In much of Zion, 'limited access' means having to deal with the shuttle system providing transportation to specific locations in the main canyon. For those willing to venture off into the wilderness, however, there's the Left Fork of North Creek, and a spot referred to simply as "The Subway".
A wilderness permit is required for entry into the Left Fork region. During the summer months, permits are awarded via a lottery. In late fall and winter, the lottery is not used and permit reservations are easier to secure. There are two approaches. The first, 'from the top', requires rappelling and mountaineering gear. The second, 'from the bottom' only requires a willingness to get wet and stay that way for the day. I recently enjoyed a cold, wet hike to the Subway following this approach.
When I arrived at the Left Fork parking area to start my hike, there was a fresh blanket of snow beautifully covering the desert landscape. The past couple of days had been dreary, but skies were now blue. The walk to the canyon was beautiful. To my surprise, there were more animal footprints than those from people in the fresh show. Soon I arrived at the steep canyon descent. I could tell that returning up canyon would be difficult, but that is an understatement.
Once in the canyon, I began hiking up the Left Fork, ignoring the common wisdom that trying to stay out of the water was a waste of time. I wore neoprene socks and pants, but with temperatures in the forties, I hoped to stay dry. It wasn't long when I slipped on a boulder and got thoroughly dunked. My first lesson was the basalt boulders were much more slippery than the red sandstone boulders. From then on, I avoided water when sandstone was available, but walked in the water when nothing but slick black rocks were present. Occasionally there were trails on one side of the creek or the other that would keep me out of the water for tens of yards. Those were awesome stretches. After a couple of hours, the canyon narrowed considerably and the route became wetter and more difficult. Then, alas, the entrance to the Subway was visible.
The area accessible for visitors was more limited than I expected. After precariously walking through the Subway tunnel, which is coated in slick algae and running water, the slot canyon promptly gets very narrow with pools way too deep to swim in November. But the available section was quite spectacular from both downstream and above. From downstream, there are small waterfalls descending the rock surface toward several pools.
From the top of the Subway, the beautiful light is visible reflecting off the tunnel walls. It is very slippery in this section, and there is no place to get out of the water. I quickly realized the futility of bringing extra lenses. There was no place to change them while in the water. But a 24-70mm was a good choice to have on the camera.
Time passes quickly in the Subway. It is so beautiful it's hard to stop taking pictures. There were five other people there while I was present, and none of them seemed ready to leave either. But I packed up to go, remembering the remnants of an unauthorized campfire I spotted in the canyon, where someone perhaps got stuck for the night. As soon as I began working my way downstream through the canyon, the others followed and we all hurriedly tried to exit before darkness fell. Along the way, two of the people told me they had done the same hike just a few days earlier and had to climb out of the canyon in the dark. Although they began their hike today earlier, the higher water from the recent snow made the hike take considerably longer.
By the time I reached the spot for climbing out of the canyon, darkness had indeed fallen. Three of the other hikers were also there, sharing a single headlamp. Fortunately I too had a headlamp, and we worked our way up the canyon side in pairs, each pair with a light. It was still far more difficult than I expected to discern the trail, and on multiple occasions we had to backtrack and try different routes. At that point I wished more human footprints were present, since they were helpful for finding our way out. Eventually, we all exited the canyon safely with a tremendous experience and hopefully some good shots!
Technical Info:All three shots were taken with a Nikon D800E and a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. Each image was HDR processed from three shots. The first was done at f/8 and 24mm. The second two were at f/11 and 24mm and 27mm, all at base ISO. Exposure times are slow with the low light in the canyon, and a tripod is essential for all shots in the Subway.