Twig Adventures

Hayduke Bonus: Zion Canyon & The Subway, Zion National Park

Wednesday Oct 11th-Thursday Oct 12th, 2023
Total distance: 12 miles

Day 1: Zion Canyon Day hiking, 2.5 miles

After finishing our Buckskin/Paria hike, Worm and I headed straight back to Zion National Park (well, besides a long pit stop for AYCE pizza in Kanab). We had just enough time in the afternoon to drive to the park headquarters and take the tourist shuttle into the main canyon. On the way, we went past Checkerboard Mesa, where we’d ended our Hayduke hike a few days beforehand. We couldn’t continue to the official Hayduke terminus of the Weeping Wall because a 2018 landslide destroyed the trail. We also had a timeline to make our permitted dates for the Buckskin Gulch hike, so we put off our Zion tourist travels for later…which was now.

A short visit to the Zion canyon was just the perfect filler for the end of this day. By 3 pm, there was no longer a line for the shuttle bus and the crowds were mostly gone. We didn’t even have trouble finding a parking spot. We rode the (mandatory/no private vehicles allowed) shuttle straight to the Weeping Wall stop, not bothering to get off at any of the other points. The canyon was indeed very scenic and unique, but the built-up nature of it certainly didn’t rank it above any of the other fantastic and pristine canyons I saw on the Hayduke. Technically, this was my first visit to Zion, so it was nice to finally see the tourist parts. We made the short trek (0.4 miles RT) up to the Weeping Wall, which was a large alcove with dripping water and maidenhair ferns. Again, it was nice, but we’d already seen such miraculous spectacles as the Thunder River and Deer Creek falls, so it paled in comparison. This was mostly just a trip to check-off a box. Thru-hikers are very picky when it comes to these kinds of things, and I was no exception.

We took our requisite finisher photos, but were more interested in getting back on the bus to ride to the end stop at the Virgin River. Rather spontaneously, we decided to walk a few miles up to the narrows (mind you, we’d already covered about 7 miles down the Paria to Lees Ferry this same day). I was wearing my camp shoes and not even a daypack. Worm was smartly shod in his best flips. In essence, we were the epitome of unprepared National Park hikers, which we were just fine with. We passed dozens of people on their way back from their hikes up the river, most wearing the tell-tale rental equipment: bibbed hip-waders, ‘water’ boots, and thick hiking staffs (I checked later, and it’s around $60 a day to rent this package). Such attire made us look even more out of our element. Nobody could have guessed the journey we’d taken to walk here from Arches. I could barely comprehend it myself.

At the point where the paved path ended and the river walking began, we ventured in a little ways. I could tell I’d already experienced the same landscapes countless times in all the previous slot canyons. I can’t imagine how the Narrows was any better that what we saw in the Barracks on the East Virgin River…minus the 100’s of people. So we didn’t bother going far. Besides, we still had much more planned for this day and the next. I could have managed a few miles in my camp shoes but flips were definitely a no go, especially since neither of us had our trekking poles. I did have to laugh when I later read this on the outfitter’s webpage:

The best Footwear Rentals available!

“I am so glad I rented the footwear! I can’t believe I thought I could do it in my sandals or running shoes.”

We hear this phrase day after day. Not all footwear is created equal. We have curated and designed the lightest, most supportive, fastest draining, and protective shoe for hiking the Narrows and you can rent it today for your hike already packaged with a hiking pole and our proprietary neoprene hiking sock.

For the record, I walked over 800 miles through such terrain in plain old Altra trail runners, and even about 8 miles in my Vivobarefoot Ultra minimalist pink camp shoes. Running shoes do just fine for walking in rivers, in fact, I would much prefer them to boots! And what the hell is a ‘proprietary neoprene hiking sock’ anyway? My $10 neoprene socks that I got from Amazon did just the trick. Marketing claims are often a bunch of BS. But I will whole-heartedly agree about the practicality of a hiking pole, especially for walking in water of unknown depth and around quicksand!

Demonstrating my proper footwear
The Middle Virgin River canyon really was beautiful

We walked fast on the return, logging about 2.2 miles RT. That’s probably about par for the average distance most tourists do in the park. But I wasn’t done! Earlier in the day, when we’d finally gotten cell service, we discovered the most incredible news from Sky and Leah. While we were traipsing through Buckskin and Paria Canyons, they had finished the Hayduke through the Barracks, scored 4 lottery permits for The Subway, and taken a half-day rappelling course…all in the same day! Now that’s monopolizing your time. The permits were for Thursday (the next day) and we were invited!

