Shooting Zion: The trail up to Subway

The Subway slot canyon is one of the iconic locations for American landscape photographers and I made it one of my core Zion recommendations in the Utah parks book. But there are lots of great shots on the trail up to Subway that give a sense of the area — and that I couldn’t fit in the book.


“If you want to shoot Subway, be prepared for some serious hiking. The park literature says, “This strenuous 9-mile round-trip hike requires route finding, stream crossing, and scrambling over boulders.” That description doesn’t begin to cover it. Essentially, you’re following a stream up the canyon to Subway. But this is a wilderness area, the trail isn’t marked….”                      from the book

At the beginning of the hike, you head several hundred feet down a steep trail till you get to the stream at the bottom of the hill. This bottom area is a canyon with bit of a trail on one side of the stream or the other leading up-valley to the Subway slot. And as the park literature tells you, there is “route finding” involved in figuring out the easiest was up this canyon. Classic understatement.

The bottom section of the hike wasn’t as interesting for me as a photographer. But in the last third of the hike, the canyon narrows and the only way up trail is over one or another of the numerous waterfalls — like the one above. I’m using the word “trail” here but by now, there is no trail. You’re walking up the stream bed for most of this section.

So the bottom line is, expect your shoes to be wet a lot. But also expect some excellent photo locations. The quiet spot below was a bit of a dead end– there’s no easy way over the boulders. But it was a nice detour.


This spot is closer to Subway:


By now the valley walls are too steep to hike so you have to make your way carefully over the algae-covered rock layers of the stream.

When you get to the spot below, you’re at the “cave” entrance.


Notice the way the walls curve at the bottom. That’s the reason Subway gets its name — because the erosion has carved a Subway-like groove in the rock.

It may not be obvious from the picture but the valley floor is all stream bed. At this time of year (mid-October), the water’s only an inch or two deep. In spring, water flow cranks up and can be an issue for hiking.

On the right side of this section of stream bed there’s a long fissure in the rock bottom that is a popular landscape photography subject. I chose a shutter speed of 1/10 sec at F-4 in order to enhance the sense of flow:


Now you’re ready to enter the slot canyon and start the shoot:


The guy with the tripod is standing in the general area where most Subway shots are taken from.

Here’s one of my alternative Subway shots:


The image I use in the book is a more abstract rendering of this unique slot canyon. But this version gives a better sense of the environment within the cave and the way the slot curves into the light.

My book version is here:

You can see David Muench’s shot of Subway as at the bottom of this page in his portfolio:

My new book goes into far more detail about the Subway trail, best time of day to shoot and the various composition issues. And I do similar treatments for 6-8 shooting locations in each of the Utah parks — Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef. But that’s all you get in this shameless teaser.

Expect the book in May

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