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, autumn day when we caught the Zion National Park shuttle to the Grotto trailhead—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 did creep up on me a few times.
We stepped off of the shuttle and headed for the Grotto Trailhead—a footbridge spanning the Virgin River took us to the beginning of the West Rim Trail. 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 by lazily. 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—it’s a welcome relief for summer hikers, but it can be a little chilly for those hiking in spring or fall. As we hiked through the cool corridor, we admired the beauty of the high walled canyon and of the stream flowing alongside 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.
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.
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.
Sook and I took our time scrambling up and over the “step of faith”, climbing higher and higher along the perilous ridge until 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—we had overcome our fear and I was enjoying the view from the summit of Angel’s Landing with my wife, 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 we 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 other hikers, as people were very good about waiting for others 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!