When I decided I wanted to visit this park, I did just enough research to know they provided a free shuttle that went along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive where other vehicles are no longer permitted. Bicycles, however, are allowed to ride along this road. So, it wasn’t until the evening I arrived that I decided I wanted to hike the Angel’s Landing trail the next morning. The brochure I got upon arrival said this of Angel’s Landing:
This epic trail is one of the top two attractions in Zion National Park. The fact that the NPS even built this trail is remarkable. The path winds its way up steep switchbacks, through Refrigerator Canyon. After 27 switchbacks known as “Walter’s Wiggles”, the trail reaches Scout’s Lookout. Here, it continues to narrow as the ridge ascends 1500-feet above the valley floor below. The trail ends at an incredible perch – a bald, rocky crest with 360-degree views of Zion Canyon.
Special Note: If you are extremely afraid of heights, you may not want to proceed past Scout’s Lookout.
It wasn’t until later in life that I came to terms with the fact that I am indeed afraid of heights. As a mischievous kid (in hindsight maybe it was my mischievous friend), I would occasionally get myself in a situation I would later kick myself for. For instance, my best friend and I would climb up onto a school roof via a cement wall that was six or seven feet high and maybe six inches wide. The distance between the top of the wall and the roof top was maybe four feet, so we had to jump and push ourselves up onto the roof. After roaming the school rooftop (not sure why we did this other than it was something we shouldn’t have been doing), we’d be back at the ledge of the rooftop where I now had to somehow get back down. I remember sitting up there for what seemed like an hour just squabbling with my friend about how I was going to get back down. She made it look so easy. It took a lot of coercing from her to get me off the roof. Somehow, I managed to get on my stomach, hang my legs over the ledge and slowly inch my way down until my toes met the safety of the wall. I’ll never do that again, I thought. Several weeks later, we’d climb that roof again.
When I picked this hike, I didn’t really have any expectations. I just knew that no matter how far I got, the views would be amazing. I got on the shuttle around 7:30am, since the brochure said to go early to beat the heat (and I later found out, to also beat the crowd). Somewhere along the way, I heard six people have died hiking Angel’s Landing since the early 2000s. Alrighty then, off we go!
About 20 minutes later, I began my way up the 1,520-foot climb. I was thankful I got an early start because the further I got, the steeper it got. Fortunately, it was overcast the entire morning. Every once in a while, I’d get stuck walking close to a group of people and I’d have to hear their conversations, so I’d either try to make my way past them or hang back so I could have some peace and quiet and enjoy my surroundings. I remembered hearing back on the shuttle to look up and look around and you might spot some wildlife. So, I made sure to keep an eye on the trees for birds and the rocks for scurrying critters. As I made my way through Refrigerator Canyon, I spotted something small and plump in a tree. I quickly changed my camera lens and I could see it was an owl. I believe it was a Mexican Spotted Owl, a threatened species. There is something to be said about traveling alone. When you’re by yourself, you’re more in tune with what’s going on around you. When you’re in the company of another, the conversation usually becomes the focal point.
I continued my way up the 27 ridiculously steep switchbacks. Just before it came out onto Scout’s Lookout there was a short section where the paved trail ended and led out onto the actual rock. From there, I walked up this rock that had small ledges at an angle. There was definitely exposure there, but the area to walk on was pretty wide. Then, I came out onto Scout’s Lookout. I can’t remember exactly, but I think I continued on a little further from there which was now getting to be a little hairy – the walking surface to cliff ratio was beginning to shrink. Coming out onto a smaller area of slanted rock was where my fear of heights began to be tested. I kept my hands on the ground as I crawled up the rock, my stomach fluttering with every nervous step. Just beyond the rock I sat upon, was a sheer cliff of over 1,000 feet. I had a snack while I got my bearings. It was there I overheard a few people talking about the remaining part of the trail that goes to “the perch”. And the one guy said to his partner, “If you thought that little bit was scary, you’re going to crap your pants when you see what’s next.” Crapping one’s pants seems to be a recurring theme on this trip.
I watched as a handful of people continued on around the side, attempting the last and scariest bit of the climb. Huh, it can’t be that bad if they’re doing it, I thought. After I rested a bit I decided to check it out and see how bad it really was. Not long after I rounded the corner, there were steel posts imbedded in the rock and chain connecting them which served as hand-holds. From there, the trail went up more slanted rock with the cliff now being 10-12 feet away. I took a deep breath, grabbed the chain and started climbing. It went up for another 100 feet or so onto another decent sized ledge. This was the end for a handful more people. I chatted with a woman with a Southern accent there for a bit. She, too, was staying put while her family continued on. “You gonna try it?” she asked.
“I don’t know… I think so,” I replied.
“I suppose you can always turn around if it gets to be too much, right?”
“Yep, that’s true!” I agreed, taking into consideration her point.
I anxiously marched forward and the trail went down a little with more chain for a hold. And then, the chain stopped. Just beyond was what looked like a five-foot-wide slab of rock and then death on either side (in actuality, it was probably 20 feet wide). I suddenly forgot how to walk. It would take another 10 steps or so to get to the other side where there was less exposure but those 10 steps meant I had to walk up and over small ledges. I would surely trip and fall and tumble off the cliff to my death. I stood there, clenching the metal post for a good 10 minutes as I watched people casually walk around me and cross the bridge of death. One lunatic leapt off a two-foot drop onto this bridge of death.
Thoughts started swirling through my head like, You’ve come all this way, you can’t tell people you got this far and then turned around, which is pretty much the story of my life. But, I also thought, If I die, my cat is going to be stranded in the RV for who knows how long! The former thought won and my feet started moving as if on auto-pilot.
I bent down to put my hands down on the rock so I wouldn’t stumble over the four-inch ledge that I needed to step down onto. Then, putting one foot in front of the other, I slowly made my way across the bridge of death – never concentrating so hard on just simply walking. Twenty or thirty baby steps later I was on the other side, and I could breathe again. Wow, I did it. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face the rest of the day.
The majority of the remaining trail was scrambling up rock with the assistance of the chain. It was okay if I kept my head down and just focused on my next step. I could tell which people were facing their fears when I’d see them crawling along the rock on all fours when it probably wasn’t necessary, just as I did. Moving like molasses, I eventually reached “the perch” where I took in the views of Zion Canyon – one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Cream-colored sandstone cliffs highlighted in pinks and reds with a skirt of green.
High off my accomplishment, the hike back down was a breeze. I found myself sure footed in many places I was afraid of before, at times prancing along the rock. The challenging part on the way back down was getting past the army of people who were now making their way up. I came across a few familiar faces I had seen several times and chatted with on the way up, “Did you make it?” they asked.
“Yes, I did,” I said with a smile.