The Subway hike in Zion National Park, Utah (Aug 17th, 2013)

For updated entries of my 2012 Appalachian Trail thru-hike blog (with pictures!), visit

Below is a picture of the Subway in Zion National Park, taken by Carey Belcher on Aug 17th, 2013. All other photos are also taken by Carey Belcher unless otherwise noted. 


 "You need a permit to hike the Subway." I told the woman. She had asked about a popular hike in Zion National Park. I hadn't hiked it yet, but I knew many who had and I knew enough to tell people that it required special gear and knowledge. "It's about 9.5 miles total. You have to float your pack in front of you and swim through pools of deep, cold, smelly water in a slot canyon. You need a rope and you might have to rappel." 


"Okay," she said, "what do you know about Angels Landing?" 

"I love that hike, and you don't need a permit, but people have died there, too."


I spend my days at the outdoor store making lattes and trying to help people have safe adventures in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. There have been several accidents and deaths this summer. Some were falls, some were hyperthermia (overheating). Three people were struck by lightning and two of them died. The drowning deaths on the lake and the car accident deaths are not uncommon, but the rest are less common. It's been a rough summer for outdoor tourists around here.


I wanted to hike the Subway, but hadn't made any effort towards securing a permit or even really learning what was required and what to expect. A couple days later my brother, Jared, called me. "Do you want to hike the Subway on Saturday? We have two spots open on our permit. Our friend broke his foot and our other friend bailed."


"I have to work, but I can probably trade a shift and work a double in the next day or two." I made a few calls and got my work shift covered. Then I called Jared and we talked about gear and supplies. He had a 100 foot rappelling rope and I could either use his friend's harness or maybe take turns sharing a harness with Janelle, my sister-in-law.


I asked one of my bosses, Charlie, a co-owner of the outdoor store, to help me find the right size harness so I knew if I could use one of theirs. He brought a harness from home and it fit so he let me borrow it, along with the carabiner and another piece of climbing gear I should know the name of, but I don't. I don't know anything about climbing or rappelling but Charlie gave me some instructions and Jared and Janelle have some experience.


Jared also invited Victor, a local business owner who has hiked the Subway many times over many years. They randomly met up in SLC in a climbing store and Jared invited Victor to fill the fourth spot on the permit before they realized they both knew me. Victor and I arranged to drive together and meet Jared and Janelle in their car. We needed both cars, one to leave at the end of the trail, and one to drive up to the top of the trailhead.   



 Victor and I saw Bighorn sheep on our way through Zion National Park at 6:30 AM. There were at least a dozen Bighorns split on both sides of the road in the dim dawn light. Victor paused the car as a tourist with his face in a camera walked up the road as if we weren't there. Victor waited longer as I leaned out the window taking a few pictures of my own.


I only made us 5 or 10 minutes late for the 7 AM meeting. My dad stepped out of Jared's car, surprising me. He enjoyed the opportunity for a road trip and took our picture at the trail head, then drove the car to Springdale to hang out for the day. This meant we didn't have to drive from the end of the hike back up to the car at the top trail head when we were done.




We headed out at 9:05 AM across a meadow full of blooming yellow flowers and tall ponderosa pines. Victor told Jared and Janelle to smell the trunks of the ponderosas. We all went to a tree and stuck our noses deep into the ridged bark. It smelled sweet, as they all do to me. Like sugar and candy and dessert. Vanilla. Butterscotch. Yummy.


We descended across white slick rock, zig zagging down, following the lines in the rock to get down the steep slopes. Then we moved onto red slick rock, pausing for a snack break in the shade of a red rock knob. It was already hot and it got hotter as the slick rock absorbed the heat and reflected it up from below. Victor showed us the route when we had a question, which was only a couple of times. Otherwise we followed the stacked piles of rocks called cairns that marked the trail.







We reached the top of the slot canyon and Victor told us to space out. Take our time. Try very hard not to dislodge rocks that could fall and bash in somebody's skull who was below. Let the person below get out of the way, out of sight, before moving on. I put away my camera and went down last, using my hands, feet and butt, climbing down roots and sliding on the sand that covered the rocks. It reminded me of times on the Appalachian Trail and I was happy.


At the bottom of the cliff was a pool of green, mucky water. I used my collapsible Helinox trekking pole to poke underwater ahead of myself, trying not to fall on a rock or into a deep hole I couldn't see. The pool came above my knees, but was no big deal. Jared and Janelle put on neoprene socks before they crossed.  It was cool in the shade and I took off my hat and switched from my sun shirt to my synthetic shirt. I wore my Trekksta trail runners with smartwool hiking socks. I brought neoprene booties but never used them.


We reached the first obstacle where we might have rappelled, but during his online research Jared had read of a hole on the left side of the boulders. He took off his pack and dragged it behind him after he crawled through the hole. He made it down to the water and swam across. We prepared our bags for the water. I put my Nikon D5100 camera in a dry bag along with my synthetic Patagonia puff jacket and my camera. Charlie and Victor both said we'd need something to stay warm once we got wet and had to wait in the shade and wind to rappel. They said that groups often bottleneck at the obstacles and that's when you can really get cold and even hypothermic.


All my other stuff was in Ziploc baggies, which worked pretty well on the Appalachian Trail, and I lined the inside of my entire bag with a giant Ziploc. I had trouble getting the giant Ziploc to seal. I don't know if it did seal correctly in the end because everything in my pack except inside the dry bag got wet, including inside every individual Ziploc. My problem could have been that they were not new, and not the heavy duty freezer Ziplocs I used to buy for the AT. I'll try Ziplocs again, but I'll make sure the important things are in a real dry bag because I'm very relieved that my camera and phone stayed dry.


