Angels Landing: Zion National Park

Zion national Park is located in southwestern Utah.  It is Utah’s oldest and most visited national park.  It is estimated that there are 2.5 million visitors to the park each year. Angels Landing, which is located within the park, has become Utah’s most famous hike.

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The cables on Angels Landing trail. (Google images)

History:

The Anasazi tribe inhabited Zion from approximately 1500 to 800 years ago.  They left behind abandoned cliff houses and rock art which can be seen throughout the park.

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Anasazi art found at Zion (Google Photo)
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Abandoned Anasazi dwelling found in Zion National Park (Google Photo)

Isaac Behunin was Zion’s first permanent European-American settler in the canyon, arriving in 1858 when the Paiute people occupied the canyon.  He built a one-room log cabin near the present location of Zion Lodge in 1861 and named his new home Zion.  He stated;  “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church – this is Zion” or “These great mountains are natural temples of God.  We can worship here as well as in the man-made temples in Zion, the biblical heavenly City of God”.  I found both of these quotes and I’m not quite sure which one is correct but they are essentially the same.  The Mormon church leader Brigham Young traveled to Zion.  While he agreed that Zion was beautiful, he did not believe that an earthly place should have a heavenly name.  The early Mormon settlers called the park “not Zion” or “Little Zion”.

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Isaac Behunin (Google Image)
Paiute Native Americans
Paiute Native American (Google Image)
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Historical Photo identifying Zion National Park as “Little Zion” (Google Image)

In 1872, John Wesley Powell, noted for his explorations of the Colorado River and as the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, surveyed the area and recorded the canyon’s name as Mukuntuweap.  This Paiute word translates as “straight canyon.”  In 1918, Mukuntuweap was renamed Zion National Monument by the director of the National Park Service.  In 1919, the monument was declared a National Park by President Woodrow Wilson and was re-named Zion National Park.

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John Wesley Powell surveying in Utah (Google Image)
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Early visitors to Zion Monument (Google Image)
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Entrance sign welcoming you to newly named Zion national Park, 1930. (Google Image)

 

Angels Landing received its name in 1916 by a Methodist clergyman, Frederick Vining Fisher.  Fisher was on an expedition in the Zion canyon led by  two boys acting as guides, Claud Hirschi and Ethelbert Bingham.  On seeing the Monolith (now Angels Landing), Fisher was said to remark;  “only an angel could land on it”.  The name Angels Landing stuck.   He is said to have named other Zion landmarks including the Great White Throne and the Three Patriarchs.  Another name which had been considered for Angels Landing was “El Gobernador” in honor of William Spry.  William Spry served as governor of Utah from 1909 to 1917.  Years later Spry Mountain was named for him instead.  Spry Mountain is also located at Zion and is a destination for mountain climbing.

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William Spry (Google Image)
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Spry Mountain, Zion National Park (Google Image)

 

The trail to the summit of Angels Landing was constructed in 1926 and includes a remarkable series of 21 short switchbacks called ”Walters Wiggles”.  The East and West Rim Trails were constructed by the National Park services in the early 1920s.  The trails were paved with gallons of oil mixed with natural sand and rock chips available along the trail.  The materials were hauled onto the various sites by pack horses.  In 1985, extensive repairs were done on the West Rim Trail from 4900 ft. through Refrigerator Canyon to the top of Angel’s Landing.

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Walter Ruesh, who engineered the “Walter’s Wiggles” portion of the Angels Landing, seen to the far left. (Google Image)

 

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Construction on Angels Landing. (Google Image)

The Hike

Start Location: The Grotto Trailhead in Zion Canyon
Distance: 5 miles round-trip
Time: 2-5 hours
Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous
Peak Elevation: 5,785 feet
Elevation Gain: 1,488 feet
Permit: No permit is required but you must pay the entry fee into the park

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Drinking water and restrooms are available at the beginning of the hike at the Grotto.  Toilets are also available at Scouts Lookout.  I recommend sunscreen or a hat as there is some direct sun exposure.  Pack at least two liters of water.  If you are carrying anything along the hike bring a small backpack to put these items into when you are going up the cables.  You will want to use both hands to get up the cables.  The best time of year to hike Angels Landing is in the spring and fall.  Summer is the hottest and most popular season for the park.  The trail will be crowded.  If you hike during the summer season I recommend that you get a very early morning start.  During the winter the trail becomes very icy and is extremely dangerous.  Do not hike during a thunderstorm as there are lightning strikes on the trail.

