A Thousand Words – Hiking the Subway (Zion NP)

It’s been a decade or more since I last hiked into the Subway, a curving slot canyon a bit more than 4 miles from the North Creek Trailhead parking lot. Prior to that last hike I had done the journey about a dozen times with a variety of friends and fellow photographers, and a variety of cameras – from medium-format 120mm film, to 35mm film, to digital. There were no restrictions on the hike back then like there are today. We would typically hit the trail in the dark of morning in late October or early November, taking about 2.5 hours to hike in – shooting while we hiked – and then about 3.5 hours hiking out, shooting anything we had missed or bypassed. Photographing the Subway itself, to do it thoroughly, would take another hour depending on the the size of my group, and whether others had beat us in. That is a basic description, but there was so much more to the actual hike. Here is my anchor image.

This image is from the front of the Subway looking back into the chamber. It is my favorite view because it shows the wrap-around eroded rock feature that gives the Subway it’s name, as well as the step-down pools inside. The Subway can also be reached from above, coming down the Wildcat Canyon Trail and descending into the Subway via ropes and some technical climbing. Since I’ve never been into technical climbing I chose to hike up.

Back in the late 1980’s, when I did most of my trips in, the trail was only intermittent at best – being washed out each spring due to flooding. The trail begins easy enough, following the top of the bluff for a quarter mile before suddenly dumping you at the top of a high ridge face that you must descend. I don’t know how far down you go, maybe 600 feet to the river – possibly more, but only previous hikers boot tracks and some thin dirt trails give you some sort of map to follow down. Once at the river you begin to hike upstream, sometimes on sandy trails, sometimes over boulders and logs, and many times it was easiest to go straight up the creek – wet boots and all.

There are dozens of little pools and waterfalls as the canyon around you gets narrower the farther you go. There are times when the canyon walls pinch in, forcing you to climb up and around impassable boulders and deep pools. After a couple of miles, but still short of the Subway, the marvels of soft rock (Navajo Sandstone) erosion are all around you. The first couple of times through it was difficult for me to pass these amazing natural formations knowing something better was at the end of my journey. One location stands out, Archangel Cascades – and it is impossible to pass without shooting. The Left Fork of North Creek comes down stair-stepping waterfalls for about 35 yards, and since the only way by is to hike right over it, I always stopped to shoot it. (below)

Knowing the weather the previous day and at the time of my hike was critical, since making a mistake could cost me my life. Sudden thunderstorms, especially during the monsoon season in late summer, would send torrents of water down the creek giving hikers little time to get to high ground. Lives have been lost on the Subway hike, and there is no “escape” from the tight canyon once you begin to get close to the Subway – other than going straight up the side canyon walls.

Once I hiked it in the middle of a hot southern Utah July day with a friend of mine (1988). Being young (29) and mostly swimming back down the creek to keep cool saved us – but it was a near thing. Going in the fall usually means the weather is cool, the leaves are changing colors adding another element to the images, and the creek is low – revealing all the little twists, turns, and pools along the creek. But I’m not the only one who knows that, and in recent decades an online sign-up to limit entry is now in place making it difficult to get a permit at certain times – like October/November.

This is the view from inside the Subway, out. There are some photography skills you need to have to properly photograph the Subway and the Left Fork of North Creek. (1) It is dark inside the Subway, and along much of the trail due to the high ridges blocking the sun – so shooting with a steady, sturdy tripod is an absolute necessity. As an example, the anchor image was a 30 second exposure – and Archangel Cascades (above) was a full second. You can’t hand-hold at those slow speeds given a quality iso of 100. I don’t shoot for the album, I shoot for the wall – so quality is what it’s all about.

(2) Proper use of a polarizing filter is important to knock down the water reflections that would normally ruin these types of reflective images. The polarizer is usually a 2-stop loss in shutter-speed and requires you to continually check it by rotating the outer glass to make sure the correct angle is being used for each different composition. (3) Because these are slow shutter-speeds, using your camera’s self-timer (I use 2 seconds) eliminates the need to lock the mirror up to reduce vibrations. (4) While I’ve shot perfect exposures using a hand-held meter like a my Sekonic light meter and a gray card, bracketing is probably the safest way to guarantee yourself a near perfect exposure with each composition. Due to the darkness inside the Subway, I normally bracketed around -1. That keeps the shadows where they should be and doesn’t turn the image into a neutral gray (dull) image with no shadows.  A test image can help.

Looking back on my images I’ve found myself at peace in knowing I’ve done a decent job of photographing this unique geologic feature – and that I will probably never have to hike into it again.

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About brentrpaull

Professional Photographer
This entry was posted in Photo Safaris, Photography Skills, Stories from the Field and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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