Zion: Angel’s Landing

Peter and I hiked separately for our second hikes in Zion. I hiked to Angel’s Landing because I did not want to get wet and Peter hiked The Narrows because he is scared of heights. There are no photos of Peter’s hike because he forgot his phone.

What I can tell you about The Narrows is the following:

  • You will be hiking in a river that may be waist deep and cold.
  • It is highly recommended to rent shoes and a hiking stick at the rental shop located near the pedestrian entrance of Zion National Park’s south entrance. The rental fee for the shoes/stick package was $26.
  • There is no permit required to hike The Narrows from the bottom up. If you intend on hiking The Narrows in its entirety, then read this.

Peter and I arrived 15 minutes earlier at the Zion Park visitors center than we did the day prior and we boarded the 6:45am shuttle. I arrived at the Angel’s Landing trailhead (technically The Grotto trailhead) via at 7:15am and then stood in the toilet queue for 10 minutes. The nerves of hiking Angel’s Landing had all bladders on high alert.

The trail began as a nice leisurely stroll along the Virgin River but quickly turned into long switchbacks. This was one of two sets of switchbacks on the trail.

The trail leveled out after the switchbacks and was somewhat shaded as it cut into a canyon. I intentionally did not educate myself too much on this hike because of the fear factor. The hike to Angel’s Landing is one of the most dangerous hikes in the US. The “summit” of Angel’s Landing is a rocky outcrop located nearly 1,500 ft / 457 m up from the canyon bed. There is a long history of people falling off the narrow “spine” and summit and dying.

The most recent death occurred in February 2018 when a 13-year old girl fell and was discovered by hikers hiking the West Rim Trail at the bottom of the canyon. A quick search online revealed to me that there have been six deaths on Angel’s Landing but that figure is grossly understated. I overheard one hiker familiar with Zion state that there have been six deaths in recent years alone.

This hike is included on almost every “Zion must do” list but it is not for everyone. In my opinion, you must be physically fit to be able to climb up and down the large boulders and pull yourself up steep inclines using the metal chain rails.

The Salt Lake City Tribune published an excellent article on Angel’s Landing which includes a list of “8 clues that you should NOT hike Angel’s Landing.” I agree with everything in the article.

After the nice flat section, the second set of 20 tight switchbacks appeared. These switchbacks are known as Walter’s Wiggles (aka “The Wiggles”) and were named after Walter Ruesch who was Zion National Park’s first superintendent. In 1926, he constructed the trail to Angel’s Landing without any engineering experience. I found the switchbacks quick and relatively easy.

The Wiggles is the last push to Scout’s Lookout. Scout’s Lookout is the stopping point for anyone and everyone who has met one or more of the 8 clues in the SLC Tribune article. I cannot stress this enough: This hike is very dangerous.

From Scout’s Lookout, it is a half-mile (technically 0.6 miles) steep and technical hike to the summit. It is also terrifying even those who are not scared of heights (myself). I stood at Scout’s Lookout and stared at Angel’s Landing for five minutes before deciding to proceed. There was a lot of pep talking that went through my head during those five minutes. My hands were sweating and my heart was beating fast but not in a fight-or-flight type of way. It was more of an “I can’t believe I am going to do this” nervous feeling.

This was the view from Scout’s Lookout to the summit, except that’s not the summit in the foreground of the photo.

The rock shown in the photo is the first incline of two to the summit; the hike from Scout’s Lookout to the summit is sort of like a Bactrian camel (two humps). The moment my second foot lifted from the rock of Scout’s Lookout, I was committed. All or nothing!

There are chain rails that are drilled into the rock from Scout’s Lookout to the summit but only in extremely precarious places. There are sections of the spine that do not have chains so keep your wits about you! Without these rails, the hike would be impossible for all people except for elite hikers and climbers.

I remember the first section where I bear-crawled up a steep rock. Though it was very early in the morning, there were already people descending and causing congestion. I wondered how I was going to get back down but proceeded anyway telling myself that I’d figure it out when the time came.

