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Canyons are inherently risky. Flash floods occur without notice on sunny days. Technical skills & surrounding topography knowledge required yet does not eliminate risk.
A Heads Up:
1. Gear: Harness, ATC/rappelling device, 75 foot rope, webbing/rap rings, carabineers, helmet, dry-bag, boots with sticky soles, neoprene socks, wetsuit, dry clothing/fleece, food and water.
2. This trek is not recommended for hikers inexperienced in canyoneering/rappelling.
3. This description is Top to Bottom. The Subway as an out and back from the bottom is non-technical.
"The Subway" journey begins from the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead (7000 feet). You hike east on this easy stretch of the Wildcat Canyon Tr. through meadows and under Ponderosas for just under a mile until the trail hits the Northgate Peaks Trail. Head south on the Northgate Peaks Trail for less than a quarter of a mile and you'll see the Subway Trailhead sign. The trail now goes over slickrock, but it is anything but. The grip is excellent, which is good, because you have to focus on the game of "spot the cairn" in this section of the hike. There is one random sign with a boot print on it. Thanks, that really helps. Heading down, the trail steers toward Russell Gulch and into a forest at the bottom of the steep slickrock slab. Look for the path near a little stream. This part of the path heads under pinyons and junipers. The path leaves the trees and you're back on slickrock for a bit before entering a vegetated area. Soon the trail takes you to an overlook of Russell Gulch. Once at the bottom of the gulch, hike to the slickrock on the east side of Russell Gulch. Look for a big dome-like formation on the saddle to the south. Continue over the slickrock toward the dome. You can pass to the right or left of the dome, but the cairns pick up again on the left as you cruise down a massive slickrock bowl. Look carefully for cairns entering into the vegetated area at the end of the bowl. There are rogue cairns in this area to the right. Stay left...the proper cairn into the foliage will be quite large. From here the trail goes through the trees for about 20 minutes until you see the extremely steep, final "trail" into Russell Gulch on the right. This "trail" is more or less a 300 vertical foot drop. At one point in the scramble down, you will encounter a downed tree trunk to the left, a boulder in front and a crevice to the right. Although some in our group went around the left of the trunk, that method is not recommended because if you lose your footing there, you will plummet many feet to your death. Stick to the right when you see the trunk. At the bottom of this little scramble, you arrive at the confluence of Left Fork of North Creek and Russell Gulch where there is a pool. Hike down canyon and in approximately 1/4 mile there is the Russell Gulch and Left Fork junction where it is very important to turn right to head down the Left Fork of North Creek!
After about 300 yards of hopping VW Beetle sized boulders, you come upon a massive boulder the size of several Beetles, surrounded by walls on both sides. This is what many call the "first obstacle". We found a sling anchor on the right side of the boulder, which we used to rappel down the middle of boulder. In our group, three rappelled, one did a rope-aided climb down our rappel route, and one free-climbed in a diagonal fashion from the center of the boulder to the left toward a pool (away from the sling anchor). We recommend rappelling to reduce the risk of injury in this rugged and remote area.
Enjoy a relatively short walk through the canyon until you come to the first pool. This is where we put on our wetsuits. Of all the canyoneers we encountered in the Subway, we were the only ones who used wetsuits. We were also the only ones who got to enjoy playing like water rats in the pools and who significantly reduced the threat of hypothermia. At certain points, as other folks shivered in the shadows, some of us did cannonballs! BRING A WETSUIT! The first pool is about 30 feet long, followed by a shorter pool. You'll soon come upon a chokestone in the now narrow slot canyon... the "second obstacle". We found "pre-owned" webbing intact and three of us rappelled down about a 12 foot drop into a pool. There is a small ledge part way down this drop, so two in our group climbed down instead. Swimming is required after climbing into the next pool of water. Keyhole Falls will be coming up shortly, the "third obstacle". It consists of a boulder that obstructs a narrow slot. The drop is about 8 feet to the water. We counted three anchors to the right of the boulder, with one being easily accessible. Some of us rappelled down while others simply climbed down our rope. There is a large downed tree trunk coming up wedged like a ramp between the canyon walls that may cause some to act irrationally by belly-climbing up it about 20 feet above the canyon floor. Be careful! Also, you will be in the upper section of the tubular "Subway", with pools of crystal clear water. In case you don't realize you're in it, worry not because more tubular action is coming up... just beyond the fourth and "final obstacle".
As you come out of the upper Subway the canyon opens up a bit into a v-shaped shelf, with about a 30 foot drop into a pool between the arms of the v. You need to bear left onto a log "bridge" and carefully cross over a waterfall to the left arm of the v. Walk carefully downstream on the ledge 20 yards and look for a single bolt that can be used to set a handline to a two-bolt anchor about 6 feet below. All in our group rappelled down this final obstacle; however, we did see one fellow from another group who free-climbed/slid down/bloodied himself further upstream near the waterfall. We recommend rappelling. Once at the bottom of the rappel, you walk through shallow water, once again in the tubular, lower section of the "Subway". Be careful as you take your photographs: one of us stepped into one of several underwater "potholes" in this section and narrowly avoided serious injury to himself and his equipment.
After leaving the Subway you come to what is arguably even more impressive: terraces of small waterfalls flowing over crimson slickrock. You actually hike through and around these waterfalls. Again, use caution. It is in this section that another among us stepped in an underwater "pothole" a few feet deep. He escaped injury but his camera did not. On the subject of cameras, please keep them properly sealed in a drybag. The supposedly watertight plastic camera boxes are insufficient as one of us disappointedly discovered. You will also need a DRYBAG to keep other important items dry: food, fleece, etc.. The end of the cascades is a great place to take off your wetsuit and dry out a bit. After that, the route crosses back and forth over the river and occasionally through the river itself for the remaining few miles to the exit. One in our group described this final stretch the "Indiana Jones" section because you are hiking up, down, through, around, bushwhacking, and sometimes swinging from tree limbs and roots! Just over one mile before exiting the canyon, you will see two truck size slabs of white rock with hundreds of dinosaur tracks in them: bonus! In about 1/2 of a mile you'll cross Little Creek coming down from the right, and about a 1/4 mile after that, you'll cross Pine Springs Wash, also coming down from the right. From here be on the look out for the exit sign on the right in about 1/2 of a mile. You have now made your way down from 7,000 ft at the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead to 4,700 ft. Take a break and soak up in the river before huffing and puffing up the short but steep 400 ft climb out of the canyon. After the climb, it's only about 1/2 mile of level, easy hiking through pinyons and junipers back to the Left Fork Trailhead where hopefully a car is waiting for you!
Special thanks to Mitch Stevens of the Rincon Group, Sierra Club, Southern Arizona, for leading this trek on 18 SEP 2008.
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