Even though I was quite unprepared for a semi-technical canyoneering route, I readily said YES please! I trusted a lot in Sky and Leah’s ability to learn the skills one day, then turn around the next to teach them to me. After all, they were already experienced at rock climbing and scrambling. Thank goodness they were up to the task and so kind to invite us along. Worm understandably decided that he’d like some more practice at this sort of thing, but volunteered to be our shuttle driver. The way everything seemed to perfectly fall into place once again, how could I say no?

So after our Zion day hiking, we were back on the road to drive over an hour to Hurricane to meet up with Sky and Leah for dinner. We reunited at the River Rock Roasting Company to reminisce about the latest installments of our Hayduke hikes and resurrect our hiking bubble. Hiker reunions…I just love them! Afterward, Worm and I contemplated a stealth camping site but it was very cold outside and the wind was absolutely ripping. He could just sleep in his van but I needed a protected place to pitch my tent, not an easy find in the dark on the outskirts of town. So I splurged on a last-minute hotel room at the Roadway Inn. With such an incredible hike coming up the next morning, it would have been fool-hardy not to get a good nights sleep. Plus, I wanted a hot shower. Worm opted to sleep in his van in the parking lot but I was happy to be able to offer the shower and the room for him to hang out in for the morning. It was the least I could do to pay him back for all the logistics he’d taken care of, including our shuttle the next day (of course, I also paid him for all our split-costs).

Day 2: The Subway, 9.5 miles Top-down

I’ll let the NPS website sum up this very notorious route: “Left Fork (Subway) Top-Down Canyoneering Route. This is a very strenuous 9.5-mile through-hike that requires rappelling skills, 60 feet of rope, and extensive route finding experience. The route also requires swimming through several deep pools of very cold debris [^tarantula]-filled water. The route begins at the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead and ends at the Left Fork Trailhead. Both are located on the Kolob Terrace Rd.”

Many of the incredible pictures that come from Zion are taken in this canyon, for good reason since the canyon walls arch overhead to create a nearly perfect tunnel-effect – a subway. I’d only briefly heard about this route from reading Katherine Cook’s description. She was the only Hayduke hiker that I knew had done this canyon at the end of her journey, but I’m sure there have been others. And now us! Initially, I had blown-off the notion of such a thing, since I was lacking the skills and equipment. But thanks entirely to Sky and Leah, here I was, doing it too! After all the doubts I had about myself in completing the Hayduke, not only had I managed to finally do so (with flying colors), I was also going for broke on a real canyoneering route! I couldn’t think of a better capstone project to end the Hayduke, demonstrating all our acquired skills, both old and brand new. Plus, traveling down a rugged canyon was the classic experience of the Hayduke, the quintessential part of the equation. Here’s another great description of the route, with some navigational pictures from the descent into the canyon (I wish I’d studied this site in better detail before I did this route, but in my defense, I had less than one night to prepare).

Early in the morning, Worm and I enjoyed the small but sufficient continental breakfast at the Roadway Inn (waffles!), then I jumped in Leah and Sky’s subaru to drive to the park headquarters to pick up the permits. Incredibly, I didn’t have to rent a single piece of gear, thanks to my friends. Leah and Sky’s rappelling class had set them up with harnesses, wetsuits, helmets, and a rope. Sky had 2 different sizes in wetsuit bottoms (in case one didn’t fit), so I was able to borrow a pair. Worm graciously offered his climbing harness that he had in his van, and with that, I had pretty much all I needed. Granted, I could have used a wetsuit jacket, but at least the bottoms were enough to get me by for a day.

We drove to the lower trailhead (endpoint), left the Subaru there and piled into Worm’s van for the shuttle to the upper trailhead. After all this, we probably didn’t depart until 1030 am. Most descriptions said it would take us 6-12 hours, but I honestly didn’t have any concerns about being short on time when we set out. In fact, the idea never even occurred to me. I didn’t pay attention at all to the time…I only know roughly based on the time stamps from our pictures. The distance seemed like nothing and I was fairly certain I could pick up the rappelling skills pretty quickly. Looking back on it now, I can see that I was probably way over-confident, but everything still panned out perfectly. Our Hayduke skills certainly kicked in from the start, as we made short work of the route-finding to the canyon. I have to admit, I didn’t do as much research as I should have, but Leah and Sky were given a good set of directions by their instructor the day before. The landmarks were pretty easy to follow based on this. I don’t like relying on others for navigation but in this case, I was in very good hands.

