Angel’s Landing

Angel's Landing from the Grotto shuttle point

Angel’s Landing from the Grotto shuttle point

Friday, September 19

“Nah, we’ll use the little string knapsack from Amazon, I don’t feel like spending $65 for a backpack with a water reservoir.” I say to Julie as we stand in an outfitter store in Springdale, having spent the last half hour or so going over the options in town.

Little did I know.

Downcanyon

Downcanyon

The sun beats down in Zion Canyon, the temperature having risen over ten degrees since our arrival into the mid 80’s.

The two us had planned on hiking the Narrows today, but a 30% chance of thunderstorms now in the forecast has changed the ranger’s prediction of flash flooding in the slot canyons from “Low” to “Probable”, so instead we’re going to hike Angel’s Landing, the other dayhike that Zion National Park is known for, and one I haven’t attempted yet.

This bold fellow was use to getting fed and came close

This bold fellow was use to getting fed and came close

Angel’s Landing is the tallest point of a narrow fin of land that juts out into Zion canyon, standing over 1,400 feet above the canyon floor and offering views of the Virgin River on three sides in an area known as Big Bend. The park shuttle drops you off along the river, and the hike is a 5.4 mile round trip out (and up) to that peak and back. The numbers vary depending on who you ask, but more people die hiking Angel’s Landing than any other hike in the park. So far, there have been no fatalities this year, in 2013 there were three.

In the slot canyon

In the slot canyon

What starts as a jaunt along the river quickly becomes an arduous climb. The trail is paved with areas where sand has washed over it, but it’s not rocky or uneven – there’s just so much UP. Julie and I take several short breaks along the switchbacks and I’m already regretting not having gotten a real bag and more water – we each have one water bottle. Lunch is a peanut butter sandwich eaten about a half hour in to the hike. While we eat a chipmunk watches us from the next switchback up, there will be a lot more of his kind higher up, begging hikers for food.

After a little more than a mile and a half the switchbacks lead into a slot canyon where voices echo off the canyon walls and the air is cooler and more damp from the bit of water still at the bottom. Here the sunlight only reaches the floor at the very middle of the day which has past, and sagebrush, juniper, and pinion pine give way to another kind of pine tree, it reminds me more of spruce or fir, but I’m not sure if that’s what it is. Water running down the canyon walls has carved holes and pillars out the sandstone. One particularly large one not far off the trail looks to be accessible with a short climb, but we’re not up for any more climbing that doesn’t get us closer to the peak right now.

A long way down

A long way down, that’s the Big Bend shuttle stop

As the slot canyon nears it’s end, the trail enters another series of switchbacks known as Walter’s Wiggles. It’s so tight and uniform that it reminds me of a brick staircase more than a typical switchback, but the paved trail is not carved into steps. Goodbye slot canyon, I’ll miss your shade.

After an interminable number of steps, the way flattens off into the first payoff view: the steep cliff we’re on drops off dramatically over the Virgin River facing upstream. All around peaks tower over the canyon below, bathed in warm afternoon light. A dark ribbon threads it’s way along the river and white lego-sized vehicles inch along it – the shuttle buses we rode in on reduced in size and scale to insignificance.

A fellow hiker gets a photo of both of us

A fellow hiker gets a photo of both of us

Many people assume (and hope) this is Angel’s Landing, but it’s not. We’ve caught up with the aptly named West Rim trail, a multi-day trail that follows the west rim of Zion Canyon. There are port a-potties up here, but no water and by now Julie and I are under a quarter of our water bottles remaining.

Angel’s Landing is still another half-mile away, along the most arduous and dangerous part of the trail. There is no paving here, but a narrow exposed ridge of rock with chains nailed into it to provide handholds. You spend as much time on four limbs as two, and keep a sharp eye on where you’re placing a foot or hand next because there is precious little room for error. Many people who make the climb up to the West Rim will turn around on this last section, it’s extremely difficult for those with a fear of heights since there are sharp drop-offs on both sides and the trail is very narrow.

The Chain of Life (tm)

The Chain of Life ™

But the view. The lack of trees and position of the fin give great views both up the canyon and down, although there are limited places where one can stop to pull out a camera and get a picture.

