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The Subway, Zion National Park; Photograph by Eric Leifer

Falling for Zion: Hiking Russell Gulch to the Subway

Utah’s Zion National Park is a place of immensity; huge sandstone walls tower far above the valley floor, the sheer magnitude is unreal. Alas, tourists and tour buses are the most common sight to be seen here, yet there are places void of this distraction. Hidden within the shadows and corners of those great spires and pinnacles lie some of the most awe-inspiring places on the planet, where the patience and persistence of water has delicately sculpted eccentric patterns and passageways into the rock. It is here where some of the true wonders of the world exist; hidden hallways, massive alcoves, and soaring walls create a dark and surreal world that few will ever see.  It is a place where beauty faults to logic, and I swear some of the walls shift and flow with the warm desert light, as if a dream.

With the sudden shift of a memory, we step back to nearly a decade ago, when I first laid eyes upon one of my oldest lovers; delicate and methodical, caring but dangerous, passionate and persistent.  I was young and naive.  She was so endlessly wise. We would talk for hours. We shared our secrets. Beneath a sea of stars we would sleep together.  Within the confines of the canyons we often walked.  Amongst the fluttering leaves of a cottonwood tree she spoke to me.  In each ounce of water I could feel her.  Inside every grain of sand I held her.  The desert of the American Southwest is often personified as a feminine force of nature for a very good reason.

I came alone as I often do.  I load my truck for the weekend with the usual supplies; water and whiskey, ropes and a harness, pasta and m&ms, sleeping bag and guitar. The Ponderosa Pines of Flagstaff give way to the junipers of the desert the crowds yield to an endless horizon.  I coast past Page and the remnants of Glen Canyon, drowned in the name of progress and recreation.  I cross the border into Utah and head for the hills as the sun slowly fades.  The tourists return to their hotels as the desert rats scatter for the night.  I pick my usual spot along the Paria River.  To each their own I suppose.

I close my eyes.  Take a deep breath.  We begin to walk together once more.

The journey to Zion is not an easy endeavor, no matter what direction you come from, as it lies within the heart of southern Utah and the great Colorado Plateau.  Salt Lake City sits 307 miles to the north; Las Vegas creeps 162 miles to the west; Phoenix hides 389 miles south; and Denver stands 635 miles to the east.  Most would consider it in the middle of nowhere.  But in reality, it is the middle of everywhere.

The Left Fork of North Creek is commonly known as the Subway. For those who seek a more adventurous hike within Zion National Park, the journey to the Subway is an arduous but rewarding one as the creek beautifully twists and carves its way through the sandstone, carving its trademark narrows and complex patterns that are arguably greater than any human artwork.  It is, however, a popular hiking route that requires a rather difficult permit to obtain if approaching from the traditional route.  For those with backcountry navigation and canyoneering skills, a short and lesser visited technical route starts at the Wildcat Trailhead and Pocket Mesa before descending steeply into Russell Gulch, ultimately dropping you into the Subway from above.

A few technical obstacles require a rope between Russell Gulch and the Subway proper, along with a swim or two depending on current water levels.  Keyhole falls, a short but scenic drop, mark the beginning of the Subway proper as the walls begin to violently rise far above you, and its trademark namesake begins to take shape.  Though the Subway itself is only a few hundred meters long, it is one of the most impressive formations to be found within the boundaries of Zion.  We walk slower and slower and ultimately come to a halt as I lay on a small beach, digging my fingers into the wet sand. We sit together for a moment. She silently looks at me.  I gaze endlessly back. No words needed.

Indeed, Zion highlights the immense beauty of the late and great Colorado Plateau, in my humble opinion, is the most spectacular and underrated region of the United States.  The journey to the Subway is certainly a stepping stone for further adventures and for many, including myself, it may be just the beginning of something far, far greater than what you came looking for in the first place.