As I’ve mentioned before, every National Park has its own signature hike or moment. For Yosemite, it’s the Mist Trail; for Death Valley, it’s Golden Canyon; for Mojave National Preserve, it’s the Ring Loop Trail; for the Grand Canyon, it’s the South Kaibab or Bright Angel Trails; and for Zion National Park, the signature hike is Angel’s Landing. If that didn’t get your attention, this will: in my opinion, Angel’s Landing is not just a signature hike just for Zion, but a signature hike for all of Utah; and is definitely one of the top hikes in the United States.
Now, having placed my reputation again on the line regarding this hike, let me give you the disclaimers! First, like any signature or “must-do” hike, Angel’s Landing is not a hike where you will find absolute solitude: there is a 95% chance that there will be other people on the trail with you. Does that mean you shouldn’t hike Angel’s Landing? Of course not! And, if you time it right, and there aren’t other people on the trail with you, you can feel very lucky.
Second, and most importantly, unlike Golden Canyon, the Rings Trail, or the Mist Trail, Angel’s Landing is not a hike for beginners. Nor is it a hike for anyone with a fear of heights. The reason it is not hike for these classes of people is simple: the final stretch to the summit is up a very, very steep section of trail with long drop-offs on either side. While the National Park Service has installed cables that are secured to the rock face of the mountain, there is limited space to stand, and due to the popular nature of the hike, it is likely that people will be ascending next to you, or attempting to descend down the same route you are attempting to ascend. It is one of the worst places for a panic attack, which is why I caution any prospective hiker from attempting this trail should they have a fear of heights, or limited to no experience in ascending or descending steep mountain terrain. It is a great hike, and it is safe, so if you are looking for a challenging trek and great views, this is the hike for you.
Directions: Zion Canyon is only accessible by foot, bike, or the National Park Service bus service that runs the length of the canyon. Unless you are looking for a real challenge, I suggest that you take the NPS bus to the Grotto bus stop. From the bus stop, the trailhead for Angel’s Landing, the West Rim Trail, is located across the road. The trail first crosses over the Virgin River, providing you with a great view of the peak. From that point, the trail heads up a series of meandering switchbacks toward Refrigerator Canyon. This first mile of trail is paved, and provides great views of the Virgin River, Zion Canyon, and from the turn into Refrigerator Canyon, great views of the trail itself. While this first mile of trail is steep in places, it also serves as an area where many of your fellow hikers will decide how far they are traveling. This section of trail is somewhat exposed to the sun, and on a hot summer’s day, many hikers will get tired and turn back either before or at the beginning of Refrigerator Canyon.
After the first mile, you will enter Refrigerator Canyon. Why is this section of the hike called Refrigerator Canyon? High, sloping red rock walls shade the canyon continually, leaving the ambient temperature five to twenty degrees cooler than being in the direct sun. I personally love this portion of the hike, and always take time to listen to the rustling leaves of the trees present, or the babbling seasonal runoff that is present in early spring. Continue to follow the trail through the canyon to its second most infamous section, Walter’s Wiggles. It’s a testament to the extreme drop-offs present at the cables that this feat of trail engineering is the second most infamous section. The twenty-one switchbacks of the Wiggles provide great views of Refrigerator Canyon below, and great views of the surrounding red rock walls. Once you reach the top of the Wiggles, you will be at Scout’s Lookout, which has two things: bathrooms (but no water), and a fantastic view of the direct final climb up to Angel’s Landing. At this point, you will have ascended two (2) miles, and will have only a half mile (.5) left to reach the summit. However, as you will see from Scout’s Lookout, this half mile is almost straight up over a section of exposed rock on the spine of the mountain. I personally like to call Scout’s Lookout, “Should-I-Stay-or-Should-I-go” point, because it is precisely at this point a majority of hikers are deciding exactly that question.
The last section of trail heading up to the summit is very, very, very, very steep. I am not trying to scare any potential hikers/climbers, but it is worth noting that people have indeed fallen to their death from this point. Only you and you alone can judge whether you have the physical – and mental fortitude to proceed up the trail from Scout’s Lookout; but should you elect to proceed, you will be rewarded with a feeling of accomplishment and a great view. As noted above, NPS has made this section as safe as they can with cables affixed to the mountain, but there are steep drop-offs on either side of the spine for this section of trail. Watch your footing; watch where you are placing your weight; hands; and watch your balance. Once you have traversed the cables, you will find yourself a short walk from the summit, where you can admire the view of Zion Canyon and the Virgin River before traversing the cables back down to the trail and to the Grotto bus stop. The total distance of this hike is 5.4 miles roundtrip, and you will gain 1,488 feet in elevation.
Tips: Did I mention this trail is steep and not for the faint hearted? It is. In the summer, Zion can become very hot, so be sure to take plenty of water for the ascent, as a majority of it is quite exposed. As noted above, take proper precautions when traversing the cables; the area can become quite congested with ascending and descending hikers. Also, be sure to allot enough time on the summit blocks to relax, enjoy the view, and eat lunch, dinner, breakfast, or whatever snack you have brought with you. Do also note that the summit is home to numerous chipmunks and ground squirrels that would love nothing more than to share your food with you and are quite friendly. Do not be overly startled by their inquisitive presence, especially near the edges of the summit!