And finally, when your arms and legs are feeling like rubber and you’re running low on energy and panting for breath, the chain ends and you find yourself standing at the top.

Stunted pines cling to sheer stone, the top of Angel’s Landing is a long strip of land wide enough for two people to safely pass each other, but not a whole lot wider than that. Julie and I join the informal party of people gathered at the top who are celebrating a significant achievement.

Wow that’s narrow and steep! And we gotta get to the top

There’s a special kind of camaraderie that forms between people who manage a feat like this. It doesn’t matter that we’re all strangers to each other and many of us don’t even speak the same language. We say “congratulations” to each other anyway, not in words so much as grins and nods, unified in our shared feelings of accomplishment and awe at the view. I’m not sure that any of us knew what we were getting into when we started at the bottom hours ago.

The hike is rated at “Strenuous”, but I feel like there should be a grade harder than that, because not only is it physically exhausting to climb 1,400+ feet in two and a half miles, but then you throw in the nerves from the the extreme height, narrows ledges, and precarious footing for the last half a mile and it puts a strain on a person unlike facing either challenge alone.

Alas, it’s getting late in the afternoon and we are now completely out of water.

While sometimes hiking back down can be harder than going up, that’s not the case here. The muscle in my legs are getting sore, but at least I’m not panting for air. A kind soul gives us some water from his extra bottle, which is very welcome. Back at the West Rim meet point, we munch on beef jerky and happily give out advice to others headed to the top – we’re now Angel’s Landing veterans.

Looking back down

Looking back down

Descending into the slot canyon, that water carved hole beckons. The light is running out, but it’s still very neat and worth the effort to get to. It turns out that it’s actually a pillar, the hole becomes narrow at the back and runs back behind the cliff face for about ten yards before opening up farther down the trail.

Back down at the river, a ranger is leading a talk with a group of visitors. I want to exclaim that we just came from the top, but that would be rude, so instead we slip past the group of people, secure in our accomplishment. We’re now back at the beginning of the trail head, five hours after starting.

It’s been a great day, and it makes me want to get out and try more truly challenging hikes. Next time though I’ll know better: bring more water.

Panorama from the top

Panorama from the top

We've done it!

We’ve done it!

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Becky

At IO I teach people how to ditch the status quo and travel full-time before retirement, and share stories of my adventures (and misadventures) to inspire future nomads and armchair travelers alike. Included at no additional charge: seizing your dreams, living boldly, and making a difference.

30 Comments

  1. Donald N Wright on October 15, 2014 at 7:38 am

    I know that feeling when you reach the top. I last felt that feeling on the top of Baldy Mountain at Philmont July 4th, 2011. If I could survive this, what else can I do?



    • Becky on October 15, 2014 at 2:12 pm

      It is very empowering Donald. There was the potential of another epic hike lately but alas, you needed to apply for passes and get approved to do it – a process that took more time than we had. Oh well!



  2. Ed @ Catching Sunrises and Sunsets on September 24, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    Ya, I like the new header photo. And, regarding Angels Landing, that is a hike we have promised to do “next time”. We were recently there as part of a road trip. Unfortunately, time did not allow due to a group commitment in St. George. And BTW, don’t you just love Springdale? And, are you aware that, following a road behind the town, across the Virgin River, there are historical buildings that were used for significant scenes from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”?

    Just a little trivia for Yahoo.:)



    • Becky on September 24, 2014 at 9:40 pm

      Thanks Ed! And yes, do get out and do it, you’ll have fun. πŸ™‚

      I like Springdale, but it’s still too crowded and “touristy” for me this time of year. I’m glad I ended up working on the quieter end of the park, I like my solitude. Next time I make it down there though, I’ll go peek for those historical buildings though!



      • Ed @ Catching Sunrises and Sunsets on September 25, 2014 at 8:13 am

        More “who cares” trivia…the back gate, near where I think you worked, is where I bought my Senior Pass. Oh darn, I’ll bet you thought I was 30-something. I am in my mind. πŸ™‚



        • Becky on September 27, 2014 at 8:57 pm

          Haha, you’re only as old as you think Ed. πŸ˜‰



  3. Jerry Minchey on September 24, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    Becky,

    You’ve changed your heading picture again. I like it — and I like your new short hair cut. You’re always being adventuresome.



