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Angel's Landing Trail in Zion NP

The stand alone Butte is Angel's Landing
The stand alone Butte is Angel's Landing
Liane Ehrich

It's the most popular trail in Zion National Park, according to the announcements on the bus. It is also one of the scariest trails a non-climber will ever do. Depending on sources, this trail has killed between 6-9 people. After climbing it yourself, you may wonder why the number is so low.

If you look up the 10 most dangerous trails in the US, Angel's Landing doesn't even rank. But, this is a serious trail. There are exposed edges where a single misstep will be your last. This trail is inviting to beginners and non-hikers due to it's modest length: it is between 2.5 and 3 miles one way from bottom to top. This creates the illusion that this is an easy day-hike. This is not an easy day hike.

There is a debate in the blogosphere about the safety of this hike. There are people who feel that the numerous signs illustrating people falling off of rocks, the warning on the bus, and the warnings along the trail are not enough. There are those who believe that this insane trail should be closed to only those who know what they are doing (how this would be established remains a mystery). Others have discussed the reality that if the National Park Service took down the chains that make non-climbers feel more secure on the uneven sandstone surface, that fewer people would attempt it.

This is no doubt very true. After all, there are thousands of similar climbs scattered all over the country that are only attempted by people who know the difference between a crampon and a carabiner. However, the views from the top of this sandstone monolith are stunning. For those who are unused to scary edges and frightening drops, but who are fit and have good balance, this hike is both safe and staggeringly beautiful.

Yes, people are up there who have no business being up there (again, where this line is drawn is a matter of opinion), but 5 (the official NPS count) deaths, or even 9 since the 1920's is an enviable record for such an exposed trail. Perhaps it is the extreme aspect of the trail that keeps people focused and helps prevent falling deaths.

Enough about how scary it is. The trail's start is a paved multi-use type trail that you would find in most cities. Its climb is gradual and the views down valley are spectacular as you climb off of the valley floor. The trail performs a few broad switchbacks that draws you into a cool narrow canyon caller Refrigerator Canyon. Here, black walnut trees line a seasonal wash and sandstone grottos invite exploration. The trail continues through the canyon and arrives at the base of 21 steep switchbacks called Walter's Wiggles. The trail is still essentially paved, and is wide and smooth.

At the top of walter's Wiggles the trail forks, one going up further to the West Rim and the other rising to the dizzying heights of Angel's Landing. This area is called Scout's Landing, and is a spectacular viewpoint in its own right, and a great destination hike for those unwilling to try to conquer Angel's Landing.

For those who elect to continue, Angel's Landing is to your right. After the fork, the true character of the trail begins to show. The trail clings to narrow a walkway of exposed sandstone, a chain on posts driven into the rock guides hikers along the exposed edge. People cling to the chains as they thread their way over the drop.

Here is where people begin to wonder if they are in over their heads. The room for error here is low, and the ramifications of such an error are disastrous. Below the hiker's feet, clinging to an off-camber slip of stone, the cliff drops away into the unseen depths of Refrigerator Canyon. The depth isn't seen so much as implied.

Past this the trail becomes an intermittently chain-lined section of foot and hand hold scrambles along an exposed face of sandstone. Because of the number of people still on this section, the sandstone can become perilously covered in slick loose sand. In the summer months too many people may cause this area to bottle neck. Due to this, off season and early morning hikes are recommended.

After this hair raising little climb the hiker arrives at a broad saddle of rock. From here can be seen the rest of the climb, which looks impossibly exposed and truly insane to a non-climber. This landing is called Chicken Out Point for very good reason. From this plateau there are breathtaking views of the other wall of the canyon, as well as up-stream. For those who decide to go no further, the views here are spectacular, and there are plenty of places to sit and have a picnic (The squirrels can be obnoxious, do not encourage their behavior by feeding them).

The trail from here is little more than a rock climb delineated by chains and carved footholds. The distance between Chicken Out Point and the top is a little less than 4/10th of mile, but give yourself at least an hour to complete the trip. To complete this section safely you must have the strength to climb and descend 1400', confidence in your balance, and the ability to suspend a very natural fear of heights and exposed edges.

Know that if the National Park Service had not put chains here in the 1920's almost no one would ever attempt this hike who did not have some level of climbing experience. The chains make all the difference to non-climbers. They add another layer of safety. They create a situation that invites people who would never otherwise attempt such a climb to not only make it, but make it with confidence. It takes a one-mistake and you die scenario into a two mistake and you die scenario, and that is huge for non-climbers.

If you elect to make the remainder of the climb, the views are spectacular. The top is a broad expanse of flat and sloping stone with plenty of room to take in all of the views and have a brief snack. If you are not a climber, this trail will probably be the most terrifying and rewarding hike that you will ever make, unless, that is, it inspires you to learn the difference between a crampon and a carabiner and launches you into a whole new passion.

It is that kind of trail. The views, the fear, the sense of achievement, they all conspire to make a relatively short hike up a sandstone monolith in a National Park into the kind of experience that can change people for the better.

Please check out the slideshow which illustrates all of the various aspects of the trail.

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