The trail for the vast majority of the last half-mile is only wide enough to accommodate one person. This is why the hike gets exponentially more dangerous when there is congestion because people have to squeeze together on very narrow slivers of the trail in order to allow others to pass by.

Congestion is the worst thing about the hike to Angel’s Landing and I cannot imagine the congestion at peak times.

There were times when, in order to safely pass someone, people would “hug” the people they were passing. As an example, Person A (stationary) would stand facing the rock with both hands grasping the rail. Person B (the passer) would grasp the rail with their left hand on the left-side of Person A and then take one step behind Person A (whilst still holding the rail on the left) and grasp the rail with their right hand on the right-side of Person A, giving Person A a hug. Finally, Person B would release their left hand and continue hiking.

There were also times when the incline was so steep that I had to pull myself up the rock using upper body strength. I called this move “tow the line” which is not the correct use of the meaning of the phrase but it was like standing on a beach and pulling a boat to shore using hands and a rope. Basically, it was one hand over the other until I scaled the rock. My arms were sore the following day due to this.

In between the two camel humps is the spine of Angel’s Landing which is the most dangerous section of the hike. The trail is approximately 4 ft / 1.2 m wide in this section with 1,000 ft / 305 m sheer drop-offs on both sides.

This is a photo I took of the spine on my descent from the summit just before reaching the second hump (first hump when hiking to the summit).

I do not have many photos beyond Scout’s Landing because I needed both hands to be free at all times to avoid death. I got the courage to take a few photos on the descent because descending is less terrifying than the ascending and I needed proof that I was there.

Below is a close-up photo of the narrow spine:

The photo below was the view of the summit right before the beginning of the spine. If you squint, you can see other hikers. It was at this point when I realized I still had 30 minutes of hiking to reach the summit.

Up until this point, traffic on the trail was self-regulated and working well. Ten people would pass to the summit and then traffic traveling in that direction would stop and 10 people would pass to the trailhead. No one was overly aggressive or dangerous but that all changed the moment I stepped on the spine.

The guy hiking behind me was either fearless or very experienced and was extremely aggressive. He would hike so close behind me that he was almost stepping on the heels of my shoes at times. On two occasions, I moved to the side and asked him if he’d like to pass me and he declined both times and would continue tailgating me when I resumed hiking.

I stepped aside for the third time and told him to go ahead of me and he again declined except my invite wasn’t optional that time. I explained to him that he was pushing me to hike faster than I felt comfortable doing and that he needed to go in front of me which he did.

I do not know how long it took me to reach the summit from Scout’s Lookout but I estimate it was about an hour. It was very slow going and technical.

I had a false sense of relief when I reached the summit. I’d accomplished what I set out to do without dying but I still needed to descend and I knew the trail would be much more congested on the way down.

I also felt a huge sense of disappointment when I reached the summit. The view from Observation Point is better than the view from Angel’s Landing and this is why it is recommended to hike the two trails in the reverse order of what I had done (recommended: Angel’s Landing and then Observation Point).

I spent as little time as possible at the summit because I wanted to get the hell out of there before the trail got super busy.

I connected with two girls for the descent and the three of us stuck together until we crossed the spine. They stopped to take photos and I continued to the trailhead. They liked how I was “directing traffic” and all this meant was that I had no qualms about asking people ascending to stop and let our group descend. As trail congestion increased, self-regulation became less common and eventually there was no self-regulation.

I believe it took about an hour to descend from the summit to Scout’s Lookout and I was happy to see The Wiggles because the trail would be a breeze from that point forward.

I completed the hike in about the same amount of time as I took to complete the Observation Point hike (sub three hours). It goes to show the difference in difficulty level between the two hikes.

  • Observation Point is 8 miles with an elevation gain of 2,000 ft.
  • Angel’s Landing is 5.2 miles with an elevation gain of 1,500 ft.

My best advice is that if you do not feel comfortable at any point during the hike to Angel’s Landing, turnaround and head back to the trailhead.

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