ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah — Angels Landing got its evocative name in 1916 when a Methodist minister named Frederick Fisher gazed up at the towering sandstone monolith, turned to his three traveling companions and exclaimed, “Only an angel could land on it!”
The name stuck, even though mere mortals stood upon the lofty 5,790-foot summit a decade later when officials completed an ambitious trail that remains one of the most famous and thrilling in the entire national park system.
Some would add “dangerous” to that description as six people have plunged to their deaths on the Angels Landing Trail since 2004, a grim tally noted in warning signs installed at the trailhead.
Much like Yosemite’s Half Dome, also infamous for fatalities, the sting lies in the tail. The final half-mile of the 1,488-foot ascent follows a narrow spine of rock with sheer drop-offs on both sides. In this exposed section, hikers get assistance from a heavy-gauge chain anchored to the rock with steel poles.
Spine-tingling views with knee-knocking exposure set in one of the most spectacular places on Earth? No wonder Angels Landing is on every ambitious hiker’s tick list.
After setting out from The Grotto picnic area (private vehicles are allowed only from November through March), Angels Landing is impossible to miss. It’s basically a giant wedge of layered sandstone that juts from Zion Canyon’s west rim.
The first section is basically flat as the trail crosses the North Fork of the Virgin River on a footbridge and travels through cottonwoods and pinyon pines. But soon enough begins a series of steep switchbacks carved into a canyon wall stained red by iron oxide.
After a mile, you reach Refrigerator Canyon where things cool off and flatten out. Pinched between vertical walls with a cool breeze blowing, it feels like walking through a narrow slot.
The respite doesn’t last long. Up next is an even steeper section called Walter’s Wiggles, a series of 21 dizzying switchbacks that climb 500 feet in an astonishingly short distance. (The Wiggles are named for Walter Ruesch, Zion’s first superintendent.) The rock engineering here is nothing short of amazing.
Finally, you arrive at Scout Lookout, 2.1 miles and 1,070 feet above the trailhead. The views of Zion Canyon from here are sublime, and for many, especially those with a fear of heights, this is the place to turn around. Warning signs with stick figures slipping and falling from great heights depict the potential hazards ahead.
For those who press on, wear solid shoes, use the chains and try not to look down. The route is steep in places and requires modest scrambling. But unlike the rickety Half Dome cables, which shift from people’s weight, the chains are sturdy and solid. Footholds carved into the rock provide extra security. Just take your time, pay attention to each and every foot placement, and stay away from the edges.
You’ll know when you’ve reached the top because there’s nowhere else to go — except for nearly 1,500 feet straight down. Even though there are higher cliffs visible in the distance, it feels like the top of the world. Red and white rock walls and formations thousands of feet tall stand beneath blue skies in all directions, while far below the Virgin River continues to carve out this remarkable landscape.
Don’t head back till you’ve soaked it all in. Then be sure to exercise as much caution going down as you did coming up.
If you go …
Location: Zion National Park in Springdale, Utah
Length: 5.4 miles, up and back
Difficulty: Strenuous and not for those with a fear of heights. Final half mile of 1,488-foot ascent follows narrow ridge to the summit with exposure on both sides
Fees: $20 per vehicle, good for seven days
Trailhead: The Grotto picnic area, 0.5 miles east of Zion Lodge
Website: nps.gov/zion, which includes an “eHike” with video, photos and sounds from the trail
Distributed by MCT Information Services