There is only one hike that I was unable to finish. That was the famed Angel’s Landing Trail in Zion National Park. This is the story of what happened.
There are two world famous hikes in Zion National Park; one being the Zion Narrows, and the other being Angel’s Landing. The two couldn’t be more different, though. The hike through the narrows follows the flowing Virgin River through a tall, thin canyon. The hike to Angel’s Landing follows a steep and perilous trail to the top of a tall, narrow, fin-like mountain that juts out into the center of Zion Canyon.
The hike up to Angel’s Landing is five miles roundtrip. It gains about 1,500 feet in that short distance making it a strenuous hike. However, there is far more than the physical aspect of this trek that makes it such a difficult endeavor. The last half mile of the hike climbs a very narrow knife-edge ridge, just a couple of feet wide. The final climb is steep as well, gaining 400 feet en route to a tiny viewpoint 1,500 feet above the canyon floor. There are sheer drop-offs on both sides of the ridgeline, with an 800 foot drop on one side and a 1,200 foot drop on the other.
The precarious trail is equipped with some metal chains, carved steps, and the occasional guard rail. Still, there are many sections of the trail where there is nothing between you and a very long and very deadly fall. According to the National Park Service five people have fallen to their death along the trail, other sources suggest as many as nine people have died there in the last thirty years.
The reason this dangerous hike is so popular are the world-renowned views from the final vista high above Zion Canyon. Panoramic views showcase the surrounding canyon in all directions. Hikers end up eye-level with some of the most imposing sandstone monoliths in the park including the Great White Throne, the Organ, and Cathedral Mountain.
There are multiple warnings posted on the trail that state it is not recommended for anyone with the slightest fear of heights. I, however, have a very real fear of heights. So I knew this would be a mental battle for me. I just hoped I’d be up for the challenge.
I rationalized that if I could hike to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, any other hike should be a piece of cake. Half Dome was definitely the hardest hike I had ever completed, both physically and mentally to that point (but we’ll get to that later).
The hike started off easy enough. I began at the Grotto Picnic area once I hopped off the shuttle. From there I walked across the main Zion Canyon road and headed for a long footbridge. The bridge spanned the North Fork of the Virgin River. The water flowed calm and smooth beneath me as I walked across the sturdy bridge.
On the opposite side of the bridge was a trail junction. The Kayenta Trail led to my left. The West Rim Trail headed to the right. In order to get to Angel’s Landing I first had to hike along the West Rim Trail for two miles before reaching the junction for the half-mile Angel’s Landing spur trail. So, I turned right and started up the West Rim Trail. At first the path was flat and easy. It was paved, too, which is not a good thing as far as I’m concerned. Pavement is considerably worse on my feet and knees than a nice dirt trail. But it is a relatively short hike, so it wasn’t that big of a concern.
The trail ran parallel to the river for a little while. It was already hot out, but there was decent shade under cottonwood and juniper trees. The hike that I had been dreading began easier and more peaceful than I expected, but that didn’t last long.
Just as the trail broke free of the shade it started to ascend the west side of the canyon along several long switchbacks. This was a rough section of trail, because despite it still being early in the morning, the sun was really beating down. I baked in the heat as I slowly made my way up the zigzagging trail. I took solace in the views beside me. The higher I climbed, the better the views of Zion Canyon and the Virgin River became. There were some other hikers on the trail, but not too many at that hour. Even though I felt I was moving slowly, I walked past most of the others I shared the path with. That’s always a bit of a confidence booster.
When I reached the top of the switchbacks I was thankfully redirected into Refrigerator Canyon. That meant I was about a mile into the hike, or halfway to the Angel’s Landing Trail at Scout Lookout. Walking into the comfortable confines of Refrigerator Canyon felt like Heaven after scaling several switchbacks under the scorching sun. This is a shady side canyon lodged between Angel’s Landing and Cathedral Mountain. It boasts tall Navajo sandstone walls that block out the sun, keeping the canyon and its inhabitants cool. Plants flourish, because it is cool in the shade. Even tall Douglas fir grow there. A near constant breeze circulates through the canyon adding to the contrast in temperature, and supporting the canyon’s name.
Eventually, and somewhat reluctantly, I exited the cool canyon and walked back out under the hot sun. I was at my last obstacle before Scout Lookout, the daunting and infamous Walter’s Wiggles. This is a set of twenty-one short, but steep switchbacks. They are nearly identical in size and grade leading up to Scout Lookout. The intricate collection of compact, zigzagging pathways is named after Walter Ruesch. He was the superintendent of Zion National Park who helped design the well-engineered route.
