Thursday, November 17, 2016

Zion's Angels Landing...FINALLY!

We've done a lot of hiking on the outskirts of Zion National Park, but never made any of the iconic hikes inside the park. One of the reasons is that we just don't like hiking with crowds. Another reason is that we find it insulting to pay a $30 fee to enter "public" lands. Yeah, yeah, we know that those fees pay for cool stuff like flush toilets at every trail head, paved trails, fancy lodges, and overpriced gift shops, but in our opinion, those things all ruin a natural area rather than improve it.

However, on Friday, November 11, 2016, there was a rare enter the National Parks for free day. We decided to take advantage of it and see what all of the fuss about Zion's trails was all about.

Our primary goal was to hit the Angels Landing trail. This hike is always described as the most dramatic in the park. It's supposed to be strenuous and challenging in that there are some pretty dramatic drop-offs as you climb to the top. It's a hike we have often talked about doing since we hit the road in 2012. 

Now we almost never do the usual RV "travel blog" posting. There's enough of that out there already, but this was such an unique day, we couldn't resist posting. Someday, this blog post will help us remember this hike even better.

Anyone who has hiked in Zion will tell you the crowds can be a real hassle. We decided to get an early start to try and get ahead of the crowds. We arrived at the visitor center at 7:30 AM and were shocked to see a parking lot that was only 1/4 full. Taking the park shuttle to the trail head put us at the start of the Angels Landing hike at 8 AM. It was 52 degrees and sunny, the weather was perfect,

The trail starts off along the Virgin River and you get a nice view of the top of Angels Landing, dominating the center of the valley. Just 1,500 feet up to go!

A series of switchbacks carved into the cliffs by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1920's carries you up about half way. We've seen work done in the 1920's by the CCC from Maine to California. It's always amazing work that blends in nicely with the surrounding geology. You can't really see the switchbacks in this photo.

We soon had a feeling this might turn out to be a unique day. We were virtually all alone on the hike. Anyone who has done this hike will tell you that is basically unheard of. This is supposed to be one of the most crowded hikes in Zion. We stopped now and then to look back down the Wiggles. No other hikers!

Well, one hiker....

The last half mile of the hike is the famous portion. It features narrow trails with 1,000+ foot drop-offs, sometimes on both sides. There is a nice flat area before the start of the last half mile. The sign at this point warns you about the six people who have fallen and died on this part of the trail since 2004. Susan didn't appreciate it when I wondered out loud "who will be lucky number seven?" This point is known as both Observation Point and as Chicken Out Point. It's your last chance to turn around before the awesome part begins!

We've heard stories about people taking anywhere from 60-90 minutes to make the last half mile to the top of Angels Landing. It's narrow and largely single file. The combination of crowds and fear of heights will really slow you down. On this day, we were able to do it in about 35 minutes with plenty of time to stop, take pictures, and admire the view.

Susan wanted to focus on her foot/handholds, so I went ahead to take the pictures.

Staring up at narrow spine to be crossed/climbed.

Susan on the edge of a cliff somewhere in there.

All the strategically placed chains and notches in the sandstone actually made the climb a lot of fun.

Finally, across the spine to a relatively wide and flat spot!

Even when we arrived at the top....

We were all alone on top for about 10 minutes before two hikers behind us caught up!

Staring over the edge down into the canyon.

1,500 feet straight down to the Big Bend in the Virgin River canyon floor. One of the double section shuttle buses can barely be seen on the road below on the left.

The highest point on Angels Landing.

OK, time to head back down and cross that narrow spine again. Surprisingly, going down seemed a lot less "scary" than going up. 

It became a little more crowded on the way down as some of the later starting groups began making their way up. We ran into a lot of teenagers and 20-somethings having real problems with this hike. Either terrified of the heights or just physically exhausted and sweating like they were in front of a firing squad. It took us about 45 minutes to make it down the scary half mile.

After Angels Landing we were able to ride the shuttles to a few other hikes (The Narrows, Weeping Rock, Emerald Pools). Overall we cobbled together about 12 miles of hiking for the day. These other hikes were interesting for their water features, but nothing as off the charts fun as Angels Landing.

Susan at the Upper Emerald Pool.

I doubt we could ever hike Angels Landing again after this. The weather was perfect (we barely broke a sweat at any point) and there were few other people. I can't remember the last time I was on a hike where there was a grin on my face the entire time. The best parts of the trail were like an adult jungle gym. The other parts were amazing for their engineering, geological, and botanical value. Sure there are some vertiginous cliffs, but the reality is you would be more likely to be hurt on the Tea Cup ride at Disney than you would be making this hike. For us, this was the ideal Angels Landing experience. That's the way we'll always want to remember it.


  1. Thanks for the pictures...I would have liked to hike up there....20 years ago.....The body hasn't kept up with my childish mind...
    Too much social BS for the youngsters....Their thumbs are probably up to the task.....
    Take Care,

    1. Phisically, I'm just a shadow of what I was 30-35 years ago, and I didn't think the hike was particularly strenuous. It was shocking to see people 30-35 years younger struggling so much with it. It doesn't make you feel good about what kind of shape the citizens of this country will be in a few decades from now.

  2. Those sugar beets slowed us down, but they couldn't keep us out of Utah for long! We're on to AZ next and then NM/TX after the new year. Big Bend in the Spring. Let us know if you make it that far west.

  3. OMG. The photo with your hand in it, looking straight down, caused my stomach to land somewhere north of my rib cage. No way, no how for this wussy person. We stayed on level ground & did shorter hikes last year in Zion & Bryce; Dave was having a lot of trouble with one of his feet. Great photos, though -- thanks for sharing!

    Renee & Dave Zittel

    1. Looking over those cliff edges for few thousand feet straight down gives you a tingle similsr to your wedding day! :-)

  4. Nice! Thanks for the post! We plan to return to Utah after we depart Yuma this spring. Utah has nice rocks.

  5. Moving up in elevation from Yuma through Cottonwood, Az and into Utah is always a great plan as the weather starts to get warm again down there.