Just over ten years ago, I made my first visit to Zion National Park and managed to miss out on the famed Angel’s Landing hike. We had a few options for hiking, and after hearing that one of them would be a four hour hike with lots of terrifying drops and chains, my friend and I swiftly opted for a somewhat easier one.
The emerald pools were nice, but I didn’t find them all that exciting. The highlight of the hike was my friend screaming, me whipping round in a panic because I genuinely thought she’d fallen off a cliff, and her standing (having not fallen off the cliff) pointing in a frenzy towards a freaking giant tarantula. Back at camp, our guide didn’t believe us, but I can officially tell you: IT WAS A TARANTULA. I know this because while I didn’t see one this time around (so I still have the world’s worst photo of one, and it’s no wonder our guide didn’t believe us), a group on my shuttle did.
Anyway, the tarantula was the highlight because I think we went to the pools at the wrong time of year, as they weren’t very… pool-y. Or maybe they are just disappointing. I didn’t try them again this time.
So we left, not exactly underwhelmed as we’d had no expectations, but not seeing Zion as the highlight that in hindsight it should have been. In fact, the actual highlight (of Zion, not the disappointing hike) was our campsite, roughly a two minute walk outside of the park itself.
A few of our group did go on the Angel’s Landing hike, which at the time I had never heard of otherwise obviously I would have done it (or would I? Teenage Clazz was a lazy cow, I’ll admit it). But they went on to rave about it, as have a few people I know since, and of course any research into the park leads to information about it.
So it was pretty obvious that Angel’s Landing was going to be on my list if I ever made it there again. (Especially because late-20’s Clazz is not a lazy cow.)
But first, we had to figure out what we were going to do. The nearest Walmarts are around 30 miles out of the park, and as we drove into the park in the afternoon for a quick run around, Ash suggested we try the campsite we’d passed as we drove in.
I scoffed. It was a Friday night; obviously it’ll be full. And besides, we can’t go wasting money on a campsite when we could be sleeping in the car for free!
Ash won of course, partly because I didn’t want to do a 60-mile round trip just to sleep for free, but also because the campsite looked beautiful. And ever so familiar…
I didn’t realise until we’d actually booked in for the night, but it WAS the same campsite I stayed at 10 years ago! Not only that, but as if to confirm my suspicion, a familiar looking van pulled in near us and a bunch of young travellers started setting up a number of tents.
As I walked past them, I glanced over. “Trek America?”
“Oh amazing, which tour are you on?!”
“NO WAY!! That’s the one I did 10 years ago! We stayed in this exact campsite!”
After a quick to and fro about highlights of the tour, I took in the view of the sun setting on the gigantic rock overshadowing our campsite.
Sighing, I admitted to Ash that he had definitely made the right call here – and we swiftly booked another night so that we wouldn’t have to rush off the next day.
It meant that we’d actually be able to relax here; something that we hadn’t really done on the road trip so far. Don’t get me wrong; I was loving it. But since San Francisco, we had barely spent more than a day in each place, and it also meant we could do boring stuff like laundry.
In the morning, we were up early. Not too early, because at this time of year Zion does get cold, but we wanted to beat the crowds, and by the time we got to the visitor centre, the car park was already getting packed.
Here’s where Zion was different to last time: they’ve now shut off the road through the actual valley, leaving only the main road through the park open. It means that to get to the best parts of Zion, you have to queue up for a shuttle.
At this time of year, it wasn’t too bad, and although the queue felt astronomically long when we joined it, it very quickly filtered out into the little buses that were turning up often three at a time. There was a park ranger on hand to entertain us with facts and trivia about the park.
Like many other national parks in the US, Zion has been growing in popularity year on year. In fact, in 2017 it rocketed to the third most visited national park in the USA, with a whopping 4.5 million visitors; when I visited in 2008, it was barely 2.5 million. Our ranger said queues for the shuttles were often over an hour in the summer. Can you imagine if they still let cars down that one road?!?
Of course, with popularity come the idiots, which worries me when there’s a “dangerous” hike in the national park. I have to admit that Zion fared pretty well with plenty of prepared visitors. By the time I got to the start of the Angel’s Landing trail at about 11am, lots of people were already back down, having cleverly dodged the midday sun (and probably the crowds). But I saw people scaling Angel’s Landing in flip flops. On a hike that’s renowned for being “dangerous” as well as being packed with people in single-line traffic clinging to chains nailed into a rock, I can’t think of anything worse than having bare feet.
People do die on this hike (I mean, it’s not really a regular occurrence, but it does happen), and that’s why it’s known as a dangerous hike. Truthfully, I don’t think it’s actually that dangerous. But WHY, WHY would you risk yourself by wearing completely inappropriate clothing?! So I say again – the hike is not that dangerous. It’s the people who make it dangerous.