    • Becky on September 24, 2014 at 9:35 pm

      Thanks Jerry. The header is from this hike, but where the trail I took up meets the West Rim trail, doing this kind of shot on the top of Angel’s Landing itself would have been impossible, just not enough room to get a wide shot like this. πŸ™‚



  4. Terri on September 24, 2014 at 11:22 am

    Oh. My. God. You are one extremely brave girl, is all I can say. I remember them saying that there was a hike you could do at Zion that involved chains, and when I heard that, I was like, “nope, not for me. I’d puke.” Well, actually, I would be frozen. I can’t imagine how much harder that is to go down than up, especially if you are afraid of heights. I would have considered myself brave to get to that Western Rim you mentioned.

    i already respected you for your cool and level head on your shoulders, now I respect you even more for having the guts to climb something like that. I am deathly afraid of heights, so I will just have to vicariously live through you.

    If I remember correctly, the roads in and out of Zion are very narrow and switch-backy, is that right? Beautiful pics, by the way.
    Terri recently posted..Getting Rid of My Debt, Part (Let’s Call It) 20My Profile



    • Becky on September 24, 2014 at 9:31 pm

      It’s such a matter of perspective Terri. Since I’m not afraid of heights, it’s not as challenging for me as it would be for someone who is. Everyone has their own strengths though, I’m sure there’s something that seems really natural and easy to you that I would find very difficult. πŸ™‚ Either way, you’re more than welcome to live vicariously though me!

      The roads getting into and out of the park aren’t too bad, but inside the park there is a series of switchbacks with pretty steep grades, even commercial buses can take it though, it’s not impossible.

      Also, congrats on reducing your debt! You’re making such good progress, your grandma had it right: focus on what you can take care of today, and that number will keep shrinking.



    • Ramen on September 26, 2014 at 3:20 pm

      If you want to see a scary hike that has chains, look at the Half Dome hike in Yosemite NP. In my reckless 20’s I would have done these hazardous activities. Now I’m a little wiser, no thanks. The local paper here always reports when someone falls from that hike. It happens yearly it seems like.



      • Becky on September 27, 2014 at 8:29 pm

        Huh, when I get to Yosemite I’ll look that up Ramen. πŸ™‚



  5. Rita on September 24, 2014 at 10:13 am

    I just finished reading “Lessons of the Lost” written by a Search and Rescue guy. Many people who get lost in the wilderness were just out for a little hike, so they did not take a jacket, food, enough water, matches, signalling device, warm clothes, rain gear, etc. Weather can turn nasty very fast.

    You can add a few lightweight items for those unexpected happenings – a loud whistle, a tiny water filter, a black garbage bag for rain cover, pepper spray, emergency blanket, lighter, energy bars, wool stuff – scarf, hat, gloves, sox. Wool is warm even when wet.

    But the most important thing for survival is telling someone back home exactly where you are going and when you will be back.

    I imagine every one of the mishaps in the wilderness came as a complete surprise. Survivers somehow found water and warmth. Those are the biggies. I have been concerned about you – when you report on your solo hikes – that you may not have any warm clothes with you.

    I am just being a mom. Hope you don’t mind. And even if you know all this, a reminder can help.



    • Becky on September 24, 2014 at 9:22 pm

      I have a little first aid kit with many of those Rita, and yes someone knows when I go hiking. For this hike though, Julie was with me so it wasn’t an issue. πŸ™‚



  6. Gary - Retired Vgabond on September 22, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    Nice photos as usual Becky. When I was there back in May I wondered what it would be like hiking Angel’s Landing. I couldn’t because I had my dog with me on my travels. Looks like just as well as that may be more than I am in condition for. Anyway thanks for sharing your experience. Oh, I can’t remember if you have been to Bryce NP yet. Just before the entrance there in a place called Red Rock Canyon. There are some nice hike there and it is similar to the landscape inside Bryce without all the people. I enjoyed a short hike there with Jagger.
    Gary – Retired Vgabond recently posted..My Companion JaggerMy Profile



    • Becky on September 23, 2014 at 8:59 pm

      Gary, there was actually a guy who brought his small dog on the hike, they made it up to the top! He did have to carry the dog over portions of it though, I wouldn’t recommend it – not very safe for the dog.

