Zion National Park in southern Utah, is truly a breathtaking place. The red mountains are striking in comparison to the blue skies and green cacti that dot the land.
Only an eight hour drive from San Diego, Zion was the first stop on our Southwest road trip, and was a nice warmup to Havasupai!
If you’re planning on going to Zion National Park, you can book a campsite online for $20/night, or there are a variety of lodges and hotels less than 5 minutes from the park entrance. We camped inside the park at Watchman Campground, which had nice facilities, but to be honest the campgrounds were not my favorite by any means. The campsites are nearly on top of each other, and due to the desert landscape, there is very little privacy between campsites. A little desert shrubbery can only tune out so much, and definitely doesn’t give you a feeling of seclusion.
During our stay I wandered through the Southern Campgrounds and took note of the most ideal camp sites. If you are booking campsites at Zion, I’d recommend southern campgrounds sites 68, 71, 72 and 74 as these are right on the river and are decently spread out from each other. The vibe here was much better than that of Watchman campground.
Regardless of where you decide to sleep, I have one major tip for your adventures in Zion National Park: explore the Subway.
The Subway is a beautiful slot canyon hike that is similar to the infamous Narrows in Zion, but the Subway is much more intense and much more rewarding. The Subway is in the left fork of North Creek which is actually outside the visitors entrance to the park. There are two options to explore the Subway, and both options require advance permits and strong hiking capabilities. The first option, which is what Bobby and I chose, is to hike from the bottom up. This requires multiple river crossings, route-finding and a long 9 mile hike. The second, more advanced option is to explore the subway from the top down. This requires at least 60 feet of rappelling into the canyon, and then carrying all of your rope and climbing gear 9 miles out the canyon.
As I mentioned above, hiking the Subway in Zion requires permits. The park limits the number of individuals they grant permits to at 80 people each day. We barely saw anyone on the trail which made the whole experience even more serene. The advance lottery runs must be applied for 3 months prior to your requested date. If you miss the 3 month cut-off to apply for permits prior to your stay, you can enter a last minute lottery, which is what we did. And we won!
If you win the lotto, you will be emailed a confirmation. Your passes must be picked up at one of the Zion Visitor Centers in the park. At the time of our trip and this post, the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center was closed for renovation, requiring us to pick up our permits at the main visitor center on the other side of the park. I’d highly advise that you confirm where you can pickup your passes, and to do so the day before your reservation, because the Subway trailhead is 45 minutes from the main area of Zion National Park.
The Subway is similar to the ever popular ‘Narrows’ slot hike in Zion, but with way more foliage and way less people. Roundtrip from the trailhead and back is 7 miles, and every single one of those is pure beauty.
The first mile is all desert shrubbery, as it takes you down a step descent into the canyon. We were here in the last days of October, and we were blessed with some of the most beautiful fall colors I’d ever seen! (They don’t make em like this in San Diego.) Once you’re in the canyon itself, the trail begins winding alongside the stream, which becomes the trail for most of the route.
You’ll be in awe as you wander through this colorful canyon for the next few miles, and you might even be lucky enough to spot some wildlife! You’ll eventually reach an area of the stream known as “the staircase”, named for its many levels of waterfalls! This is where the real fun begins. You’ll need water shoes here, as you will be submerged to at least mid-calf from here on.
The water is cold as there is very little sun once the canyon walls narrow. Bring a jacket! The trail disappears completely and you walk through the water deeper into the canyon. Once the water begins to pool and the canyon gets no more than 15 feet wide, it becomes much harder to continue hiking. Swimming would be required, and would be welcomed in the warmer summer months! Jump in, splash around, and soak up the beauty around you before you turn around and hike back out the way you came.
Tips for adventuring through the Subway at Zion National Park:
- Secure your reservations for the hike ahead of time (use the lottery system if you miss the cut-off)
- Pick up your reservations from the ranger station the day before your hike
- Wear hiking boots for the hike down into the canyon, it is steep with lots of loose rocks
- Bring your water shoes
- Make sure to jump in!
Happy trails and happy travels!