Weekly Passes
Weekly passes are non-transferable and are valid for 7 consecutive days including the date of purchase.  Weekly passes may be upgraded to annual passes within 7 days of purchase.
Private Vehicle: $30. Valid for 7 days.
Admits private, non-commercial vehicle (15 passenger capacity or less) and all occupants to Zion National Park, including both the Zion Canyon and Kolob Canyon areas.
Motorcycle: $25. Valid for 7 days.
Admits one non-commercial motorcycle to Zion National Park, including both the Zion Canyon and Kolob Canyon areas.
Per Person: $15. Valid for 7 days.
Admits one individual with no car to Zion National Park, including both the Zion Canyon and Kolob Canyon areas. Typically used for bicyclists, hikers and pedestrians. Youth 15 and under are admitted free.
Non-Commercial Organized Groups: Valid for 7 days.
Organized groups such as Scouts, Rotary, Clubs, Youth Groups, Churches, Reunions, etc. that do not qualify for an Academic Fee Waiver are charged as follows:
$30.00 Non-commercial vehicles with a vehicle capacity of 15 or less.
$15.00 per person Non-commercial vehicles with a capacity of 16 or greater. Fees will not exceed the commercial fee for the same-sized vehicle. Youth 15 and under are free. Individuals or families with any valid Annual or Lifetime pass may use their pass for entry at the per person rate. Pass and photo ID must be present upon entry.

Inter-agency Annual Pass: $80.  Valid for 12 months from purchase date.  This pass provides access to, and use of, Federal recreation sites that charge an entrance or Standard Amenity Fee*.  The pass admits the pass holder/s and passengers in a non-commercial vehicle at per vehicle fee areas.  At per person fee areas, it admits the pass holder + 3 adults.  The pass can be obtained in person at Zion entrance stations, at other National Park sites, via the Internet at https://store.usgs.gov/pass or by calling 1-888-ASK-USGS, Extension 1.

The Adventure

Our very first trip to Zion National Park was in 2014.  It was a great trip to Utah which included several hikes in Zion, a trip to The Narrows and a day at Bryce Canyon.  It was such a wonderful trip.  We have been hoping to get back since then.  The plan was to spend more time in the park.  We missed many of the trails, including Angels Landing, on that intial trip.  It didn’t quite work out that way this time.  We were only able to procure a one day permit to Havasupai Falls.  But I thought,  if you find yourself in Arizona, you may as well make a trip to the Grand Canyon.  And if you look at Google maps, you realize you are now very close to Utah, so why not extend the trip and go back to Zion? Okay, so we wouldn’t get to spend more time then one day in the park, but it was a perfect opportunity to explore Angels Landing.

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Hogsback, Angels Landing (Google Image)

Angels Landing is not a very long hike but it is a bucket-list worthy adventure.  It is just over 5 miles round-trip.  It is notorious (well-known) because of the last half-mile of the hike which involves navigating narrow ledges above shear vertical cliffs using cables for support.  Angels Landing has been ranked #23 on the list of the world’s top 25 most dangerous hikes (http://www.placesyoullsee.com/25-most-dangerous-hiking-trails-in-the-world/).  You will find many sites on the Internet that say that people die every year on Angels Landing.  That is not true.  But there have been seven deaths on Angels Landing since 2004.  The last death occurred March 2017.  That being said, I believe that with enough time anyone with an average level of fitness can complete this hike.  Warning!!!: If you are afraid of heights or if you have poor balance, you should not complete the last half-mile of this hike.  I would only consider only taking older children on this hike. There are several warning signs along the trail that ask that you do not bring small children on the Angels Landing trail.

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Photo Credit: Aries Moon Adventures 2017

The hike begins at the Grotto.  You must catch a shuttle from the visitor’s center to get there.  The first shuttle is scheduled at 6 a.m.  Angels Landing is a heavily trafficked trail and can become very crowded.  Knowing this, we caught the 6 a.m. shuttle.

The trail begins at the sixth stop of the Zion Canyon shuttle, at the Grotto shuttle stop and parking lot in Zion Canyon.  To reach the trailhead from the shuttle stop, cross the highway and follow the paved path to the bridge across the Virgin River.  Immediately after the bridge, the trail to Angel’s Landing and the West Rim turns right and follows the river.

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The Virgin River running through the Grotto.  Photo credit Aries Moon Adventures 2017
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Daysi at the bridge over the Virgin River that begins the Angels Landing trail.  Photo credit Aries Moon Adventures 2017
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And so it begins! Photo credit Aries Moon Adventures 2017

Fun Facts:  A grotto is a natural or artificial cave. Naturally occurring grottoes are often small caves near water that are usually flooded or liable to flood at high tide.  Sometimes, artificial grottoes are used as garden features. The Grotto at Zion National Park is not an overhang or a cave, but a clearing with historic buildings surrounded by Zion’s splendor.

