Closing the door on Angel’s Landing

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.

A view of the knife-edge abutment known as Angel's Landing (late-morning light). Yes, it is as skinny as it looks, at least in a few tricky spots.

A view of the knife-edge sandstone ridge known as Angel’s Landing (late-morning light). Yes, it is as skinny as it looks, at least in a few tricky spots.

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.

Looking down at the switchbacks known as Walter's Wiggles, first crafted by the Civilian Conservation Core in the 1930s. A bit of an incline, but pretty easy for seasoned hikers.

Looking down at the switchbacks known as Walter’s Wiggles, first crafted by the National Park Service in the 1920s.  A bit of an incline, but pretty easy for seasoned hikers.

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.”

California Condor in flight, with tracking tags.  Photo via Wikipedia and Creative Commons.

California Condor in flight, with tracking tags. Photo via Wikipedia and Creative Commons.

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?

Twlight view of The Watchman, a warm-up hike we did upon arriving at Zion, with the trailhead right behind the Visitor's Center.  On this February visit, we saw one other party here at the party -- the advantage of visiting Zion off-season. However, being President's Day weekend, the park was busy, and on Sunday, we were "gated out" of Zion Canyon because the canyon had reached its car capacity (we did get in later that afternoon).

Twilight view of The Watchman, a warm-up hike we did upon arriving at Zion; the trailhead begins behind the Visitor’s Center. On this February visit, we saw one other party on this late-afternoon hike — the advantage of visiting Zion off-season. However, this being President’s Day weekend, the park was busy, and on Sunday, we were “gated out” of Zion Canyon because the canyon had reached its car capacity (we did get in later that afternoon).

 

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After being turned away from the Zion Canyon gate, we drove through the Zion Tunnel to the East Entrance and explored a bit of that side of the park, including the Canyon Overlook  hike (at the East Entrance gate). Although this scene suggests solitude, this short trail was busy with hikers, including many families and young children.

One advantage of a Zion lock-out is that it required us to explore other areas on the eastern side of the Zion Tunnel.  Not an official trail here, just a fun spot for climbing around. We did try to get to Observation Point trail from Zion Mountain Ranch, but the dirt road you to take to get to the trailhead was muddy and rutted and/or snow-covered and too much for our rental.

Not an official trail here, just a fun spot for climbing around on the eastern side of the park. We attempted to get to the East Mesa Trail, the easy route to Observation Point which starts out as a dirt road at Zion Mountain Ranch, but the road was muddy, rutted, and/or snow-covered and too much for our rental SUV. The hike to Observation Point, whether from the canyon floor, or via the back route we scouted, is a great alternative to Angel’s Landing.

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.

 

About Dianne Fallon

Maniacal Traveler Dianne Fallon writes from a house in the woods in southern Maine. Her interests include travel, hiking and the outdoors, and history, and she is quickly becoming an Instagram-aholic, @themaniacialtraveler.
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One Response to Closing the door on Angel’s Landing

  1. Maureen says:

    My palms actually began sweating upon reading “…the ridge narrows to a width of five feet, with 1,000-feet drop-offs on both sides.” 🙂

    That condor. What a reward for turning back! We saw a bald eagle yesterday and I thought that was massive (maybe a female?). Must have been amazing to see the even larger condor!

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