I admittedly was a little intimidated by the set of so many switchbacks rising before me. However, they weren’t nearly as difficult as I expected. Once I looked at them as short singular switchbacks instead of a combination of so many it became much easier. I walked steadily up the first one, which was maybe twenty or thirty feet long with a considerable incline. I then rounded the bend and ascended the next, which was virtually identical to the first. Then I took the next curve in the trail and hiked up the next switchback, and the next, and then the next after that. It turned out that despite them being steep; they were so short that I was able to climb them quickly. I never even had to stop; I just kept walking at a conformable, yet deliberate pace. Sooner than expected I eclipsed Walter’s Wiggles and arrived at Scout Lookout.
Scout Lookout is a large, sandy area high up on the mountain. There were a couple of pit toilets up there. Quite a few people were sitting under a couple of trees taking a break. It was the perfect place to stop and catch your breath. This was also the trail junction for Angel’s Landing. The West Rim Trail carried on far above the canyon floor for several more miles, but I was there for Angel’s Landing.
Many people only go as far as Scout Lookout. It rests on a natural saddle that connects to the large hump of the fin that makes up Angel’s Landing. There are plenty of incredible views to take in from Scout Lookout without going any farther. The panorama extends far into Zion Canyon in both directions, and up to the fully exposed and treacherous Angel’s Landing.
I sat in the shade for a little while, snacking on trail mix. I may have stayed longer than I should have, because I spent a lot of time thinking about the last half-mile ahead. It probably would have been better if I started right away, but I was stuck there thinking about the sheer cliffs, the thin uneven path, and the long drop-offs. Worst of all, I thought about the people who had fallen to their deaths in the last few years. That’s not exactly the best thing for someone with a serious case of acrophobia to do right before embarking on an extremely exposed trail lined with dizzying drop-offs.
In my head I kept going back to Half Dome and the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park. Those were two hikes I had completed in the past that required long stretches along exposed cliffs. Angel’s Landing would be different though.
Eventually I made my move. I started up from the saddle toward the summit of Angel’s Landing. Things immediately got a little dicey. I approached a large rock outcropping that extended out over the steep cliff. There were chains linked through steel poles bolted into the sandstone monolith. I clutched the metal chain and passed over my first obstacle. I was nervous, but I made it across without too much trouble.
I continued onward and upward towards the mountain’s miniscule summit. I climbed up and over jagged rocks and grasped rusty metal chains. I wasn’t too far along the half-mile to the top, but I thought I was off to a great start.
Then I approached a narrow spot with a 1,000 foot drop beside it. There was a chain bolted to the cliff. I inched forward and clutched the chain so hard that my white knuckles were cut up by the sandstone wall. My fingers were raw and nearly bleeding.
It was soon after that when I encountered a stretch of the huge rock fin’s spine that was impassable for me. It was a vicious combination of a very exposed section of trail with a huge drop-off, a thin area to walk over, and some low hanging chains (that looked useless). I started to attempt it, but my leg would not move. Without even realizing it, fear had temporarily paralyzed me. As afraid as I was, I still planned on moving on. Yet, my body continued to refuse. My knees grew weak and my legs shook with panic. As much as I wanted to reach the little island in the sky that day, it was not meant to be. My body told me to turn back, so I did. I wasn’t able to fully enjoy the views along my ascent, because I had to keep my eyes on the trail, but I saw enough and knew I could take more pictures once I returned to Scout Landing.
Once I turned around and started back down my legs came back to life. My body calmed down and I safely returned to Scout Landing. I sat in the shade, guzzled some water, and took a much needed timeout from the trail to mentally recover from my harrowing incident. After I relaxed for a moment I took some photos of the nice views up and down canyon. I didn’t stay long though, I guess because I felt defeated and wanted to head back down to the canyon floor.
I moved back down the trail with ease. Walter’s Wiggles weren’t even bad on my knees on the way down, because the switchbacks were so short. After that, I flew through Refrigerator Canyon, which once again was cool and refreshing. Then it was a quick descent down the long switchbacks under the blaring sun. By the time I crossed the long footbridge over the Virgin River I was a hot and sweaty mess. For a minute there I seriously contemplated jumping into the river.