Heading out: yhe sandstone blade of Angel's Landing cuts an imposing silhouette from the base of the trail — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
On precipitous hikes, particularly in sections where single file is the necessary order, you are often at the mercy of your fellow climbers. And so when the man just ahead of me started having trouble, my outdoorsy elation was put temporarily on hold. I paused, wary.
"This is crazy," he said to his companion, hushed, increasingly edgy, head swiveling – a cornered animal looking for an escape hatch. It was an exercise in futility.
"This is crazy. This is crazy…!"
Serious business: considering the volume of hikers, Angel's Landing has a great safety record, though the most recent fall fatality occurred just this past March — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
She seemed fine, but concerned. As was I. As were the next few people behind me, because all of us were clinging to chains on the side of a mountain, a thousand feet above the canyon floor, and his mounting panic was something we all could smell.
It’s not altogether dissimilar from what you sense in a zombie movie, when a group tries to maneuver undetected among the dead. And everything is going swimmingly. Until one of them freaks out ...
Not long before, we’d all been chucking along with ease. Well, most of us.
Views of Zion Canyon get prettier, and the trail steeper, as you climb — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
The first two miles of the Angel’s Landing trail – one of the most thrilling and well-known hikes in Utah’s Zion National Park – are paved and well-maintained. It’s easy walking, as long as you can manage its oft-impressive incline.
An early morning departure is the best approach. Even in late April, chilly morning temps give way quickly into unrelenting, high desert sun well-matched to the unrelenting ascent. The aptly named Refrigerator Canyon provides a cooling respite and some shade – along with some mercifully level walking – before the path makes the turn into Walter’s Wiggles.
Stairway to heaven: the first half of the hike isn't dangerous, but much of it is quite steep — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
"Are these the wiggles?" I heard a few harried hikers wonder aloud, necks craning upward.
The famed series of 21 short, steep switchbacks are named after Walter Ruesch, Zion’s first superintendent, and creator of the Angel’s Landing trail. The elevation gain in this section, a picturesque, zig-zag carved into what would otherwise be a sheer cliff face, is 250 feet. It was something of a marvel when constructed in 1926, and the daunted faces at its base speak volumes. Near 100 years later, Walter’s Wiggles are no less imposing.
Thankfully, for every hiker you’d rather avoid, there are at least three who make the journey even more pleasant.
The festive sound came cascading from the top of the Wiggles as I was in the last quarter of the climb. Making happy haste in their descent, a band of merry minstrels, their leader strumming cheerfully, broke the morning silence. Drowning out the huffing and puffing as they passed, they injected my footfalls with a little musical rocket fuel, propelling me to the plateau preceding the final scramble to Scout Lookout.
Lots of folks congregate here; the last bit of level, expansive (read: not scary) ground before chances of vertigo begin to skyrocket. There were several groups, some with meandering children, taking a break as I passed through. This is where that unfortunate hiker should have capped his trek.
When he clogged the artery of hikers behind him – each of us frozen in place as he gazed up, then down, then nervously toward the precipice, clearly wanting to turn around but now unable – it was my hiking partner who spoke up in a steady voice, addressing the troubled trekker without doing so directly.
Where it starts to get hairy: hikers head into the final stretch before Scout Lookout — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
"He can’t turn around, there’s no room," my friend said to me, but just loud enough for the man to hear. His tone was even and matter-of-fact, instructive but non-judgmental. The confident voice of a logical conscience.
"There are people behind him. He has to keep going."
As though decreed, the gent calmed, then continued. I gave him a few steps berth in case of a relapse. The chains were cool in my hand, the air cooler, the view astounding. The ledges here were no wider than my size 6.5 hiking shoes. I wasn’t just fearless. I was a mountain goat. I was exhilarated.
And then I was at Scout Lookout.
SCOUT'S HONOR. #Scoutslookout is where the #angelslanding trek ends for some. And the reward is phenomenal, make no mistake. This is about 1,000 feet above the canyon floor. I still had roughly 488 relatively treacherous feet to go, but figured I'd enjoy the views awhile. #hiking🌲 #hike #zionnationalpark #visitutah
This is where most of the pilgrims tap out, and there’s no shame in doing so. The thousand-foot trek to this lofty oasis, in particular that final clamber, is no small feat.
Here you can find a comfortable perch – a reasonable distance from the edge – and, amid selfie-takers in hot competition for the next Darwin Award, enjoy some water and a few handfuls of trail mix while you soak up the truly spectacular views.
And if you’re planning to earn your wings at Angel’s Landing, this is a beautiful place to contemplate that last, crucial half-mile.
Dreams of Stone: My 23-Year Journey to Arches National Park
Dreams of Stone: My 23-Year Journey to Arches National Park
Even from here, the hikers are ants weaving along the narrow spine of the ridge and the towering trees that sprout impossibly therefrom. You’d think it would look less imposing than it does from the canyon floor. It doesn’t.
Signage doesn’t help. Hapless plummeting stick figures and statistics about deaths along this trail ward off many, I’d imagine. But not that many. I left my partner at Scout Lookout, but there were plenty of cheery would-be mountaineers with whom to chat and keep company.
Goodbye, Scout Lookout! This is where the final leg begins — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
Interesting thing: the consideration and friendliness of the hikers seems to increase exponentially with the difficulty and strenuousness of a given route. I’d nearly been shoved aside – more than once – on the Emerald Pools Trail the day before. Here, two feet from a 1,200-foot free fall to certain death, it was all shiny, happy people holding hands.
Portions of the trail are just a few feet wide with thousand-foot drop-offs on both side — Photo courtesy of A.D Thompson
The guy from the chains down below, however, would have been anything but.
Nor would anyone with even a shred of an issue with heights. The route here is decidedly single file – hikers must pause for one another often as those going in one direction finish a stretch before their counterparts traveling the other way can continue. You will say “thank you” and something along the lines of "no problem." A lot.
And stopping, independent of the courtesy, isn’t a problem at all. It’s a pleasure.
The views from each perch are truly staggering. From here, the Virgin River is a snake in the garden, the park shuttle no more than a miniature, Zion Canyon is a vast temple and the peaks of its panorama are Paiute shaman.
Acrophobes need not apply – the Virgin River is majestic from on high — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
In every direction, soft, red-orange curves and coarse, khaki crags; mossy slopes; silvery threads and blinding-white cliff faces – all of it hypnotic enough to hold a hiker in place but for the call of the summit. It compels weary legs to dig a little deeper for the final few feet.
Standing atop the fin of sandstone, which I’d gazed up at in amazement just a couple of hours before, freed the fluttering wings in my center, set to boil what had been percolating since that first step off Scout Lookout.
I took some video – an obligatory and oh-so-careful 360-degree spin in the center – marveling at fleet-footed chipmunks as they scurried about so naturally, but like every shot I framed in the center of my LG, nothing does the park true justice save the eyes.
So I sat and I celebrated, and I savored in silence the spot where someone once said only angels could land.
Angel's Landing was previously known as the Temple of Aeolus. The climb is 1,488 feet; elevation, 5.790 — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson