Zion National Park, Utah
Angel’s Landing—if you have done your research, you know this hike is not for anyone with a fear of heights. You probably also know that it is one of the most unique and thrilling hiking trails in the national park service—the trail to the top takes you along the narrow spine of a geological fin, complete with chains to help you reach the summit of this highly exposed rock formation. The clincher for most hikers is the last half-mile to the top, where you must climb along the narrow ridge that has dizzying drop-offs on both sides—nearly a 1,200 foot drop on one side, and over 800 feet down on the other. When you reach the top, stunning valley views and canyon vistas spread out as far as the eye can see—a spectacular award for those who brave the climb.
It was a beautiful, crisp spring morning when we caught the Zion National Park shuttle to the Grotto trailhead on April 28, 2002—our goal was the highly-anticipated hike to Angel’s Landing. This short dayhike would prove to be one of the most stunning and challenging treks we had ever undertaken. However, the challenge would not be physical, but rather, it would be psychological—you see, the last section of the hike to Angel’s Landing is notorious for raising the fear factor for those who don’t like heights, and indeed acrophobia would play a big factor in whether or not I would be able to accomplish this hike.
We stepped off of the shuttle into the cool morning air and headed for the Grotto Trailhead—a footbridge spanning the Virgin River took us to the beginning of the West Rim Trail. It was 8:06am and we were on our way up the 2.5 mile trail to the summit—the trail itself is mostly paved, unfortunately, but the magnificent scenery of the Zion Canyon is a great distraction from that minor disappointment. The sun was just starting to bathe the tops of the red rock formations with a soft yellow light, the valley lay in the shadow of the towering cliffs, and the river reflected the palette of colors perfectly as it flowed lazily by. The blue sky above put a spring in our step and promised a beautiful day for hiking, and as we gained some elevation the scenery became even more awe inspiring. The steep and winding West Rim Trail provided endless opportunities to stop and take in the glory of Zion National Park—around every corner a new panorama opened up and thrilled the senses.
After hiking for about 30 minutes we reached the 1-mile mark and entered the cool shade of Refrigerator Canyon—a deep canyon with steep walls where the temperature always remains cool—although a welcome relief for summer hikers, it was a little chilly on that spring morning. Continuing on through the cool corridor, we admired the beauty of the high walled canyon, and of the stream flowing along the trail, until finally stepping out into the warm sunlight. Upon exiting Refrigerator Canyon, we were met with the sight of the famous switchbacks known as Walter’s Wiggles—a series of twenty-one compact switchbacks that zigzag their way up to Scout Lookout. Walter’s Wiggles are the perfect place to challenge your stamina by attempting to reach the top without stopping to rest. We decided to take on that challenge, and when we began climbing Walter’s Wiggles, my watch read 8:50am, and 15 minutes later we were standing at Scout Lookout. Pick had led the way, setting a good pace that allowed us to make it to the top of the Wiggles without stopping—as they say, slow and steady.
The Wiggles rise above Refrigerator Canyon until reaching a flat, sandy plateau known as Scout Lookout—the junction between the West Rim Trail and the Angel’s Landing Trail. Upon reaching Scout Lookout, you can take the Angel’s Landing Trail to the right, continue on the West Rim Trail to the left, or as many people have done, stop here for fear of the climb—either way the aerial views from this lofty perch are impressive.
Scout Lookout, the perfect place for a well-deserved break, provides fantastic views of Angel’s Landing and of Zion Canyon below. However, if you stop here for very long you will notice several curious chipmunks that are just waiting to sneak over and steal any food they can find—from their behavior, it is probably a safe assumption that Scout Lookout is a popular place for a lunchtime snack. Despite being little beggars, the chipmunks do provide endless hours of amusement, but if you choose to stop here just beware and guard your backpack.
After visiting with the wildlife, we set off towards the perilous trail to the landing—almost immediately, we encountered a large rock outcropping with the first set of chains. We managed to maneuver across this portion of the climb with little difficulty, which lifted our confidence in our ability to tackle the last half-mile that we had heard so much about. What lie ahead, was the infamous knife-edge ridge that leads to the top of Angel’s Landing—in case you still don’t know, let me describe the last half-mile of the trail. The spine of the fin that is Angel’s landing consists of a narrow sandstone crest measuring anywhere from approximately three to ten feet wide with sheer drop-offs on both sides—heavy chains attached to the rocks serve as handrails along most (but not all) of the drop-offs. In addition, footholds have been carved into the rock in several key areas. After the first scramble up a steep knob, where we gained our confidence on the chains, you reach an unprotected walk across a narrow saddle—the phrase razor’s edge has never been more appropriate. Following the saddle, you resume climbing the final pitch to the summit. Those who lack the stomach for this hair-raising adventure often watch the drama unfold from Scout Lookout—the two of us set off to test our mettle.
Pick started up the narrow edge with no problems whatsoever—she was to be the fearless leader for this trip. I, on the other hand, realized that I did indeed have a fear of heights—normally this phobia only bothers me on manmade structures, such as buildings or ski lifts—I had never experienced acrophobia while on a mountain, or any high elevation hike.
This hike was to be different.