I wish I had a waterproof camera and I will get one before my next long hike. I got no pictures of the craziest, most fun part of the hike. I risked opening the dry bag to dig out my camera after the third obstacle, a waterfall where we could have just climbed down a rope, but instead we practiced our rappelling on something small before we reached the big rappel. 

Picture by Victor. This is my plan if a flash flood comes down the slot canyon. Not a good plan, but it's as good as any other plan that has me in a slot canyon during a flash flood.



We arrived at the final obstacle, the thirty foot rappel we had heard so much about. Victor and Charlie said there used to be a large log that people used as a bridge to cross over the waterfall but it had washed away in a flash flood a couple of weeks before. They both were willing to jump the five foot gap and down climb a rope on the other side, but when I saw the gap and the drop I knew I would not jump. It terrified me. Charlie had lent me a perfectly good harness and rappelling is fun. I got some pictures of the others rappelling, but put the camera back in the dry bag when it was my turn.


I was frightened and excited standing on the edge of the cliff with my back to the drop. Janelle helped me get hooked up correctly and repeated the instructions. "Just don't let go with your right hand, because it's your brake. Lean back like you're sitting on a couch and keep your feet on the wall with your legs mostly straight." I trusted all the gear and leaned back over the cliff. Once I was over the edge it was quite fun and I was fine without gloves for the rope. The swim through the pool at the bottom was the last forced swim and I went ahead to take pictures while Janelle rappelled down.


In the end we all rappelled and then swam through the final pool to arrive at the Subway. The hike is called the Subway for this spot, and it is awesome. The water has carved out a rounded tube in the rock. It is streaked with red, cream, green and black and there is a pool in the center of the formation. People who don't rappel can hike upstream to the Subway from the lower parking area and then hike back out, so you can see it even if you don't rappel. A thin layer of water runs over the rock we walked on and it was very slippery with moss. Naturally we turned it into a water slide. 









After we all took many turns on the water slide and took pictures we headed downstream. I turned to look back as the Subway grew smaller and smaller. I was careful, though, because the rock was still covered with water and moss and it was very slick. Jared and Janelle both slipped and fell at the same time in front of me. I happened to be taking pictures, so I laughed and took their picture as they got up. I put my camera inside a gallon Ziploc and then in its impact and water resistant case. I took a step and then I fell, too, right on my butt and then I struggled to get up. Victor is the only one who did not fall.


He showed us his usual spot for a water slide and we played for a while in the sun and water. Clouds covered the sun and sprinkled rain on us for a few minutes. I asked Victor, who was napping on a rock next to a waterfall, if we were going to die. He didn't seem to care. I wasn't really worried, though there was plenty of flash flood debris all over the place. Broken logs and branches hung from trees and created dams, evidence of previous flash floods, but we were out of the slot canyon. If a flash flood came we could scramble up the loose dirt and rocks on the sides of the canyon.




We finally got hiking again and the riverbed turned into a mind numbing obstacle course of choosing the best path over, around and sometimes under boulders while crossing the river repeatedly. This would have been a great training hike for the Appalachian Trail. It's this kind of terrain that wears you down, exhausts you, but demands constant attention or you will get injured.


Victor told us of the time he slipped off a sand-covered rock and bashed his leg so hard he still has a dent in the muscle. On a previous Subway hike, he said Charlie slipped and bashed the side of his head into a rock. He also told us of his friend who fell on the water covered mossy rock and compressed his spine but still had to hike out several miles on a heavy dose of ibuprofen.


Victor then told us about the man who died last November while trying to rappel off the big log (not there any more) that people used to walk across the five foot gap over the waterfall with the thirty foot drop. The man flipped upside down and hung in the waterfall while his wife, who couldn't climb back up to free him, got lost and stayed in the canyon overnight. Other hikers saw his body still hanging there the next morning as the Rangers decided how to free him. I think I'm glad I didn't know these things before I came on the hike. I'd still have come, and I want to go again, but it's a good reminder to be aware, alert and prepared when having adventures like this.


I suppose I was worn out but I can't explain why I didn't take pictures of the giant white rock panel covered in dinosaur tracks. I thought I was done with pictures, and I was limping from my own fall and I didn't want to pull out my camera again. I even waited over ten minutes while the others took pictures of the pretty butterflies, but when they still hung around I finally took out my camera and took pictures, too.


We finished with a short but steep hike up to the rim of the canyon and arrived at the car around 8:15 PM, just before dark. I carried my headlamp, which is waterproof, but I didn't need to use it. With all our breaks, including stops at Victor's favorite swimming pools and a stop to enjoy a waterfall back massage, the hike took over eleven hours. We could have easily shaved off two or three hours, but we were all in agreement to take our time and really enjoy every moment we could wring out of this hike. We succeeded in our goal.


We stood behind the truck doors and changed out of our wet, muddy clothes for the drive to Springdale, where my dad had gotten in line at Oscars. We arrived to my dad and my brother John sitting at a table covered with chips, salsa and guacamole. Dad hadn't waited around in Springdale, he had driven to Vegas to get John from the airport. Another surprise for me. We ate, laughed and told funny stories until the restaurant closed. It was a fantastic adventure, and showed me that I am truly out of trail shape. I could barely walk the next day. I can't wait to go again.


Side note: Charlie took a group through The Subway earlier this week and found a couple who were completely unprepared. They didn't have the correct rappelling equipment and did not know the route or how to rappel, but Charlie coached them and lent them the right gear to get through the obstacles safely. It was a sort of rescue because had Charlie not been able to help them, they would have needed an official rescue. The next day (four days ago) a canyoneer from Ohio fell off the cliff near the initial descent into the slot canyon. She died.






 A very nice hiker took my picture as she waited for the rest of her group to climb up to the rim. Here I am tired, sore and very happy.   ~Carry-On

Carry-On AT 2012