Famagogo Takes the Subway

The most incredible hike you probably will never take

Kathy Holcombe  |  05.03.2015

The sound rips me from my sleep.  Actually this is the third time in half an hour that the repetitive, screeching alarm sounds, but this time, I realize we are LATE!  I elbow Peter in the ribs and shriek, “We’ve gotta go, we’re late!”  We both launch out of bed and the frantic morning scramble ensues, maneuvering around each other in the tight quarters, fumbling in the dim light to locate the clothes we carefully laid out the night before.  Abby starts to stir and climbs down from her bunk, adding to the chaos.  Within 15 minutes we are out the door, wolfing down our breakfast on the way as we make the morning commute to the Subway.

We tear down the dirt road, a trail of lingering dust marking our path, mentally going through the morning checklist of things to do:  lunch – check, water bottle – check, backpack – check!  When we arrive, there is only one other car in the parking lot and the sun is just starting to raise a golden cloak of light across the landscape.  We’ve made it just in time. With a heave, we don our backpacks and and set off down the narrow path leading into the backcountry wilderness of Zion National Park.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR3016.Abby and Kathy leading the way into the wilderness of Zion.

The trail meanders through large conifer trees, rising and falling over ridges across the rugged landscape.  At times it fades across vast expanses of ancient petrified sand dunes, punctuated periodically with small, teetering rock sculptures, known as cairns, that mark the path.  The route finding is ambiguous at times with multiple trails leading off in different directions, occasionally vanishing completely.  We have a rough description of the route in the guide book with vague directions:  “look for the rock pinnacle in the saddle, cross the ridge here and then drop into the gorge below”.  As we look around we are surrounded by pinnacles and gorges and wonder which rock outcrop to aim for.  We turn to the right following a faint path and scramble down into a gully.  After a few minutes of crawling on all fours down several rocky ledges, we find ourselves walled in on either side with 30 foot cliffs soaring above, and a 100 foot shear drop ahead.  We have reached a dead end.  We retrace our steps, back to the last obvious cairn and search for the correct trail.

PH1_0460Cairns serve as beacons, guiding the path through the petrified sand dunes.

We scramble up a small sloping band of rock for a better view and voila, a promenade of sandstone stretching out to the horizon, amply lined with cairns marking the path: it’s a virtual expressway complete with navigational road signs leading us directly to the Subway.  We followed the small towers of stacked rocks for another mile, every step leading us deeper into the gorge.  We come to a steep drop where the trail again vanishes into the bowels of the canyon.  However, this time it is not a dead end, rather a precarious pathway dropping into the abyss almost 500 feet below.  To call it a trail is a definite stretch, rather more of a worn impression weaving a delicate course down the dirty cliff face.  The loose dirt and rock are occasionally perforated with exposed roots and embedded rock, giving an impression of stability in an otherwise perilous descent.  With careful steps, we meticulously work our way down the shear drop.  Once safely on the valley floor below, we continue on as the canyon narrows with cliff walls looming above us like skyscrapers, and a chaotic jumble of rocks strewn across the valley floor impeding our progress.

PH1_1431The canyon walls constrict in on us rising up like skyscrapers on either side.

PH1_0592Kathy and Abby navigate a sandstone promenade en route to the Subway.

PH1_0771Abby meticulously makes her way down the steep, dirty gully.

Even with the ambiguous route finding and rugged trail (or lack there of), the first two miles are just the warmup act, with the real challenges awaiting us further down the canyon.  As I walk along the canyon floor, I notice a bone lying on the side of the trail.  It has been bleached white by the sun, and I think it is probably the rib bone of a deer.  I call Abby over to check it out and we decide that with a little duct tape it will make a great tool to attach our GoPro camera, giving us just a little more reach to show the tight quarters of the canyon, an improvised selfie-stick.

DCIM100GOPROG0213710.A rib bone makes a great improvised selfie stick.  Hey, when nature throws you a bone, use it.

Around the next bend, we reach the first true obstacle of our descent.  We hear another party approaching from up above and realize that we are about to have company on our wilderness experience and quickly remove the equipment from our packs in preparation for what lies ahead.  Even with the sixty degree temperatures, we are gearing up for the cold:  fleece underlayers and dry suits sealed with latex gaskets at the neck and wrists that cover everything from our chin to our toes protecting us from the icy water running through the bottom of the gorge.  Over the dry suits we don harnesses, fasten our helmets and are ready for what lies ahead. As efficient as we are, a party of four rounds the corner just as we are preparing our ropes for the first rappel down a 20 foot drop.  They look at us quizzically, ask why we have climbing harnesses and, clad in shorts and tee shirts, use the rope we have rigged to lower themselves hand over hand down the drop.  Feeling a bit overdressed and certainly over prepared, we rappel down the first drop.

