Hiking in Zion National Park
Zion National Park is my favorite place in the country, beating out even Death Valley. The trails and vistas in the park are so fantastic that they sometimes defy belief. These trails wouldn’t be built today, and I live in fear that they’ll finally be closed down one day. In addition to maintained trails, there are entire slickrock sections of backcountry where you can explore to your heart’s (and compass’) content. This was my third visit to Zion and this time we were going to attempt the big one, the craziest hike in the park, Angels Landing. We decided to do a series of increasingly difficult hikes to work our way up to the ultimate trail.
OK, first things first. We took the short, 1 mile round trip Canyon Overlook trail, just off the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway where it emerges from the big tunnel. This trail has steep drop-offs, but they’re mostly fenced, allowing you to get used to the idea of walking along a cliff. We hiked up to the overlook one early, stormy morning to watch the sun move across the valley.
When Paul and I visited Zion a few years ago, the Weeping Rock trailhead was closed because sections of the cliff decided to do what they have done for centuries and collapse all over the place. Happily, the trail was open again on this visit, so we were able to take the crazy, cliff-hugging hike up to Hidden Canyon. The 98 degree heat was murderous as we climbed over 800 feet above the valley floor, but when we reached the canyon, we were refreshed by the shade and cool air and were almost able to forget the steep drop-offs that awaited us on the way back. There’s a chain bolted into the cliff along the most exposed parts, but it’s really just there as a safety blanket. It’s a comfort rather than an actual life saving device.
On the way back down, I started to freak out on the exposed part after a bee became too friendly with my face. I had to sit down in the trail and make Paul come back to get rid of the bee. I wasn’t going to jump over the edge just to avoid a silly little bee (is what I kept telling myself). After we made it back to the valley floor, we made a beeline for the Virgin River to cool our sweaty feet. Our toes went from at least 100 degrees to 40 degrees in a second, confirming that it was still too cold to attempt the full Narrows hike/swim. The water was much warmer the last time we were here when we made it about a mile before feeling hypothermic. Someday I’ll make it through the whole Narrows…someday.
Off-trail along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway
The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway (aka Rt. 9) heads into Zion Canyon from the east, down through the layers of sandstone that the Virgin River seems to have so easily eroded away. This is the way you should enter the park. Don’t come in through Springdale. The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway is an amazing drive. Strike that, it’s actually a terrible drive. I wish the shuttle ran up this section of road so that I could place my full attention in looking out the window. As you gaze out the window, you’ll see any number of interesting things that you’d like to explore. So go explore them!
This time our attention was attracted by a huge, hollowed out section of cliff. As we headed towards our goal, we found an unpublicized panel explaining masonry culverts, a masonry culvert, a really long snake, a bunch of tadpoles in some rapidly evaporating potholes, and a small group of desert bighorn sheep, two of which decided to show us how they spar. We also got some practice climbing sandstone slopes.
East Rim Trail
My god, there are rattlesnakes here too! Lesson learned: if a lizard does not immediately scramble out of your way, it’s probably a sign that a rattlesnake is nearby.
Angels Landing/West Rim Trail
OK, that’s enough preparation. On to the main event, the Angels Landing trail.
Zion is crowded, but most of the crowd remains in their cars or on the shuttle buses or on a few short, easy hikes, making it easy to experience the wilderness with a limited number of other people. But another crowd can also be found in the most improbable place in the park for crowds, on the Angels Landing trail. This trail is notorious for being difficult and terrifying. It climbs almost 1,500 feet above the valley floor in about 2.5 miles. The last half mile of trail follows a ridge with sheer 1,000 foot drop-offs on each side. There’s a safety chain along one side of the trail, sometimes. One chain, heavy two-way traffic. And then you have to come back.
I knew all this going in, and it sounded hard and scary, but it did not prepare me for just how hard and scary it really is. I had been getting a kick out of challenging my fears, but a certain level of fear is healthy. I pushed myself to go on the first section of trail to the lookout point, but I couldn’t go any farther. I had to wimp out. When I saw the rest of the trail stretching up ahead, and the improbable number of people already on that trail, I knew there was no way I could do it. This is my theory: as a human, you have a basic duty to not harm others through your own stupidity or carelessness. Sometimes you’re around people who seem to lack this understanding. That is terrifying. Part of the terror is that we all know what it feels like to fall. We dream about falling, and our bodies seem to instinctively warn us against extreme heights. I’m not going over the edge because Junior wants to make it to the summit fastest or because unsteady-on-his-feet Grandpa wants to summit before he dies (in bed). If you must do the Angels Landing trail, do it early in the morning. And understand your limitations. And respect other people. And remember that it’s OK to wimp out.
So, after turning back, we made one of our favorite discoveries in Zion. The Angels Landing trail peels off the West Rim Trail at a popular viewpoint. We still had tons of water, snacks, and energy (mainly in the form of adrenaline), so we continued on the West Rim Trail for a few miles. The West Rim Trail quickly climbs above the summit of Angels Landing, giving you a great view of the crazies and the valley below. It’s still plenty scary, with exposed hiking along cliffs, but it’s an acceptable type of scary. We saw three other groups on this trail. There were hundreds of people on Angels Landing.
After we made it back down to the valley, we went over to the lodge for a snack and celebratory beer. We shared a table with a woman who was celebrating her 90th birthday in the park with her family (she looked 70, at most). Zion is her favorite place in the world. I did not ask if she had ever hiked the Angels Landing trail. I’m sure she had.