There’s no hike in Zion that’s more famous than Angels Landing. Reaching the park’s ultimate lookout by way of a knife-edge ridge and safety chains is no small feat. The sense of accomplishment is remarkable. So how could you possibly make that hike more adventurous, and the reward more rewarding? Just add some snow.
Zion National Park is located in southwest Utah, about an hour east of St. George. From Interstate 15, take exit 16 (or exit 27, if you are approaching from the north). Follow Utah Route 9 through Springdale and into the park. Route 9 runs through the park and continues east, allowing access from Kanab, Utah, and US 89.
If you’re visiting in winter, you can drive into the canyon, directly to the Grotto trailhead. Even in the less-visited winter months, you may have trouble finding a parking spot here, so try to arrive early. During the spring, summer, and fall, you’ll need to take a shuttle from the visitor center near Springdale (stop #1) to the Grotto Trailhead (stop #6).
This isn’t a story about just one hike to Angels Landing. It’s about two. Okay, maybe we should call it 1 and 3/4. During my visit in late January 2017, I made two attempts at reaching the end of Angels Landing Trail, and only one was successful. But, both were incredible experiences.
I decided to attempt a climb on my first full day in Zion. I had arrived the night before, during a brief break in waves of snowy weather. Overnight, another snowstorm had moved in. In between the flurries and the fog, you could still see Angels Landing from the valley floor. This view greets you as you start the trail, near the Grotto trailhead.
The first part of the climb to Angels Landing involves a consistent uphill hike. The trail navigates some switchbacks and some curves…
… as you head towards this noticeable cut in the side of the mountain. Get closer…
… and this cut provides a nice break from the snow and ice on the trail. On warmer days, it’s also a nice place to find a little shade.
You’ll also get an appreciation for the hard work you’ve already accomplished. The trail looks straight down onto itself.
Continue through the cut and around a curve…
… and suddenly the scenery changes. Now you’ve entered Refrigerator Canyon. During thehot summer, just the sound of that name provides encouragement. This time of year, however, Zion was in no need of further refrigeration. So, I decided to rename it pizza oven canyon. It wasn’t warm and toasty, but it helped me, psychologically. Also, I think I was hungry for pizza.
On my way through pizza oven canyon, it wasn’t snowing much, but a fresh layer of powder had made everything especially magical. The trail was hard-packed, and relatively easy to hike across. Evergreens and bare branches were frosted with white.
I only came across a few other people, who briefly broke the snowy silence. As soon as they had rounded a corner, the snow absorbed their sound, giving me perfect quiet once again.
If you want to contrast green trees and white snow with red rock, this narrow canyon is the perfect place.
The ease of hiking through relatively flat pizza oven canyon comes to an abrupt end at one of the park’s most notable features. Walter’s Wiggles is a series of switchbacks that allow you to make the final big climb towards Scout Lookout. There are 21 switchbacks, one after another…
… that quickly lift you up out of the narrow side canyon. It can be a tough climb, and it’s made tougher in winter. You may have some icicles and snow hanging above, and occasionally they come crashing down on the trail.
Once I reached the top, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one using the path of packed snow. Some deer were also hanging around, just before the junction of the West Rim Trail. Pass that junction…
… and you’ve made it to Scout Lookout. On this day, there wasn’t much of a view. It was snowing more at this point than when I had left the valley floor. I could barely see the road and the Virgin River, about a thousand feet below.
With at least a foot of snow on the ground, there wasn’t a whole lot to do at Scout Lookout. The path allowed just a couple of spots for looking over the edge, and I wasn’t about to blaze my own trail through the snow with such a big drop nearby. Oh, and here’s something else to think about. When everything is covered with snow, there’s nowhere to sit down.
At Scout Lookout, the treacherous half-mile hike out to Angels Landing begins, and so do the chains necessary for a safe hike. I tried, for a moment, to sit on that first chain, but it proved to be a very difficult balancing act. After a couple of landings in the snow, the seat of my jeans was getting soaked, so I decided it was time to move on. A couple of people came by, and decided not to attempt to go any further. Then, a couple of people came down off of Angels Landing, and assured me the trail was passable. I had a hiking stick and ice-cleat chains on my shoes, so I figured I’d give it a try.
From Scout Lookout, you have to climb up a bit, then down, then up a considerable amount to get to Angels Landing. I successfully made it through the first “up” part, but it was a struggle. Big, wet snowflakes were coming down harder now. The trail was getting sloppier. I looked at the challenge ahead, and thought about what it would be like to slide over the edge and tumble non-stop to the valley floor.
They probably wouldn’t retrieve my body until at least March, I figured.
Nope. This wasn’t happening today. Good thing I had almost a whole week in Zion. I’d try again in a few days.
Just getting back to Scout Lookout was insanely difficult. You’ll notice those chains seem a bit low. They’re in a perfectly good position during the summer months, but when you add a foot of snow, the chains are suddenly a foot lower than your hand. I made my way very slowly down the slope, occasionally contorting my arms and legs into positions that are not desirable. Most of the trip down was spent on my rear. My earlier rear-end dampness seemed like a nice alternative to the current soaking.
Before hiking back down the wiggles, I decided to take a short side-trip up the West Rim Trail. I seemed to remember that it led to some nice views of Angels Landing and the rest of the valley…
… and I was right, even though the rapidly increasing snowfall made it difficult to see much.