PH1_0862Kathy and Abby gearing up in preparation for their descent into the canyon.

PH1_0823Abby rappelling down the first obstacle in the canyon.

The other party moves quickly ahead as we coil our rope, and as we continue down the canyon, we find ourselves alone again.  The canyon narrows so much that with our arms extended we can touch the towering cliff walls on either side.  The river running through the canyon is now unavoidable and we are thankful for the warmth of our dry suits as we plunge into the icy water for the first time.  We frolic through the undulating slot canyon, joyful with anticipation for what lies around the next bend:  an icy plunge into a crystalline pool, a rappel down a blocky jumble of rocks, a channel carved deeply into the canyon floor.  We face a steady barrage of one glorious experience after another as we press on through the gorge.  Even with the protection afforded by our drysuits, eventually the cold begins to seep through and we find ourselves shivering in the damp, shadowy chambers, and wondering how the scantily clad party ahead of us is faring.

DCIM100GOPROG0163613.Kathy taking an exhilarating plunge into the icy water of the canyon.

PH1_1393Kathy and Abby exploring a carved trench in the canyon floor.

Ahead, we see beams of sunlight illuminating the canyon floor and we race to bathe in the warmth of the sun and ward off the chill that has settled deep into our bodies.  After sufficiently defrosting, we forge ahead to the second obstacle just down the canyon:  a ten foot drop over a boulder wedged into a constriction.  Fortunately there is a fixed rope already in place, however it is below the lip of the boulder and cannot be used as support until you navigate down the slippery rock constriction.  After a desperate scramble over the boulder, I manage to grab onto the rope and clumsily make my way safely to the pool below.  Abby is next.  As she is wrangling the boulder,  her foot slips and she plunges into the water below.  She comes up all smiles, but a little cold after fully submerging in the deep icy water.  Peter navigates the drop flawlessly in true mountain goat fashion.  We swim together through the pool, and as we round the next bend are are frozen in our tracks by the incredible beauty of the sight before us – we have reached the Subway.

PH1_1680-EditAbby stands in awe of the beauty of the Subway.

It is obvious where the name comes from:  the rounded tunnel formation with striations that mimic the tile often found lining station walls coupled with a beam of light emanating from a bend in the cavern, give the impression of a subway tunnel with an oncoming train.  Abby and I run ahead to explore the surreal tube, splashing through the puddles racing ahead to see what awaits around the corner.  Abby discovers that at some point a warm springs has entered the canyon transforming a series of flooded potholes into miniature natural hot tubs.  Peter lingers behind taking in the beauty through his photographer’s eye.  It is the perfect spot for an afternoon lunch break.

PH1_1511-EditThe Holcombes taking in the sights of the subway.

PH1_1287Abby soaking in a “hot tub” she discovered in the subway.

We are only a little over half way through our nine mile journey, so after an hour of R&R, we pack up and continue downstream.  Within minutes we come to the last major obstacle of the canyon, a thirty foot rappel down a vertical rock face.  After the final roped descent, the canyon walls widen and we find ourselves scrambling down countless red rock ledges lining the riverbed that create a thousand miniature waterfalls.

PH1_1760Abby leading the way down the red rock ledges.

The last three miles of the route criss-cross the river countless times as the gorge widens. After seemingly endless steps, a rugged, steep trail emerges on the right leading us up a weakness in the canyon wall.  We crest the mouth of the gorge, and spot Winnie the View just as the sky erupts into a kaleidoscopic display of orange, yellow and red – certainly a celestial celebration of our accomplishment. We crawl into our rig tired, hungry and completely content with yet another incredible adventure under our belts, a beautiful opportunity afforded by a life well-lived on the road.

PH1_1812Abby and Kathy scrambling up a weakness in the gorge as they make the final ascent out of the canyon.

PH1_1868Home sweet home never felt so good after yet another successful adventure.


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  1. scott Posted on 05.04.2015

    Okay, so now I don’t need a guidebook. I’ve copied off your pages and will use them after I hit the Zion permit office with Heather and whatever younger member joins us;) You’ve hit your stride with the photos and narration. Beautiful and personal. Part journal, part guide book. Love it!!! Just had 2 days on Lower CC this weekend. Can’t wait to see you on the Ark.