Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Photographing Utah's Iconic Landscapes - Subway Slot Canyon, Zion National Park

This is the third article in a series of articles exploring how-to photograph the iconic images of Utah's awe-inspiring Colorado Plateau.

Today's subject, the Subway, is a circular, tunnel-like slot canyon cut by North Creek in Zion National Park. Shutterbugs are drawn to this particular slot for it's uniquely curved walls and clear, cascading waterfalls. North Creek, which runs clean and cold when it's not flash-flooding, pours over a series of sandstone steps as it exits the Subway in a quiet chamber of exquisite beauty.

Fallen leaves lend color and intrigue to Subway photos, adding to the already rich palette found in the canyon. Autumn is a good time of year to hike into the Subway because temperatures in Zion National Park are very pleasant. During summer, the long day-hike can be oppressively hot, especially when climbing back out of the creek bed to the trailhead.

The Subway is a slot canyon that can traversed from the top-down, including technical rappels, swimming through cold, deep water pools and squeezing through narrow constrictions; or hiked from the bottom-up, on a meandering trail following North Creek up an increasingly narrowing canyon.

Serious photographers will prefer the bottom-up option. The nine mile round-trip hike (also known as the Left Fork of North Creek) presents plenty of challenge even without carrying a tri-pod and heavy camera equipment.

The trail descends quickly from the trailhead into the North Fork drainage where it dips in and out of the creek bed and crosses the stream countless times. As the trail approaches the Subway slot, the photo-ops get more and more appealing, with tall red and black streaked walls closing in around the picturesque setting. Because the Subway is almost subterranean, photographers will want a tri-pod for sharp exposures. The slow moving water pouring down through the canyon creates a wonderful subject for photos as it cascades over a variety of wild rock formations. Drop pools, narrow rock grooves, and step-like ledges all play with the trickling water to your photographic eye's delight.

Try using long exposures/shutter speeds (between 1/10 of a second and 1 full second in length) and let the flowing water go silky smooth. With the limited light in the canyon it won't be a problem getting these long shutter speeds with full depth of field. Close your aperture all the way down - think f-stops in the f/22 range. A wide-angle lens is necessary to take in the entire height of the slot canyon and works great for waterfall photos. There are lots of opportunities for macro-lens photos on this hike, from frogs living in North Creek, to wonderful patterns and textures in the sandstone.

Note: Because of the popularity of the Subway, permits are required for the hike. The park service limits the number of users to 50 per day to reduce their impact on the canyon and to maintain the quality of the experience. Permits are available at Visitor Center/Ranger Station in Zion Canyon. If you plan on camping near the trailhead, procure your permit beforehand, the ranger station is in a completely different part of the park!

Getting to the Subway:

The Subway / Left Fork hike is located in the Kolob Terraces secion of Zion National Park. Turn left off State Route 9 on Kolob Terrace Road and drive 8.1 miles to the Left Fork trailhead on the right side of the road.

For more information about hiking the Subway contact the National Park Service 435/772-0170. Permits are available at the Visitor's Center/Ranger Station in Zion Canyon.