Working our way down into the canyon

Once in the canyon, we immediately had a good opportunity to go over the basics of rappelling before adding in the complication of landing in a freezing pool of water. There was an anchor and short ledge down to a sandy bench that was just perfect for this. There were actually quite a few places that we rappelled where we could have probably found a spot to scramble down instead. But after all the sketchy scrambling I’d done on the Hayduke (Saddle Canyon chockstones), it was actually much easier, preferable and safer to rappel. Why not if we had all the equipment? Plus it was good for us to practice these skills, especially me.

Leah and Sky efficiently showed me the ropes and we were on our way! The technique was pretty easy and the heights didn’t bother me, but I became pretty hyper-focused on their instruction to never let go of the trailing ends of the rope…one could start sliding uncontrolled and die. OK, point taken. I would not be reaching into my pocket at any point to take a selfie. Also, I still had a lot to practice in getting the initial set-up of the rope correct. But the going down the ledge part came to me pretty naturally. It felt so much safer than much of the downclimbing I had done.

Sky and Leah were great instructors…we all had such big smiles on our faces all day long.

After the first (dry) rappel, we went down a little ways to where it was necessary to don our wetsuits, which we’d been carrying in our packs. When my friends first invited me on the trip, I kind of blew off the idea of needing a wetsuit. After all, I’d picked my way through so many canyons without needing one all year. I’d gone for many swims in alpine lakes and was pretty practiced at withstanding frigid water. But after my first plunge into one of the pools, I was so glad I had a wetsuit. Even with the 5mm bibbed bottoms and a fleece over them, I was really cold by the time we reached the Subway. I should also add that I put my phone in a dry bag at the beginning of the canyon, so I didn’t take any pictures until the Subway near the end of the technical part. With the more superior phone (a Pixel), Sky ended up being our official photographer, hence almost all the good pictures are courtesy of Sky.

The first couple of plunge pools were so much fun! We quickly caught up to and passed a family of 3 just before the pools. We over-enthusiastically dove in, where Leah nonchalantly (typical of her dry-humor and wonderfully British demeanor) remarked about the dead tarantula floating in the pool. “Oh Cool!” I followed with and immediately swam over to inspect. Well, it wasn’t quite dead, just partially drowned and frozen. We could see that it was still twitching a little. Hence, a 3 person rescue effort to save the large spider was directly initiated. Days earlier, I’d rescued a black widow from a dirt road, so why not? I love all animals, what can I say?

Our efforts shortly caught the attention of the family behind us, and apparently the teenage daughter was deathly afraid of spiders. Her mother actually started insisting that “we remove the spider now!” followed by very impatient decries that we weren’t acting fast enough to spare their daughter’s impending trauma. Who did she think we were, a highly skilled spider extraction team, dropped in at their bequest? I admit that maybe we were bumbling around a little, first trying to get the spider to grab onto a stick, then attempting to build a raft for it. We needed to send it over a small waterfall to the next pool, which was proving difficult. I suppose we could have just picked it up with our hands, since it was so bedraggled, it probably couldn’t have hurt us. But I didn’t want to find out what an evacuation from a technical slot canyon due to a spider bite reaction looked like.

The mom was outright shouting at us by the end. We just laughed and blew her off. I mean, we were doing them quite a solid, after all. What would they have done without us? Probably just not have noticed the spider. At one point, I felt like winging it through the air at them, just to see the response. But on second thought, I didn’t want to torture the spider any more. Here’s an idea: maybe don’t rappel down a dark, dank canyon if you’re so afraid of spiders! Jeez. I just don’t understand people that go outdoors (like really out there in it), and then are shocked and appalled by outdoor things. At last, we got the spider safely to shore and laid it on some sand to hopefully recover. I wonder if the family didn’t come along behind us just to step on it, but we didn’t stick around, eager to get away from them. What a funny but weird experience.

The rest of the trip was drama free, thank goodness. There were so many incredible pools and about 3 more fun rappelling points. Leah was absolutely ecstatic about jumping into the pools and it was a pleasure to see her raw joy. For the little time I’d known her, she’d always been so cool and collected, it was a change to witness her playful-side. I was too chilled to jump into every pool just for fun, but I certainly took my share of necessary dunkings.