  • The Grotto used to be a campground up until the 1960s when it was converted to a picnic area.
  • The old stone building at the Grotto was built in 1924 and served as the first museum until it was reworked in 1936 to be a residence building. Resident artists often stay in this building. (https://www.citrusmilo.com/zionguide/grottotrail.cfm)
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The Grotto Building (Google Image)

You begin the trail once crossing the bridge.  The trail is fairly wide and is well-maintained. This first section is  level or slightly inclines as it follows the river and then crosses to the canyon bottom.  You will see the towering sandstone monolith which is Angels Landing just in front of you as you begin the trail. We may have seen this at the beginning of the hike but none of us had any idea that we were looking at it.  The trail quickly leaves the river after a few hundred yards and gently climbs towards the deep notch on the left side of Angels Landing.

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John making his way to the West Rim Trail.  Photo credit: Aries Moon Adventures 2017

When you reach the bottom of the west wall of the Zion Canyon you begin to climb aggressively up a few switchbacks.  You will leave behind the sweeping views of Zion Canyon.  You begin hiking on the West Rim Trail which is a steady two-mile uphill trek with Piñon Pine, junipers and cottonwoods lining the trail.  Towards the end of this section you will begin to notice that you have left the trees behind,  though there are a few ambitious trees growing out of the cracks high on the sheer cliffs of the mountain.

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Working our way up to the West Rim Trail switchbacks. Photo credit: Aries Moon Adventures 2017
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The start of the West Rim trail switchbacks. Photo credit: Aries Moon Adventures 2017
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Portions of the West Rim trail have been carved into the face of the mountain. Garrett, Daysi, and John. This pic was actually taken on the way down. Photo credit: Aries Moon Adventures 2017

After you cross the cliff, the trail would turn left into Refrigerator Canyon.  I loved Refrigerator Canyon!  It was a wonderful respite after marching up the West Rim trail.  You will be hiking in a gap between Angels Landing and Cathedral Mountain.  It was fairly flat and shady with a cool breeze blowing through it.  Because it is so much cooler then the rest of the hike it was named Refrigerator Canyon.  This area has abundant vegetation, dominated by White Fir trees.  The hike through Refrigerator Canyon is about a third of a mile long and leads you to the Wiggles.

refrigerator Canyon
Refrigerator Canyon (Google Image)

 

Walter’s Wiggles is an amazing series of 21 short, steep switchbacks constructed in 1925 which leads to Scout Lookout.  Walter’s Wiggles (what is not to love about the name!) is named after Walter Ruesch who was the first custodian of what was then Zion National Monument.  The “wiggles” were Ruesch’s idea and he was directly involved in their engineering and construction. This is more impressive considering the Mr. Ruesch had no engineering experience.  Eivand T. Scoyen, who later became Superintendent of Zion, wrote an article for a National Park Service publication, The Courier, saying about Walter…

” … Walt was a rough and ready product of a frontier part of our nation that did not begin to feel the effects of modern civilization until the early 20’s … He was an able organizer and unbelievably ingenious in finding means to accomplish a job when invention was the only resource available … if a grading system is ever devised to measure and rate pioneering accomplishment then the Ruesches will certainly rate at the top. Loyal, uncomplaining workers that cared not at all for the hours or difficulties, they contributed so much to the development of Zion National Park that they must not be forgotten …”

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Walter Ruesh (Google Images)

The 21 switchbacks are very tight and you gain elevation quickly.  You will gain 250 feet going up Walters Wiggles to Scout Lookout (5350 feet).

 

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A bird’s eye view of the Wiggles. (Google Images)
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Garrett on the Wiggles. Photo credit: Aries Moon Adventures 2017
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John on the Wiggles, Photo credit: Aries Moon Adventures 2017

At the top of Walter’s Wiggles you will soon reach Scout Lookout and the ridge that ascends to Angels Landing.  The trail splits at Scout Lookout, the left fork of the trail goes all the way to the West Rim Trailhead (25.8 miles) and the right fork goes to Angel’s Landing.  Go Right!  Scout Lookout is a very nice viewpoint.   You can get a great look at Zion Canyon.  It is a broad sandy area.  Scout Lookout was is the stop point for those who are afraid of heights and do not wish to continue on to summit of Angels Landing.  A few people who were hiking up with us did stop at this point.  On the decent there were multiple people waiting there.  If you choose to hike with walking poles, I would recommend putting the poles away into your backpack before continuing on up the cables. You will need both hands to get up to the summit.  I didn’t have a backpack big enough to accommodate the hiking pole I was using.  I stashed it away behind some rocks and bushes before heading up.  It was still there when I made it back.  There are two pit toilets available at Scout Lookout.  I did not notice it on the way up, but it was much hotter on the way down, and there was quite an odor.