At the very beginning of the ridge, just past the unprotected walk, there is a spot that you have to pull yourself up, onto, and over, a rock with a foothold carved into it—the rock, sometimes referred to as the “step of faith” is a mere three feet wide and the drop-off is thousands of feet down to the canyon floor. Pick, my friend, climbed over this obstacle like it was a pebble on a playground—I was not so lucky. Fear literally paralyzed me right where I stood, I could not force myself to take another step. Pick tried to talk me through it, giving me words of advice and encouragement, but nothing seemed to be able to convince me that I was not going to fall. As I stood there frozen, all I could think about was what if I actually make it over this point and make it to the top but can’t get back down, or what if I freeze again even higher on the narrow trail, what would I do then? We stayed there at that point rationalizing and trying to muster my courage for about 15 minutes (thankfully, it was early and no one was behind us) before Pick came to the conclusion that it would probably be best if I turned around and waited for her in a safer spot. The decision to turn around was literally killing me—I hated to accept the fact that I might not succeed at this hike, a hike that I had looked forward to for so many months! In addition, the thought of watching Pick climb the dizzying ledge by herself was almost as excruciating as giving in to my fear! But the fear was just too much—I handed my camera to Pick, wished her good luck, and then turned around. Dejected, I walked back up to a flat section and sat in the sun near a tree and watched as Pick continued the hike without me.
Sitting on that rock, watching my best friend climb higher and higher up the narrow trail became a waiting game that really started to play with my psyche. I was so disappointed in myself that I literally wanted to cry, and I couldn’t bear to watch Pick hike over the more treacherous sections, so I would turn away for a few minutes and then check back on her progress to make sure she was still going—she made it look so easy! Every so often new hikers would appear to tackle the challenge, each with their own expressions of awe or disbelief. I heard many people exclaim, “We have to go all the way up there?” or “Wow! It sure is steep”, but each one of them continued on, leaving me to contemplate my decision to turn back. At one point, I could no longer see Pick, so I knew she had made it to the top, and I wished that I was there to share the summit with her. As I sat there waiting for her to return, the time seemed to pass by so quickly and what felt like only a few minutes had turned into forty—I could not believe how much time had passed by, but I began to wonder if I had time to make it to the top before Pick started down. If I could only gather my courage and give it one more try, maybe I could make it! I knew if I got past the point where I froze earlier, that I would have a pretty good chance of making it all the way—I had now been able to watch about six people climb the trail, which made me more confident about where to go in certain areas. It was just the “step of faith” that stood between me and the summit!
I picked myself up and headed for the trail, and within a few minutes I was back at the “freak-out” section—I stood there staring at it, desperately trying to decide the best way to go about pulling myself up and over it—I finally decided to just force myself to climb over the damn thing. I grabbed the chain and pulled myself up on top of the rock, and then with shaky legs I managed to get to the other side—I had made it! Now I just hoped I could get the rest of the way up the trail without freezing again, and that I could reach the summit before Pick started her descent.
I was now on a serious mission and nothing was going to stop me! I just concentrated on each obstacle as I came to it, and I tried to make sure that I kept my eyes on my feet and not the drop-offs—let me tell you, this trail is insane, but it is also totally awesome. As you make your way to the summit, there are a few sections where you have to cram your feet into crevices and then pull yourself up the ridge with the chains, but other portions are more forgiving and actually have crude steps worn into the rock. Despite my fear, I was making great time—thanks in part to the adrenaline that was pushing me up the mountain. Thankfully, no other hikers were around me, because if anyone would have been close they would have probably thought I was a raving lunatic—I was talking to myself and breathing heavily due to my fast pace and spazzed-out state of mind. It must have been quite a sight, and looking back, I can see the humor in the situation.
After a mere 10 minutes of climbing, I was almost to the top—I don’t know if that was fast, but it sure felt like it to me! Then, just as I was about to climb the last section below the summit I saw Pick come around the corner on her way down—I yelled out “Hey, don’t come down yet!” At that moment, she looked over, saw that it was me, and started clapping and cheering—it felt good to know she was proud of my accomplishment.
Soon, we were both standing on the summit taking in the phenomenal view—Zion Canyon, The Great White Throne, and Red Arch Mountain can be seen from this commanding point. In addition, the park road and the Virgin River where it forms a horseshoe around a rock formation called The Organ are all visible nearly 1,500 feet below—I had overcome my fear and I was enjoying the view from the summit of Angel’s Landing with my best friend—what more could anyone ask for? (An easier way down maybe—just kidding.) We spent about 30 minutes taking photos, and eating some snacks, before we decided we had better start down—we didn't want to risk descending a busy trail, where the scary thought of having to pass someone on a narrow section might become a reality.
Thankfully, hiking down was not as scary as I thought it would be, even though it was still pretty intimidating, and just as we had anticipated, it was starting to get busy now, and we met several people on the trail. Fortunately, it was no problem getting around each other, as people were very good about waiting for someone to finish a section before continuing. When we made it back to Scout Lookout, we turned around to see what we had accomplished—it was a good feeling to know we made it safely!
Angel's Landing was now behind us, affording us another proud accomplishment and the perfect way to end the day, but before heading back to the parking lot we decided to continue down the West Rim Trail in search of a good view of Walter’s Wiggles. This proved to be a great idea because the scenery along this hike is beautiful. We hiked about a mile or so before we figured we should be able to see the switchbacks—the trail was now mostly over slick rock, so we headed towards the edge in search of our view. Sure enough there they were! We had found a beautiful view of Walter’s Wiggles with no problem—thanks to a tip from the photographer Stephen Bern. (We had contacted him to ask where he shot his famous poster of Walter’s Wiggles and he was kind enough to share his knowledge and expertise—thanks Stephen!) After shooting a few frames of the Wiggle view, we retraced our steps back to the Grotto Trailhead—up next, a burger and cold beverage al fresco at the Castle Dome Café located at the Zion Lodge—the perfect celebration of a day well lived!
We had met our goals for the day, and it was now time to head back and grab a burger and soda at the Zion Lodge to celebrate. We arrived back at the trailhead at 2:10pm and caught the bus to the lodge where we enjoyed a great lunch outside on the patio in the sunshine. I was so proud of myself for overcoming my fear, and of Pick for being so brave in the first place. We could now mark off another hike on our “must do” list. We raised our glasses in a toast and drank to another spectacular hike!