This time, when I gave up on trying to climb to Angel’s Landing in Utah’s Zion National Park, I knew I wouldn’t be trying again. The third time won’t be a charm; I won’t cross the hike off my bucket list.
Yes, I was disappointed as I descended the steep chained-covered sandstone to the line of hikers waiting to climb up. I knew that the view from Angel’s Landing wasn’t 100% more magnificent than any other in the park. But I had been primed to claim the hike as my own, after chickening out on a visit to Zion eight years earlier. And if I couldn’t do it now, eight years deeper into middle age, I never would.
The hike to Angel’s Landing is the most popular in Zion, despite being named by Outside magazine as one of the world’s most dangerous. The trail is a 1/2-mile long offshoot of the West Rim Trail (with a total distance of 2.5 miles from the bottom of Zion Canyon).
Climbing that last half-mile to the Landing requires scrambling up a steep sandstone face, using a set of chain ropes for support while navigating a constant stream of hikers coming and going. Once hikers surmount that first pitch, they move on to other challenges, including spots where the ridge narrows to a width of five feet, with 1,000-feet drop-offs on both sides. Near the Landing, hikers step up a narrow stone staircase, where a chain railing offers the illusion of safety.
Eight years earlier, I’d known the risks and calculated them small – yes, five people (now six) had fallen to their deaths since 2004, but thousands made the trek each year. I had hiked steep trails all over the world. Piece of cake.
On that end-of-March 2008 visit, the park was bustling with visitors eager to explore the canyon on the weekend before the road closed to cars for the season (from April to October, shuttle buses moves visitors in and out of Zion Canyon). My friends and I hiked towards Walter’s Wiggles in a stream of humanity, including several parents pushing strollers.
At Scouts Landing, where the Angel’s Landing trail shoots off from the West Rim Trail, my friend Natasha said she knew her limits; she was happy to relax on the rock slabs while three of us continued on.
Following behind my two friends, I began to scrabble up the sandstone slope, placing my feet in toeholds carved by thousands of hikers and grabbing the chains for support. About halfway up, I froze. This felt dangerous. If I slipped, I might tumble to my death, or severe injury. Yes, thousands had done it, and only a handful had died, but I was a mother. I had a young son waiting for me back at home. I couldn’t afford to die. I turned back.
Now, on this second attempt, the young son was a young man. Our family of three made it up the first pitch, but the climb was nerve-wracking and not much fun. When my husband announced, “I don’t need to do this,” my son agreed. After five seconds of thought, I concurred.
Carefully, we picked our way down the slope back to Scouts Landing, where a volunteer ranger was doing a talk on California Condors, whose numbers had once dwindled to fewer than 25. An active breeding-in-captivity program has resurrected the population, but these massive birds with a ten-foot wing span, the largest in North America, continue to die off, mostly due to lead poisoning from ingesting lead bullets. About 71 condors fly around Arizona and southern Utah, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
South of Zion, at the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona, condors are released into the wild every year and monitored for movement, with attempts made later in the season to recapture the birds to test for lead poisoning. If wildlife biologists are able to catch lead poisoning early, they can treat it. But sadly, every season, they find too many magnificent dead birds.
After listening to the talk for a few minutes, my husband suggested continuing on the West Rim Trail. From Scout’s Landing, we hike for ten minutes or so to an overlook with a good view of Angel’s Landing. Instead of the crowds congregating below us, we were alone, although eventually an older couple joined us. The man had a pair of serious binoculars. With the binoculars, we could make out figures standing at the far edge of Angel’s Landing. We could see other scrambling up another steep pitch that looked very perpendicular.
“Now that how did that hiker get on that pinnacle?” the mans asked, pointing to a narrow pinnacle jutting up from the canyon floor. “He must have needed ropes and gear to get up that.”
Squinting, I could see something – a figure perched on the pinnacle’s edge, possibly a hiker sitting and dangling his legs. My husband asked for the binoculars.
“That’s not a person,” he said. “That’s a bird.”
And then, liftoff: a massive California Condor spread its wings and dove into the shadow created by Angel’s Landing, then began to soar upwards in slow circles.
As its circles became wider, the condor drew closer to our view-point. When its wings tipped at an angle, the condor almost looked like a drone coming in for a landing. And then the condor swooped low to the ground, preparing to land, about 20 feet in front of us.
At the last second, the bird picked up a thermal and soared upwards. We watched its ballet for several minutes, until the condor soared downriver through Zion Canyon.
On Angel’s Landing, the hikers were intent on the sandstone slope, clutching the chains, making sure to plant three points of the body on the ground at all times. They had to focus; they couldn’t afford to let their eyes and minds wander. That’s what I love about hiking–how it demands my full presence in the moment. But at Angel’s Landing, I couldn’t have the hike and the condor. Something to remember the next time I have to give up or turn back. Where will I see my next condor?
Sources and resources
“Frequently Asked Questions” for Zion National Park. National Park Service. Note that more people have died at the bucolic Emerald Pool (typically from slipping and falling) than at Angel’s Landing. Also, a map of Zion hiking trails (most useful as an overview and NOT a trail map).
Outside Magazine‘s list of the world’s 20 most dangerous hikes. Note that New Hampshire’s Mount Washington is on the list along with Angel’s Landing.