin the climb out of the canyon up the steep right wall. There are some faint trails where others have begun the ascent too soon and you need to avoid following these incorrect routes. It is useful to look for two tributary streams that enter on the right. Just beyond the second stream, you should notice a prominent black lava outcropping high above you on the right rim of the canyon. From the bottom you should be able to spot in the recess just before the prominent outcropping one of the few breaks in the upper cliff that could allow escape from the canyon. The beginning of the ascending trail is about 8.3m from the start of the hike at an elevation of 4700ft. It proceeds almost straight up a shallow gully before steepening, traversing to the left and proceeding through the aforementioned gap in the cliff. The climb to the plateau is about 400ft. Once at the rim, it is an easy and relatively flat hike of about 0.8m along a well-worn trail back to the lower trailhead (4900ft). The total length of the hike is about 9.5m over 7hrs.
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Last updated 7/30/99.
Christopher E. Brennen