I met up with four hikers who were trying to make it to a campsite on the West Rim Trail, another three miles away. By this time, it was going to be dark in just a couple of hours. We were all struggling to hike through the freshly-fallen snow. The West Rim Trail is far less traveled than the route up to Scout Lookout, and there was no convenience of a pre-packed path.
I went far enough to enjoy a nice view of Angels Landing (trust me, it’s out there in the snow), and then I gave up and turned around. I left my new acquaintances as they debated whether to press on or fall back.
The return to the valley was exactly the kind of experience I was hoping for when I planned this vacation. It was a nice long walk, in the pouring snow, surrounded by frosted trees, and silence.
Pizza Oven Canyon never looked so good.
I swear, the rest of Zion canyon is really out there.
All I had to do was safely make it down those switchbacks. By now, this trail was getting much more difficult to hike, because the fresh snow was wet, and not hardened. The chains on my shoes grip nicely into solid ice, but wet snow simply forms clumps around the cleats, leaving me to slip and slide freely.
I did make it down, eventually. Back in Springdale, it was raining instead of snowing. Since there was no hope of a scenic sunset, and I needed to stock up on some breakfast food, I decided to drive back to the nearest grocery store (in La Verkin, at least a half-hour away). It was a long, rainy drive.
I put Angels Landing on the back-burner for a couple of days, until the snowstorms were gone, and the sky had returned to a brilliant blue.
The Second Hike
Same mountain, different day. It was now my fourth full day in Zion, and I was ready to make a second attempt at reaching Angels Landing. The previous day had been cloudy, but not snowy…
… so some of that fresh powder from earlier in the week was gone, and the rest of it had been compacted into ice by a bunch of other hikers. Getting up the first set of switchbacks was pretty easy.
Pizza Oven Canyon wasn’t quite as magical this time. Instead of an even frosting of snow, only some clumps remained on tree branches. Ice and snow were rapidly sliding off cliffs and crashing into the valley below. The sights and sounds had changed dramatically.
I climbed Walter’s Wiggles…
… and made it to the exact same spot where, three days earlier, I could barely see the canyon floor. What a difference!
Angels Landing seemed much more attainable now…
… however, there was still a lot of snow on the trail. If you’re not familiar with this final half-mile out to the end, take note: there’s a 1,000-foot drop on both sides of the trail at this point. And those chains still aren’t exactly where you need them.
In warmer weather, I could almost make it up Angels Landing without using the chains. But on this day, they were essential. I was glad I had a pair of gloves to wear, because the chains were very cold, and every step on the way up required a solid grip — often with both hands.
But, once at the top…
… it’s simply incredible. Not only did I have the best view in Zion made better by a layer of snow, I also had the place almost entirely to myself. Just imagine being here in July, in 100-degree heat, with a couple hundred other people up here with you. If I had to choose, I’d take January.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better up here, I hiked all the way to the end of Angels Landing, and found a snowman! I’m guessing someone built him in the previous day or two, after that big snowfall. Nobody visiting in July gets to take a selfie with a snowman on Angels Landing, that’s for sure.
And how about that view? This shot looks north, up the canyon, towards the Temple of Sinawava.
Since Angels Landing is in the middle of the canyon, you can also look south, towards Springdale.
Turn back towards the way you came, and you’re facing Scout Lookout and the West Rim.
You can also glance across the canyon to the zig-zagging trail to Observation Point. This trail is even tougher than the hike to Angels Landing. I saved it for the following day — and if you think this hike was an adventure, you’ll want to read about that one, too.
As great as it was to be at the very top of Angels Landing, all alone, surrounded by snow, I soon realized that there was just one thing left to do. I needed to go down. And that wasn’t going to be easy.
Pulling myself up was one matter. I was pushing against gravity, which meant I had a lot more control over things. On the way down, I would be propelled by gravity, and instead of making myself go, I’d need to concentrate on making myself stop.
I didn’t take a lot of pictures on the way down, because I had my hands full with the exclusive task of staying alive. That trampled footpath up the ridge is essentially a frozen bobsled track with a steep grade and numerous twists and turns. Miss a turn, and you don’t just fly off the track, you tumble down a cliff.
I ended up making most of the trip down by using some strange combination of my hands, feet, hiking pole, butt, and the pre-installed chains and posts. Oh yes, those chains and posts. They can definitely stop you from sliding out of the bobsled course, but they can also pull your shoulder out of its socket or send your legs in two different directions. All of that happened, at least several times, on my way down (okay, I didn’t dislocate my shoulder, but I certainly tried). At one point, I crashed into the legs of some hikers who were coming up the hill, all the while laughing like an insane person. Even though it was dangerous, it was fun. And it was hard to believe that it was really real. Those people visiting in July could never imagine what it’s like to experience Zion like this.
Here’s a look at the drive through Zion Canyon on a sunny, blue day. The up-shot provides a nice glimpse of Angels Landing.
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Hiking up Angels Landing is an essential part of a visit to Zion National Park. Hiking it in winter, during or after a big snowfall, isn’t essential, but it sure is great, and I’d highly recommend it. Just be sure to have good traction devices on your shoes, bring a hiking pole with a tip for snow and ice, and bring your patience — because this isn’t a hike to be rushed.