Rescue on the Subway at Zions – Part 1
Preparation, Initial Approach, and Russell Gulch
The Top Down route of the Subway at Zion National Park is an amazing 9.5 miles of hiking, rappelling, climbing, and ice-water swimming. It’s also the most popular backcountry hike in Zion, and for good reason, which is why we decided that it would make the perfect excursion for our anniversary weekend. And it definitely became a memorable experience, even if it wasn’t in the way that we had expected.
Before going on any canyoneering trip, there’s a lot of preparation. Tye and I had felt unusually nervous about this trip so we were extremely prepared (extra clothes, food, wool socks, emergency blankets, medical supplies, etc.). You might have thought that we would just cancel the trip with all our extra anxiety but we had both prayed about whether we should go and felt good about going. (I know, I know, feeling nervous and good about a trip at the same time sounds weird, but that’s how it was.)
The day before going down the Subway we went to pick up our permit from Zions. We had reserved our permit a couple of weeks in advance and had no problem getting one (evidently there aren’t too many people going down the Subway in mid-March, probably due to the fast, high water and more treacherous conditions which we were going to get a good look at later). The ranger handing out permits tried to scare us out of going and said, “if you make it, call us and let us know the conditions.” If you make it…that lady was super intense and scary. We weren’t too worried though, the guys we were renting our gear from said that people were going down the Subway every day. No sweat!
Then we went to pick up our gear from Zion Adventure Company who were extremely helpful and just all-around awesome. They gave us dry suits (my new favorite gear item), hiking shoes, and a dry bag. We also scheduled a shuttle ride with them from the parking lot at the end of the Subway up to the beginning of the hike.
Initial Approach Hike
The next morning was beautiful and we were feeling a lot more confident. We had joined up with another couple (M & D) on the shuttle and were glad to have bigger numbers. The sun was just beginning to come up as we began and it was absolutely beautiful.
We started at the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead and hiked along the Northgate Peaks Trail. It was invigorating to be hiking through the trees and over small streams in the crisp morning air. And the views were incredible.
We quickly made friends with M & D and were glad for the companionship. We kept telling ourselves over and over again that there was safety in numbers, and we even laughed about it. We didn’t know at the time how true those words were.
Descending Russell Gulch
The scenery starts to change as you leave the Northgate Peaks Trail and begin descending down the slick-rock formations of Russell Gulch. This part of the hike lasts for about two miles and I was so glad to have my hiking shoes with 5.10’s sticky rubber. Those shoes were made for sandstone and they make walking on it a breeze (no slippy slidey for me!).
Russell Gulch is an incredibly wide slick-rock valley with so many layers that it’s sometimes hard to know which direction to go but Tye and D got us through with their mad map skills and the cairns (rock stacks) let us know we were going in the right direction.
The rock formations here were amazing with different bands intersecting and building on top of one another. Nature is really remarkable.
Near the rim of the canyon we scrambled down a steep decline into the lower mouth of the Russell Gulch watercourse and made the brief hike to Left Fork. It was time to put on those dry suits because we were going to get wet!