Well it's that time of year in Colorado where autumn is long behind us but the mountains have yet to get their full coat of winter snow, so I got a little cabin fever and decided to get out and go to Zion National Park in southwest Utah. I had been there once before a few years ago, for a very short trip of less than two full days. The views of the towering canyon walls and peaks left such a warm memory with me that I had to see it again, but this time I wanted to spend some time exploring the canyons and getting to see the area on a more personal level. This included a hike to the famous Subway, as I just had to see it with my own eyes. If you look through the rest of the images on my website, you'll see that I don't typically shoot landscape "icons" like this. I rarely see any people in a lot of the places I photograph (let alone other photographers), and I spend a great deal of effort finding places where I can find new images and views that aren't being seen by the masses. Well, I put all that behind me as there's nothing wrong with seeing a place as magical as this in person. I also went with a friend and fellow photographer, Kurt Stevens, who is mostly a portrait photographer but was glad to come along. I'm going to write this post to give you all an idea of how incredible and rewarding this hike really is, and a few tips if you ever plan to do it yourself (which I recommend!)
We started early, arriving at the Left Fork trailhead about 30 minutes before sunrise. This time of year the days aren't very long so I would recommend getting a pretty early start, especially if you plan on spending some time enjoying the scenery or taking photographs. This is by no means a roadside attraction, it took us all day from dawn to just past dusk to hike the 9 miles through a trail-less streambed. It doesn't sound like very much distance to cover in a day, but when you factor in the amount of scrambling over boulders and route finding you'll be doing it adds some time. Of course I spent plenty of time setting up and taking photos, but in general I would recommend keeping a decent pace throughout the day. Kurt had been here before, so he kept telling me to get moving! Don't forget to get your permit at the Zion visitor center, as it is required by law. They only allow a certain number of people per day (I believe 80) to keep the environmental impact and crowds low, but I would say we saw no more than 20-25 people on the day we were there including the people that were taking the technical canyoneering route from the top down. As far as landscape icons go, this one is no where near as crowded as most of them and requires a bit more effort too.
The hike starts with an easy half-mile of nice trail, then descends very steeply about 400 feet into the canyon of the Left Fork of North Creek. Pay very close attention to where you enter the canyon, you'll have to be able to find the trail and hike up this steep canyon wall at the end of the day. Now you just keep following the river upstream. The sooner you get over the fantasy of keeping your feet dry all day, they quicker and easier the hike will be. At some point you're going to get your boots all wet anyway so don't hesitate to just walk through the river. I wore some neoprene socks to keep my feet warmer. After maybe 2 miles of hiking up the canyon you'll come across this first notable cascade.
This is a great place to enjoy some of the grand scenery, the further you keep going upstream the narrower the canyon walls will become. I believe I exposed more sheets of film on this hike than I ever had in a single day before, as I kept coming across views like the one above. This is where I started to get the feeling that I was somewhere incredible, and it just keeps getting better from here. Feel free to walk right up the cascades like a staircase. Seeing the water flow around your feet and blur the deep red sandstone layers is something special. Ok, onwards! The next set of falls are even better.
About a mile after the last waterfall, you'll come across this amazing staircase of sandstone layers called Archangel Cascades. I could have spent all day here. These cascades are unlike any I have seen before, with just the perfect amount of water flowing off in so many different angles. At this point in the hike I was ecstatic! I was also getting really close to The Subway. Just a little further, but there was one more sight along the way.
This incredible feature called "The Crack" is where almost all of the Left Fork of North Creek rushes through a narrow crack in the rock. Some notes I'd make about this is to photograph it early, before getting to The Subway as the afternoon reflected light may get far too strong depending on what you're going for. I felt the light here had a perfect balance of gold and deep reds, but when I looked at it again later in the afternoon the golds were too overwhelming for my taste. Another note is that because some of the water runs over the rock and moss grows just right, it is very slippery! It took me minutes to find a spot where my tripod wouldn't just slide around, and then my composition didn't work out so I had to keep trying to get the tripod to stay still! Quite a fun challenge. Side note: I managed to survive this entire hike without slipping on wet rock and falling with my feet up in the air. Others were not so fortunate, and I'm pretty sure I saw someone's camera take a quick dip in a pool of water. Alright, once you've seen the Crack you are literally just one more bend away from seeing the Subway.
I'm going to start off by showing you a quick video of the Subway. This is the end point of the hike for those who don't have climbing gear and wetsuits. Hopefully this will give you a little idea of what the inside of this chamber looks like.
A short note about photographing landscape icons: Once we finally arrived at the Subway, it was about the time of day where the people who started miles upstream and were repelling down into the canyon were also reaching the Subway, the mid-point of their journey. This is truly an unbelievable sight to see for yourself, and for many people it may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. When I arrive at a place like this, I'm completely struck by awe just as anyone else probably is. The last thing I ever want someone who isn't a photographer to feel is that they are rushed to keep moving because they are in the way of someone's photo. Please, enjoy it for as long as you want! It's your National Park too, and you've just taken one of the most amazing journeys of your life that not many people will ever be able to do. If you happen to be in my shot, that's my fault for choosing a popular destination or not having enough patience to wait. Places like this are here for all of us to experience and enjoy at our own pace, so don't feel like you ever need to keep moving to get out of the way of photographers.
Anyway, here it is! The Subway! I figured I'd make a few notes about the photo. While I have seen several photos of this place before while glancing through a gallery or website, I made it a point not to do any active research for photos of the Subway before this trip. Actually, it had probably been quite a while since I had seen any photo of it. I didn't want the composition that others used to dictate what I did with my photo. I wanted to see it for myself and decide what I would do from there. Perhaps due to the angle of light at this time of year, the water did not have a very emerald tone but the entrance in the upper center had quite a warm glow from reflected afternoon light. The darker parts of the canyon were filled with a mix of open shade colors from cyan to blue. I decided I would use a warming filter to remove a good bit of those cyan tones, and carefully use a polarizing filter to strengthen the orange glow as well as cut some blue glare from the wet rock. The image above was taken on a film that many of you probably know I have become quite fond of, Kodak Ektar, The image below was taken on one of my last sheets of Fuji Astia, and shows a bit of a different color palette and stronger contrast. Both images were exposures around 30 seconds long at f22. It's pretty dark in there.
That's it! We had to keep an eye on the time and get out of the Subway by 2:30pm to make it back to the car before it got too terribly dark. I wanted to avoid wandering through a trail-less streambed in the dark. All in all it was a fantastic hike that I couldn't recommend enough, and a very rewarding day.
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