Monday, September 27, 2010

Snapshots: Angels Landing

One of the stunning vistas visible from Angels Landing.
Standing at the top of a cliff, turning slowly to absorb every bit of a 360-degree view of sandstone peaks - some cream-colored, some pink and some deep red - is a breathtaking experience. When you've climbed 500 feet in elevation in half a mile over narrow rock faces embedded with chains, scrambling up chest-high boulders and edging cautiously past descending hikers to get there, it also feels like a great reward for having ventured all the way out to Zion's Angels Landing.

Looking up at the first set of switchbacks
from the beginning of the trail.
Not a long hike at five miles roundtrip, Angels Landing is nonetheless considered one of Zion National Park's more difficult trails, namely because of that last half-mile. Scout's Lookout is two miles and a 1,000-foot elevation gain from the trailhead and many hikers stop there, content with the views to either side of Zion Canyon and down to the canyon floor. The hike to that point is enjoyable but challenging, with steep switchbacks. Among them are 21 of the shortest switchbacks I've ever been on, known as Walter's Wiggles and named after Walter Reusch, who designed the strange section of trail and helped with its construction in 1924. Leading up to Walter's Wiggles is Refrigerator Canyon, which is a treat to wander through in the summer with temperatures that are regularly 10-30 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the rest of the sun-baked trail. 
A view of the Virgin River from the bridge that leads from
The Grotto to the Angels Landing and West Rim trailheads.

Whether or not you make it to the top, the hike provides beautiful views of the canyon floor, the Virgin River and the incredible sandstone formations that characterize Zion. Hikers on this trail generally know what they're getting into and are in it for the long haul, so people are friendly on the trail and conversation with strangers during quick breaks in the shade is common. Continuing past Scout's Lookout is strongly discouraged for anyone with a fear of heights, since the trail past that point is quite narrow with very steep drop-offs, and there are some gaps between the chains erected by the NPS that can be paralyzing for those already uncomfortable with the elevation. If you're not afraid of heights and are in good health, however, I highly recommend at least trying the last part of the trail - the view from the top is well worth the effort (and if my parents - 61 and 73 when we hiked this last month - can do it, you likely can too!).
On the way to Angels Landing, looking
back along the trail toward Scout's Lookout.

On the last, most challenging part of the trail from Scout's Lookout to Angels Landing, the mood is even more friendly, taking on a kind of "we're all in this together" vibe that keeps conversation going and has hikers carefully maneuvering to allow one another to pass safely. My parents and I spoke at length with three American women who travel together every year, an Aussie from Queensland with whom we'd spoken extensively on the Hidden Canyon trail the day before, and a group of Americans who thought my dad should get an age award for making it to the top, to name just a few - not to mention the Argentine gentleman wedged into a nook in the rock to let descending hikers pass who offered his hand as a brace for a particularly long drop from one boulder to another.
The view down Zion Canyon from the edge of Angels Landing.

Once you reach the top, the sandstone flattens out, the chains disappear (which is cause for concern for some) and - with the exception of one particularly slanted, narrow spot as you're heading out to the edge - any reason for nerves evaporates in the face of the view. At a height from which the park's shuttles look like ants winding along the canyon floor and with nothing but air between you and the nearest of the canyon walls, it's easy to see why Frederick Vining Fisher, who named the hike, said that "only angels could land [on it]."

Not everyone is comfortable with the way the trail to Angels Landing is constructed (read a 2009 devil's-advocate column from the L.A. Times here) and there have been hikers killed in falls from it (five, to date), but fatal falls from the more popular, easier Emerald Pools trail are more common, though still rare (seven, to date).
At the very top of Angels Landing, relaxing with the
beautiful views on September 11, 2010.

My experience was a very positive one, and I wouldn't discourage anyone in good health, who isn't afraid of heights (or perhaps particularly prone to clumsiness), from trying to hike the whole trail. The first two miles are a relatively steep climb but provide beautiful views of their own, so if you get to Scout's Lookout and decide you don't want to go any further, it won't be a wasted hike. If you do continue onto Angels Landing, be patient, as you'll often have to pause to let a string of hikers going the other direction pass; take all the time you need to take each step safely, especially as you're descending (as I told an older French woman descending ahead of me, who offered to let me pass at a particularly precarious point, "I'm in no rush, take your time!"); and keep one hand on the chains at all times where they're available - they're there to prevent falls, and on a few particularly steep sections they're very useful in helping you walk up the rock, hand-over-hand.

Whether or not you go all the way to the end, you'll have beautiful views from a challenging trail. If you do make it to Angels Landing, you'll get some of the best views in the park - and a great sense of accomplishment.

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