Photo: Joe Braun Photography
Slot canyons are everywhere in Zion National Park and Utah. They are deep, narrow cracks in rocks created by water erosion. The result is a playground for the well-prepared adventurer.
The Subway trek is 9.5 miles in distance and rated 3B III by the American Canyoneering Association (ACA) Canyon Rating – according to the rating matrix, the Subway is a semi-technical slot canyon.
The first time a group of us decided to do the Subway was in May 2006. We did plenty of studying, and we had our maps and some gear. The Subway was more legend to us than anything else. All we knew was that we would need decent navigation skills and that we’d encounter rope-assisted down-climbs and some water.
Given the time of year, the canyon was still experiencing higher water levels than it would later in the spring or summer. This was due primarily to snow melt from higher elevations, which was particularly heavy in 2006.
Our trek started simply enough, navigating cairn to cairn. The importance of navigation to the proper entrances of these canyons is not to be overlooked. A wrong turn could result in an unplanned rescue or worse.
We arrived at the drop-in spot to the main part of the canyon where it joined a more technical one referred to as “Das Boot.” Since this was our first trip, we didn’t see anything unusual about the water levels.
We soon arrived at our first obstacle, a large boulder. While not a significant obstacle (12-foot down-climb), it was not to be taken lightly. Hikers who decide to jump have found themselves with sprained and sometimes broken ankles. A severely injured hiker in one of these canyons often will require an extraction by SAR (Search and Rescue).
In dealing with that first obstacle, our rope left much to be desired. So when we met another group that was better prepared with the appropriate grade and length of rope, we stuck with them for the remaining obstacles.
As the canyon narrowed, the water flow increased. The next obstacle was basically a chockstone in between the two walls of the canyon. There was a drop of approximately eight feet to a ledge, and then another few feet to a pool of water. A decent amount of water flowed around the chockstone and then down into the slot.
Photo: Joe Braun Photography
We set our rope lines, then worked our way one by one into the 40- to 45-degree (Fahrenheit) water and took a short swim through the narrow canyon. Along with the increased water flow, overcast skies lowered temperatures. A slight drizzle started. We began to recall the cautionary statements concerning flash flooding.
Our situation posed no real threat. We were getting cold waiting for everyone to clear the obstacle, wondering if the rain was going to increase in intensity and curious as to what our escape route might be should a flash flood come roaring down the canyon.
There was no mistaking that we were novices. We all worked together as a team, helping one another with our gear, which had been dry-bagged, and cleared the obstacle with flying colors.
Keyhole Falls was our next obstacle. It required setting up ropes and climbing down into more ice-cold water. However, the payoff was amazing. The sun came out and was bouncing off the ice-cold water and canyon walls to create a beautiful scene. We knew we were close to the end of the technical section.
Probably the most famous and most photographed part of the Subway hike is called the “Log Chamber.” This tubular section of the canyon holds a tree that has withstood countless flash floods through the canyon. We took time to snap multiple photographs next to it.
Just past the Log Chamber was a final 37-foot rappel down a sloping wall to the canyon floor, where there were some beautiful water-filled potholes. Again, teamwork with the other group helped us. The canyon floor was a good place to stop and recharge before the next three miles of crisscrossing water and hopping boulders to reach the trail head.
The final three-quarters of a mile was a very steep ascent along a dark, volcanic ridge, which was a bit intimidating after a long, physical day through a canyon. But our adrenaline kicked in, and we made it back to our vehicle with high fives all around. Our first canyoneering adventure was a success!
When we first completed this hike in 2006, it took us approximately 10.5 hours. In 2010 (our third trip), we completed it in only 7.5 hours. I guess we learned a few tricks.