Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous; extreme exposure in final rock scramble
Access: Zion National Park entrance fee required, Zion Canyon shuttle to trailhead
The name "Angels Landing" occupies an almost hallowed place in American hiking. The hike/scramble route to the top of this precarious sandstone fin in the heart of Utah's Zion Canyon is one of the most celebrated trails on the continent for both its stunning views of Zion and for the spine-tingling thrills of the route itself. In the last half mile of the hike, steel chains guide a rock scramble along a narrow ridge with thousand-foot dropoffs on either side, leading to a lofty destination high above the Virgin River with nonpariel views of the great walls and cliffs of Navajo Sandstone carved out by the river below. This is a popular hike because it is an extraordinary hike; both for solitude and to ensure safety through the rock scramble sections, I recommend that you visit very early in the day to avoid the masses that ascend the rock during regular tourist hours.
The dangers of Angels Landing should not be underestimated. Many hikers attempt to summit Angels Landing without sufficient water or appropriate footwear. Wear hiking boots. If you don't have shoes with good traction, realize that at multiple points along the trail, your solid footing will be the only thing preventing you from a freefall down to the Virgin River. At least fifteen hikers have died from falls on this trail; a solo hiker died after plunging off Angels Landing into Refrigerator Canyon less than a week after my visit. Hiking when there are fewer people on the fin also helps ensure safety: many parts of the rock scramble do not easily allow for two-way traffic, so it's much better to handle those parts of the hike without constantly battling a stream of hikers going the other direction. If you do not feel comfortable with rock scrambling or you have a strong fear of heights, it would be extremely foolish to try to venture past Scout Lookout towards the summit. Do not attempt to summit Angels Landing when conditions are wet or icy or when lightning is likely.
From March to October, Zion Canyon is closed to private vehicles except to those with reservations for Zion Lodge. A shuttle bus runs from the park visitor center to the Temple of Sinawava, making nine stops along the way including one at the Grotto, where the Angels Landing Trail starts; although this may sound inconvenient the shuttle bus has frequent service and moves reasonably fast and will save you a lot of time that you'd otherwise spend looking for parking in this incredbily popular park. The road is generally open to cars during the winter and the trailhead has parking for over 50 cars, but will occasionally be closed to cars and only open to buses on some winter weekends.
I drove to the trailhead on an early Monday morning, taking the road north into the park from Springdale just as the first hints of light began arriving in the dawn skies. I drove up the canyon and parked at the Grotto and started up the trail before sunrise.
The trail started on the west side of the Grotto parking area. I immediately crossed a bridge spanning the Virgin River and came to a junction between the West Rim and Kayenta Trails. The Kayenta Trail headed southwest towards Emerald Pools, so I took the right fork for the flat West Rim Trail towards Angels Landing.
The next three-quarters of trail were fairly flat as I hiked along the winding Virgin River. Towering walls of Navajo Sandstone rose around me on all sides. The most impressive of these stone faces was Angels Landing itself, a great monolith rising in the middle of the canyon. Observation Point and the Great White Throne were other notable and impressive rock features nearby.
|Angels Landing and Observation Point rise above the Virgin River|
Vegetation in the canyon- and in the park in general- was quite varied. Juniper lined the trail, patches of prickly pear were scattered across the canyon floor, and I found copious sagebrush at higher elevations. A few days earlier, I had noticed creosote growing in the park outside the canyon; the presence of both creosote and sagebrush highlighted the ecological transition zones present in the park between the creosote-covered Mojave Desert and the sagebrush lands of the Great Basin.
|Prickly pear in Zion Canyon|
|Angels Landing Trail|
|Sandstone cave in Refrigerator Canyon|
Here, the Angels Landing Trail headed off to the south along the narrow ridge. A sign at the start of the scramble warned hikers of the risks ahead. The chains started right away, with the trail cut into the cliff face overlooking Refrigerator Canyon. The route was Class 3 scrambling, made substantially safer by the presence of the chains and footholds etched into the rock. However, the exposure on the route was still quite extreme and should be approached with much caution. It's particularly important to be patient with traffic at extremely narrow sections of trail: many areas are not wide enough to accomodate passing or two-way traffic.
|Ridge scramble along Angels Landing|
|Ridge scramble on the way to Angels Landing|
|Looking back along the fin of Angels Landing|
|Observation Point, the Organ, and the bends of the Virgin River|
|Waterfall at Weeping Rock and the Observation Point Trail|
|The Virgin River exiting the Narrows|
|View down canyon from Angels Landing|
|Great White Throne|