Hiking Angels Landing
* This post was originially written for The Outbound Collective
Three weeks before my sister turned 24 she texted me to ask if I wanted to go on a trip for her birthday. She wasn’t sure where she wanted to go but she knew she wanted to be outdoors. She suggested somewhere west, maybe the Grand Canyon? I countered with Zion National Park. The response was a simple and decisive “yes” before plane tickets were hastily bought. Over the next few weeks we discussed how to make the most of our time in the park and we knew that would include tackling Angels Landing.
Angels Landing has been nicknamed one of the most dangerous hikes in the world, whether or not that statement is true- I couldn’t tell you, I haven’t hiked the entire world. But with 1,500 feet of elevation gain in 2.5 miles, steep and arduous switchbacks, and having to hike along a narrow ridgeline with 1,000+ foot drop offs on either side makes me guess it’s one of the more precarious hikes in the United States.
We arrived at the trailhead around 8:00am, late by our standards, and snagged one of the last parking spots. It was cold too, about 30 degrees and our excited breath was swirling away from us and up towards the peak we were about to tackle. After making sure we had water and food all packed up we were off.
Zion is much quieter than I had imagined. Actually, the desert in general is much quieter than I had imagined. For the first section of the hike the only sounds around us were the soft sounds of the Virgin River running beside us and our soft footsteps falling on sand.
We found ourselves quickly arriving at the first uphill climb. I tried to make jokes between panting breaths that the hike should instead be named “Switchback Landing.” After the first set of switchbacks my sister and I found ourselves half way up the canyon wall and heading into Refrigerator Canyon; a welcome section of level trail. I, breathing heavily, exclaimed that the hikes in Zion were much harder than the hikes out east because of the abrupt elevation gains. As we debated and compared other hikes to the one we were embarking on, the canyon surrounding us quietly laughed, because the canyon knew we thought the worst was behind us but we had not yet reached Walter’s Wiggles.
The wiggles are a set of 21 short and brutal switchbacks that will spit you out a couple hundred feet above at Scouts Lookout. After we died made it to the top of the Wiggles we sat for a few minutes catching our breath and enjoying the view at Scouts Lookout.
While we were catching our breath, a park ranger explained to me that condors lived in the park and that they were very curious birds that were often observed soaring over Angels Landing. No sooner had he finished his sentence an enormous scavenger flew low above our heads.
“See?” he asked.
I had seen and I had sworn the bird had winked at me.
After lacing back up our boots we decided to head off to tackle the last, and most dangerous, section of the hike. We eyed the narrow ridgeline we’d soon be traversing, took a breath and headed out. We were lucky to be hiking this section during the off season. We encountered approximately 7 other people as we hiked out to the final outlook. I later learned that seeing so few people was incredibly lucky and during the summertime there can be lines of people waiting to snake by each other across the ridgeline. I gulped trying to imagine hundreds of people up on that ridge. I felt like 7 was 7 too many.
I am not scared at all of heights but I cannot deny that I very briefly experienced vertigo from the steep 1000 foot drop offs on either side of me. Clinging to the metal chain I inched my way up the trail, stopping only to stare in awe of the views expanding on either side of me. Almost as soon as we had started we had seemed to reach the end. Victorious fists were thrown in the air and we scouted out a spot to lie in the sun, enjoy the views and eat our well-earned lunch.
After eating our lunches and deciding we no longer wanted to listen to the terrified, screaming child someone had backpacked out to the lookout with, we reluctantly said goodbye and started on our return journey. Many more people had begun to arrive at the summit and we were thankful we had started early in the morning and missed most the crowds. Stopping once more at Scouts Landing to take in the views and shed some clothing (the temperature had risen to at least 60 degrees at this point), we began to slowly start our decent back to the base of the canyon, making sure to savor the views of the valley and the warm breeze drifting by.
Once we were back down in the base of the canyon we looked up above us with sun kissed faces and full hearts at the most precarious hike we had even done. Our dose of adventure and adrenaline had been fulfilled… at least for the day.