It’s also not THAT tough. If you’re too scared of heights to do the chains section, that’s absolutely fine – most of the hike is actually to a summit below the final “spine” section, and I can promise you a lot of people stop there. I wish I’d known this because Ash would have been able to make it to that summit no problem and you still get incredible views over the valley on the way up.
The final section is only half a mile or so, but naturally it does take a hell of a lot longer due to the terrain and the aforementioned human traffic.
But let’s start from the beginning, because you always hear about the last section.
What really surprised me about three quarters of the Angel’s Landing hike is how easy I found it. A gentle series of switchbacks brings you ever better views of the valley, before levelling out away from the valley, along the side of a cliff through Zion Canyon. Maybe I’ve got fitter, but I found it really easy – and it was all so absolutely beautiful.
Even Walter’s Wiggles, a series of 21 steep but very short switchbacks wasn’t actually too bad (maybe I wouldn’t say that in the summer!!). I stood at the bottom, thinking “geez, here we go; the part everyone complains about”… and a few short minutes later, I was at the top!
From there, it’s a short walk to Scout Lookout, where I took a break along with most other people.
People of all ages were at Scout Lookout, including young children, and it had taken me little more than an hour to get there. I was actually pretty amazed, but really chuffed with how easy I’d found it, even while looking ahead at the final half mile of drops and chains which from here, didn’t actually look too terrifying.
(It’s worth pointing out if you do go with children especially, that there were no facilities when I was there. The shuttle drops you off at The Grotto so make sure you use the toilet there, and take a picnic and plenty of water! However I have read before that there are portaloos at Scout Lookout, so I am wondering if they just have them in the summer?)
After a few minutes of watching chipmunks, people and the view, it was TIME.
Time for the final ascent!
Going up was a breeze, it turned out – it took less than half an hour to get up to Angel’s Landing itself, and I was surprised, in fact, that the hike had taken me less than two hours in total (one way; and then only about an hour, maybe an hour and a half back).
By the time I got to the first corner, I had made a friend. I found her staring dumbfounded at the path ahead, clearly wondering what the hell she was doing. “Are you okay?” I asked. She looked at me. “I’m so scared!!!” she squealed. “I can’t believe I’m doing this!”
She was a German girl hiking solo as well, so we partnered up to give each other moral support (and also take photos). She was au pairing in LA, and was in Zion with her host family for the weekend – and she had wanted to do this hike for as long as I had. Together, we pushed ourselves to the top, and every time we turned a corner, we knew we were closer. Everyone who passed us gave encouraging comments. “You can do it!” “It’s not that much further!”
I complain about how busy this section is, but it’s actually a really fun atmosphere. Everyone becomes your personal cheerleader.
The drop offs are visible, but they make for some pretty epic views.
We weren’t even quite at the top yet, but we found ourselves on open ground with an absolutely perfect photo opportunity. A couple, in fact.
Of course, we had to get to the top – but that stop actually made for better photos than the actual summit!
We sat for a while, talking about our travel plans and taking in the views and watching the chipmunks (again). We took people’s photos, and each others.
But time was getting on, and the trail was starting to get busier (even now, at 1pm). My new friend was fretting because she was supposed to be meeting her host family back at the visitor centre at 3pm. Given that it had taken us two hours to get to the top, I assured her she had plenty of time, but we decided to help each other back down, because actually I was more worried about the descent than the climb. It feels like there’s a lot further to fall when you’re looking straight at it…
This was where it got hella busy. It almost feels like there’s traffic lights in some places because you’re happily wandering along one minute, and suddenly you hit a traffic jam. And while you’re waiting for your light to turn green, an endless line of people squeezes past you on the narrow path, grabbing any chain they can find between people.
It is quite an experience. At one point, I swear we had to wait about ten minutes for one queue to clear, and once again I found myself thankful that we weren’t doing this in the height of summer.
But at no point did I feel like I was in any danger.
And this time, we were the ones cheering people on as they passed.
I think it took a lot longer to get back down the narrow part, but I wasn’t checking. The rest of the hike back down was a breeze, and soon I lost my friend as she ran off to make it back in time. Hell, *I* made it back in time, so I don’t know why she was panicking!
Altogether, the hike took me less than 3 and a half hours, including stops. But this was out of season, and I am quite sure the recommended time of 4 to 5 hours on most guides is very justified.
I really hope Angel’s Landing remains a sustainable hiking route; I worry with the terrain and increased footfall that it’ll one day be deemed unsafe, and it’s important to keep in mind the impact you could make on a place. I also think Zion and the NPS do an incredible job in maintaining the trail though, so for the moment I don’t see any problems – apart from the potential frustration of being stuck in “traffic” along the spine!
Zion was catapulted straight to the #2 spot on my favourite national parks in the USA on this trip (Yosemite is #1) and although it’s a beautiful national park as a whole, I think Angel’s Landing can take credit for that.
P.S. I think I earned this ice cream when we got back to the camp site!!
Is Angel’s Landing on YOUR list? I’d love to hear about some of your favourite hikes, too!
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