Thousand foot drops offs on either side of the 2 foot wide, sandstone trail. For a half-mile, you have to try your hardest not to look down as you hike along the hog’s back ridgeline. The only thing that keeps you from tumbling over the edge are the intermittent chains that are drilled into the rock. But if you make it to the end, you will be shown a view of the Zion Valley below that you’ll never forget.
This past January, my girlfriend and I visited our first National Park in Utah, Zion National Park. The trip was quite spontaneous, having only planned the weekend’s adventure a few hours before we hopped in the car. This meant we had little to no time to plan what we were actually going to do in the park. But we expected to figure it out on the fly and maybe ask a ranger or two what we should hike. But we never got to ask a ranger for help, because we drove into Zion on January 20, 2018. The day the Federal Government shutdown. To top it off, it was forecasted to rain all day long.
We spent that day exploring and hiking the area around Weeping Rock, into the Hidden Canyon, and out to the Emerald Pools. Though the rain allowed us to see another side of Zion with the water flowing off the rocks, we knew still were missing something. We were missing the view from the top of Angels Landing. The trail is a strenuous 5 mile hike that climbs up 1,600′ from the valley below. It’s essentially the crown jewel of Zion, which means that during the popular months, it becomes heavily trafficked. Which, in my opinion, makes this trail even more dangerous than it already is. So if you find yourself here during the peak season, make sure you hit this trail really early or late in the evening to avoid the traffic.
Starting from the Grotto Trailhead, you can follow all the other hikers over the bridge that crosses the emerald blue Virgin River. Enjoy the easy hike on the paved portion West Rim Trail that follows along the river. I personally am not a fan of paved trails, as it is a reminder of the exact opposite reason why I’m in nature. But I get it, no trail in the desert could handle the amount of foot traffic this trail gets each year. Eventually, you start switch backing up the side of the wall that faces the Zion Valley. Up and up, you climb until you pass into Refrigerator Canyon. You can wander into the caves and slots to your right as you pass through the shaded and cooler portion of hike. You’ll eventually come up on the pretty unique portion named Walter’s Wiggles. I’ve hiked on many mountains and in many countries, and never have I hiked up such a unique set of switchbacks. It’s 21 consecutive steep switchbacks that take you up to the Scout Lookout, where the hike really starts to get interesting.
Until this point, you’ve only seen the Zion valley from a few hundred feet up. But as you walk to the edge of the railing at the lookout, you get an incredible view of how the Virgin River carved its path through the rocks. A unique perspective how high you really are at that moment. Across valley, you can see the river bend around the Organ and Echo Canyon. But the hike doesn’t end here, it only has just begun. You’ll turn onto Angels Landing Trail for some of the most exhilarating hiking you can do in the United States. For the next half mile, you get to hike along an exposed ridge line. If you are afraid of heights, I wouldn’t to recommend this trail one bit. Looking over the edge, there’s nothing but thousands of feet of air below.
Most parts of the trail require you to grab hold of the chains that are bolted into the wall, and shuffle your feet sideways around corners and along edges. Twisting and turning up the ridge. The trail really does have something new around every crest and corner. Some sections require you to scramble up the sandstone surface, grabbing onto anything that will help. The real fun begins when someone else returning from Angels Landing needs to pass by. Obviously, make sure you’re in a safe position before you let someone pass by, otherwise an unstable position could lead to both of you taking a tumble over the edge.
If you manage to keep your wits about you, you’ll make your way up to a peninsula in the sky where the trail comes to an end. There’s no signs or trail markers, just a look out that tops nearly every other view-point in the park. When you reach the Angels Landing, you’ll have a panoramic view of the entire park below you. You can see the Virgin river far below in the Zion Valley disappearing over the horizon. And at that moment, it feels like you’re levitating over the valley floor because of the shift in perspective. No longer are you contained by the valley’s orange walls. There’s nothing around you, and at the same time, you’re surrounded by everything. Angels Landing is a stunning, challenging trail, and it makes for an even better place to eat your lunch. After it rained the entire day before, we were ecstatic to be able to safely reach the top of Angels Landing, and in warm, sunny weather. Not bad for January.
Oh, and don’t forget, you need to go back down the same way you came up. And it doesn’t get any easier! But if you get lucky, you might even get to see the nests of the Californian Condors tucked away on the rocks above the Angels Landing Trail. On our descent, we saw to massive condors mating 20 feet off the trail! Another reason why this trail is so awesome!