      And yes I have been to Bryce and Red Rock Canyon, both were gorgeous! I want to go camping in Red Rock someday though, because as you mentioned it’s less crowded than Bryce and would be a quieter camping experience I think. Julie and I are headed up that way (she hasn’t been yet) before we leave, I’ll keep your advice about hiking in mind.



  7. mike german on September 22, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    That looks like a blast but as I am not crazy about heights not a hike that I will be going on soon. Great pics though as always and you and Julie look like a pair of “desert rats” and as a certified “river rat” (that is what they call those of us that spend a lot of time on weekends up and down the Colorado River) that is very much a compliment. I do suggest an investment in a good pair of hiking boots and remember that the most important thing you can do when in the desert is make sure that you have plenty of water to stay hydrated. I always take bottles of frozen water anytime I am out on the water or hiking in the desert. They keep any food cold and melt for drinking water. Really great post.
    .



    • Becky on September 23, 2014 at 8:56 pm

      Glad you liked it Mike! I’ll just go ahead then and take the “desert rat” thing as a compliment then. πŸ˜‰

      And yes, I’ll be buying a camelbak before I take a hike like that again!



  8. Jodee Gravel on September 22, 2014 at 9:56 am

    Wonderful to experience it with you and Julie – as I won’t be one of those brave souls celebrating at the top! As my fear of heights is amplified when others are around this is definitely not a hike for me. Still, the views are spectacular! Yes, having water left over is always better than running out πŸ™‚
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..Sparkly Friends and Emeralds in the LavaMy Profile



    • Becky on September 23, 2014 at 8:52 pm

      Worse when others are around? Huh, I’ve never heard of that before Jodee, interesting. Julie is mildly afraid of heights, more so than I am, so it was more of an accomplishment for her than me in a way. I just asked her if her fear of heights is worse or better when others are around and she says she does better with others there, as long as she isn’t made to feel rushed.



  9. Phil on September 22, 2014 at 7:35 am

    Good writing. Sounds like an awesome hike. My wife and I always carry at least 3 to 4 liter’s of water on hikes in arid climates plus a water filter. No harm in finishing a hike still toting a liter of water but bad to run out completely.
    Our rule is that when hiking in wilderness areas have enough in your daypack to get you through the night in case of an emergency because stuff happens.



    • Becky on September 23, 2014 at 8:47 pm

      I’m looking at Camelbaks on Amazon for the next big hike Phil, it’s a good philosophy.



  10. Emily on September 22, 2014 at 6:29 am

    Great story. I felt I was with you the whole way. I know what you mean about wanting to shout out to the rangers and hikers about your achievement! Kudos to you for braving the heights and narrow ledges and getting to the top — and getting back to the bottom too!
    Emily recently posted..101 Ways to Enjoy the TetonsMy Profile



    • Becky on September 23, 2014 at 8:45 pm

      Glad you liked it Emily! I actually think Julie was the braver one, she’s mildly afraid of heights, more so than I am, so it was more of a challenge for her.



  11. Debbie (the lone) Granger on September 22, 2014 at 2:18 am

    Gorgeous. Gorgeous. Gorgeous. Scared the willies out of me though!



    • Becky on September 23, 2014 at 8:43 pm

      Was pretty scary in person too! I think the worst was having to move off the “trail” to let people going the other way past, takes you perilously close to the edge!



  12. Ramen on September 22, 2014 at 1:08 am

    Congrats on completing the trail while wearing sandals! Too bad about the water situation but I’m sure you won’t make that mistake again =)



    • Becky on September 23, 2014 at 8:42 pm

      I sure won’t Ramen! And I switched from sandals to my toe shoes for the last half mile, the pic of me was taken before that. πŸ˜‰



  13. Karen @ Sock Monkey Trekkers from NM on September 21, 2014 at 10:26 pm

    This is one of my top three hikes of all time. We’ve done it twice. Love, love, love the views.



    • Becky on September 23, 2014 at 8:39 pm

      I can see why it’s a favorite Karen!



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