Zion National Park – Angels Landing Trail Hike

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A couple of days before I visited Zion National Park in 2004, I was eating breakfast in the dining area of my motel, and struck up a conversation with a few others.  As soon as I told them I was headed to Zion, they all insisted, “You’ve gotta hike the Angels Landing Trail”.  I told them I probably wouldn’t have time, but they insisted.  They talked about the difficult climb, and how long it would take, but assured me it would all be worth it.  I knew that on that trip, I was only going to have about one half of a day in Zion, and there was no way I’d be able to tackle Angels Landing.  But, I reassured my new breakfast friends that I’d look into it.

That was just one of several times on that trip, that I was told that I should, or even must, hike Angels Landing.  When I finally arrived at the park, just as I suspected, I had only a few hours, and of course, I ignored all the advice I had received, hiked a few simple trails, and then drove back to Las Vegas.  But as I left, I swore to myself that I would return–someday–and tackle Angels Landing.

It took three and a half years, but I finally made it back to Zion in August, 2007.  I had planned three days in the park, and I was determined, on the first day, to complete the trail that I’d been anticipating for so long.

There it is.  Yeah, that’s right.  That big rock in the middle of Zion Canyon.  That’s Angels Landing, and from the canyon floor, it only seems impossible to reach the top.

I started early (around 9:30 a.m.) but I should have started even earlier.  Temperatures had been hitting 105o or higher in St. George, and the canyon wasn’t any cooler.  Morning was pleasant, though, and much of the trail was still in the shade.  Since Zion Canyon runs north-south, the sun rises late and sets early–a blessing on hot days.

The Angels Landing trailhead begins at the Grotto bus stop.  It seems like you’re a long way from the mountain, and indeed, it does take a while before you start to gain elevation and leave the canyon floor behind.

The entire trail is about 2.5 miles long, one way.  The first half mile, at least, simply involves getting from the trailhead to the steep switchbacks that begin to lift you up.  Above, you can see some of those switchbacks both in the foreground, and in the distance.

This is where you really start to feel the strain on your legs.  The path may be wide, and for the most part nicely paved, but you’re still gaining at least a foot or two of altitude with every ten steps.  Parts of the trail, like this one, are nothing more than a shelf, cut out of the sandstone wall.

When you arrive at this view, you can pause to appreciate the tough climb that’s already behind you.  You can also breathe a sigh of relief, because at this point, the first stage of the trail is done, and you’re ready to enter the second (and easiest) part: Refrigerator Canyon.

Refrigerator Canyon is a “hanging canyon” — which means it’s a side canyon that opens up into the main canyon, high above the canyon floor.  The path is a little bit narrower here, but thankfully, it’s almost perfectly flat.  And, unless you’re passing through in the exact middle of the day, you’re likely to find some welcome shade here.

Mosey along through Refrigerator Canyon at a leisurely pace, and give your legs a few minutes to recover, because stage two is about to end, and stage three is a duzy!

At the end of Refrigerator Canyon is one of Zion National Park’s most impressive engineering feats: a series of 21 intense switchbacks that take you directly up the side of the mountain.  The view from the bottom is daunting…

… and from the top, dizzying.  You gain about 900 feet in less than a quarter mile here.

Walter’s Wiggles was named for Walter Ruesch, Zion National Park’s first custodian.  The Wiggles was completed in 1926.

Just like giving birth, at the end of the climb up Walter’s Wiggles you’re immediately rewarded with a view so spectacular, you forget about all the effort it took to get here.  The Wiggles ends at Scout’s Lookout, exactly two miles from the beginning of the trail, and a half mile from the end.  Scout’s Lookout is at the end of the long knife that stretches out into the middle of Zion Canyon. 

If you are terrified of high places and steep drops, or don’t think you physically have what it takes to pull yourself up the remainder of the trail, there’s no shame in stopping at Scout’s Lookout.  Yes, the view does get better if you make it all the way out to Angels Landing, but it’s pretty good here too.

Get as close to the edge as you dare.  It’s a pretty long drop to the bottom, so make sure you trust the people you’re hiking with.

I spent a few minutes here, not only admiring the view, but watching the people who had made it this far.  Quite a few of them decided this was good enough, and didn’t go any farther.  Others waited for their friends to finish the trip.  There were a lot of people here–for a strenuous trail, it’s very popular.

The final half mile wastes no time getting interesting.  Immediately, you’re faced with a steep climb up a sandstone cliff, aided by some thoughtfully placed chains.  You will need to use them–the path is simply too steep and the footholds too narrow to make it on your own.

Buy a good walking stick and bring it with you on the Angels Landing trail.  I didn’t take many pictures on this part of the trail, since I almost always had one hand on the chain, and the other on my stick, using both to push, pull, and steady myself.  Using a hiking stick also takes some of the strain off your legs.

At the top of the first short climb, there’s a great spot with a few trees (important for shade!) to take a break…

… and look back at the section of trail you just climbed.  Stopping here is a great alternative to Scout’s Landing, if you’re looking for a less-crowded picnic spot.

This may very well be the most nerve-rattling step of the entire journey.  On either side of that rock, there’s a ridiculously long drop.  The whole thing is probably less than three feet wide.

Photographer Joe Braun calls this the “Step of Faith”.  I’d recommend you check out his gallery of Zion photographs, but you’d probably never come back to mine, so forget I mentioned it.

Now the trail’s getting serious.  You’re climbing directly up the narrow spine of the mountain.  There are just enough chains and hollowed-out steps to make it possible.

Good news!  Once you see these three steps (which take you straight up the side of the rock) you’re almost at the top!

And here it is!  The reward for all of your efforts: a spectacular view down Zion Canyon.

The top of Angels Landing isn’t flat, it’s made up of sloping layers of sandstone.  It’s fairly easy to walk around up here, all the way to the end.

No other viewpoint in the park gives you a spectacular view in every direction.  This picture looks north, into the Temple of Sinawava, and the narrows of the Virgin River.

Directly below is the Big Bend bus stop, and on the right side, The Organ (so named because its rock walls look like the pipes on an organ–at least, when viewed from the ground).

Yeah, that’s a pretty darned good view.  I unpacked a few snacks and spent at least a half an hour here.

Even though a lot of people don’t finish the final half mile, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll encounter a crowd at the end of Angels Landing.  As I munched on my granola bar, I listened to a couple of people talk.  One was a former professional bodybuilder, the other an Ironman triathlete.  While I waited for the strength to return to my legs, they went on and on about how healthy they were, the “fuel” they consumed every day that made it all possible, and the general laziness of everyone else in America.

Moments later, I met another woman who seemed a lot more down-to-earth.  As we talked, she explained how she was on a two week vacation that would end in Yellowstone, but her favorite park was Zion.  She came here whenever she needed to get away from it all, and this time was no exception.  She had just quit a job as a corporate travel agent.  The stress was killing her, so she walked away.  Once her trip ended, she would find a new job.

Forget the bodybuilder and the triathlete.  The ex-travel agent was my hero.

We took pictures of each other and said goodbye.  I turned and faced this:

The climb down was just as tricky as the climb up, but different.  On the way up, you’re fighting gravity, and simply trying to move forward.  On the way down, you’re trying to stop yourself from moving.  The hiking stick came in handy.

I made it back to the Angels Landing trailhead by about 3 p.m.  Five miles, five and a half hours.  It was time for lunch in Springdale, then some more exploring in the comfort of my air-conditioned car.

Note: This trip was first published in 2007.

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