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The sandy area of Scout Lookout. Adequate warning given for the trail ahead. Photo credit: Aries Moon Adventures 2017

The final part of this hike is the most exhilarating and most dangerous.  From this point it is .5 miles to the summit with almost 500 more feet gained in elevation.  From Scout Lookout you will cross the saddle and begin hiking the very steep and very narrow Hogsback.  Chains are bolted into the stone at this point to keep you from falling thousands of feet to your death. Literally.  There are multiple exposed sections where you can look down on both sides of the trail to the Canyon below.  This narrow trail drops 1200 feet on one side and 800 feet on the other.  This section of the hike can be quite intimidating, especially if you have no mountain climbing or exposed hiking experience.  Or are afraid of heights. Many of the cable sections seemed very sketchy to me.  Several times the chains were lying on the ground.  I was worried about my balance when leaning over to grab onto one of the chains.  The trail works its way along ledges, over large boulders, and up cracks to the top.  You will hike, scramble, scoot, and crawl to the summit.  The chains were very helpful to pull yourself up several steep sections of this part of the trail.

Now for taking pictures.  Definitely optional at this point.  “Barb, secure the phone before your move!!!”  I can’t tell you how many times I heard that.  The point is…be careful on this section of the trail.  You need both hands.  Secure the phone (or camera)!!

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Working our way along Hogsback. Photo credit: Aries Moon Adventures 2017
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Many rested at this flat section before the final push to the summit. Our descending group picture was taken on this flat just below this couple. Photo credit: Aries Moon Adventures 2017
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Almost there. You’ll notice very few hikers on the climb at this time. It will be much different on the way back. Photo credit: Aries Moon Adventures 2017

The top of Angel’s Landing is a narrow finger of broken sandstone slabs that slopes towards the south.  A few trees and scattered vegetation cling to the rock.  The down-canyon views from Angels Landing are spectacular.  While on the summit of Angels Landing you will be able to view the Virgin River, Cathedral Mountain, Big Bend, Observation Point, the Organ, and Cable Mountain. The Great White Throne will seem to be at eye level.  After all the physical and psychological challenges you have just experienced, it is a wonderful place to sit and rest.  Expect for the invasion of chipmunks. They are very cute though they are very destructive.  They chew their way into your backpack when you’re not looking.  It took us just over one hour to reach the summit. The time it takes to reach the summit varies greatly depending on the number of people on the trail, the weather conditions, your physical abilities, and the number of pictures you take on the way to the top.  Now that you’ve made it to the top and rested, it’s time to go back down.

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Yay!! The Summit, The Great White Throne is just behind us.  Photo credit: Aries Moon Adventures 2017
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Ok, they are pretty cute. Photo credit: Aries Moon Adventures 2017
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The view of the canyon from the summit. Photo credit: Aries Moon Adventures 2017

We were able to enjoy the summit of Angels Landing with very few other hikers.  It was a completely different story on the way back down.  There were now large lines and crowds of people trying to summit.  There is increased danger going down as you are now trying to get around people who are coming up.  There were also multiple starts and stops as you waited for a group to come up around you so that you could go down.  Again I would strongly recommend leaving early to miss most of this on the way up.  These waits will add considerable time to your overall hike.  Once you get back to Scout Lookout the trail opens up again and is very easy to descend.  I felt like we were passing busloads of people coming up as we were going down.  I was also shocked and worried about the number of people carrying infants and small children up. There were multiple warning signs not to take small children on this hike.  I hope that they were in the groups that would stop at Scout Lookout. Hogsback is no place for small children.

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Regrouping just below the summit. Photo credit: Aries Moon Adventures 2017
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The trail was so congested on the way down. Photo credit: Aries Moon Adventures 2017
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Descending the switchbacks on the West Rim Trail. Photo credit: Aries Moon Adventures 2017

We completed the hike down quickly.  It was on the way down that we figured out which mountain we had hiked.  Daysi somehow noted the hikers on the top of the trail.  It’s amazing to think we just came down from there.

Zion monolith

There was no wait to catch the Zion Canyon shuttle back to the visitor center.  When we caught the initial shuttle to the Grotto we were in line with maybe 20 to 30 other people. When we arrived back at around 11 a.m. there were thousands of people waiting in line to catch a shuttle.  That line wrapped all around the visitor’s center out into the parking lot.  Another reason to get up early and catch the 6 a.m. shuttle.  Do I need to do this hike again?  No.  Would I do this hike again?  Yes.  Despite the fearful moments (crawling on hands and knees, scooting down on my butt) I experienced on Hogsback, I enjoyed the hike and would like to return should anyone invite me.  I hope to one day go back to Zion and spend several days hiking in its splendor.

 

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