Leah prepares for another dunking. We called this the Toaster plunge. Photos by Sky

We caught up to another group of 3 women at a really narrow section, and they kindly stepped aside to let us go by. They made a comment about the lack of dudes this day and we all just smiled, knowingly. We had to negotiate a short but tricky rappel down a waterfall and another drop into a pool with a big log. I couldn’t help but note that all 3 in the other group were on the shorter side, and that ironically in my group, I was the shortest at 5’9″. It seemed like we were able to move slightly faster in this section particularly, aided by our height. Despite this, I got the feeling that everyone in the other group was a bad ass, too.

The last ledge was by far the tallest and scariest at about 30 ft. It was a pretty flat wall, not tricky at all, but somehow my mind nearly dumped all that my friends had taught me and I struggled with the set up. Maybe I’m being to hard on myself but I wished that I’d nailed it by this point. Regardless, we all got down safe. The semi-technical part of the route ended at the most spectacular part of the Subway. For those that don’t have repelling skills and equipment, you can hike up the canyon to this point. But I was so grateful for experiencing it from the top-down. It was just so much fun and beautiful. Sky again took all the capstone pictures of this most mesmerizing part. It was absolutely stunning.

Photo Credits: Sky

As soon as we broke out into the first sunlight, we stripped off our wetsuits and soaked up some rays. My goodness did it feel good. My teeth were chattering uncontrollably by the end. We took a long break to warm up. According to my pictures, it was around 2:20 pm when we finished the technical part and we didn’t start walking again until after 3 pm. I still wasn’t paying attention to the time or distance, so little did I know we still had about 4 miles to go. The other group of 3 caught up and were nice to take our picture together in front of a waterfall. I wished that we still had all our gear on for the picture. Oh well. We chatting with them for a bit. They were all from Seattle and seemed like really fun ladies.

Continuing on, I went from one extreme to another: freezing then hot. Well, maybe just finally warm…I didn’t mind it! We followed use trails most of the rest of the way but still needed to cross the creek numerous times. The lower part felt way more tedious, then again, we covered twice the distance in the same time. The description said it took most groups 2.5 hours from the Subway back to the car park, and that was pretty spot on in our case. It was a little past 5 pm when we arrived, so I guess it took us just under 7 hours total, which was on the fast side relative to most estimates I read. We exited the canyon at a sign marking the trail up the ridge to the Left Fork Trailhead. As promised, it was a steep, hot climb but much easier than most of our canyon exits had been on the Hayduke. At least there was a trail. At the top, we caught up to the 3rd group of the day. One member was yelling someone’s name at the top of his lungs. They all asked if we’d seen a man on the way up, but we hadn’t. They were worried he was lost and I wondered if he’d missed the exit sign and continued down canyon. There wasn’t much we could do to help, so we just went back to the car and drove down the road to Hurricane. It kind of put into perspective how easy things can go wrong, yet the day had gone so perfectly for us. This was what I’d come to expect from our Hayduke group…all Rock Stars! I was most grateful to Leah and Sky for bringing me along and I can’t express how much it meant to me. THANK YOU!

I was also so glad I didn’t have to rent gear, as we would have needed to drive a ways in the opposite direction to return it. Leah and Sky were able to return their gear to the instructor in Hurricane, after which we stopped at the cafe one more time to have dinner with Worm. One last reunion….awe. At least for this year. We were all eager to make some miles since Leah and Sky were driving back towards California and I was getting a ride with them to Las Vegas, to fly home the next day, Friday the 13th! Worm stayed a few more days to explore the area with his van. H re reported later that he’d tried to go back to hike the Narrows the next day, but the line for the shuttle was already hours long at 6 am, so he gave up. Crazy. I feel like I really lucked out with my Zion experience, getting to do and see all the best things with almost zero planning at all. These last couple of bonus hikes were really an amazing reward for finishing the Hayduke! Perhaps after all the blood, sweat, and tears before and during the hike, maybe I earned a break with everything being so easy and chill in the end. And fun!

Again, thanks so much to my new friends and companions on this resurrection section hike. I was so glad I came back to finish the Hayduke in the fall and the experience completely turned around my whole outlook on it. Instead of being a thing I felt regret and remorse about, it became a hike that I’m most fond and proud of. I’ll write more in my updated Summary and Stats post. Thanks for reading!

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