After a surprisingly restful, albeit windy night alongside Lake Mead, Kat and I spent the morning packing up. Her gear returned to her backpacks for the plane ride, mine returned to the nooks and crannies of my car. With our gear dialed, we headed into Vegas for breakfast at Sunrise Coffee House. Afterwards, we parted ways and I headed straight back to Zion.
Our initial hike of Angels Landing had left a bizarre taste in my mouth. More than a decade ago, my family had hiked Angels Landing. That adventure had left a lasting impression. When asked, I would often say that Angels Landing is one of the best half-day hikes in America. Its elevated status, however, had been tarnished by my last ascent.
The trail to Angels Landing cuts into the sandstone monolith like a zigzagging incision. Constructed seven years after the park’s establishment in 1919, this series of switchbacks quickly gained notoriety as one of the most vertigo inducing routes in the National Park system. At 2.4 miles in length, the trail deceives many with its difficulty. The key to thinking about your ascent up Angels Landing isn’t the miles you will travel, but the vertical feet you will climb. Its short mileage betrays the 1,500 feet of sandstone that you must ascend. To make the climb more manageable, the park service paved almost the entire trail leading up to Scout’s Rest. This paved section runs along the Virgin River before climbing in long switchbacks up the south face of Angels Landing. After reaching its first initial summit, the trail burrows into a deep, chilly canyon, before emerging once more at another section of twenty-one switchbacks known as Walter’s Wiggles. These infamously tight incisions into the sandstone bring hikers up to Scout’s Rest. There the pavement ends and the real fun begins.
The saddle at Scout’s Rest provides an incredible view of the spine of Angels Landing, jutting deep into Zion Canyon. Along that impossibly thin spine cuts a precipitous trail of worn sandstone that runs alongside a network of thick chains. Well-balanced and careful footsteps lead hikers along a trail that constantly reminds participants of the consequences for erroneous foot placement. On either side of the trail, reality cascades away down 1,500-foot cliffs to the valley floor. It is a perfect place to conquer your acrophobia… or succumb to it.
When Kat and I climbed Angels Landing, we did so in the heat of the day, surrounded by what felt like at least a hundred other hikers. This led to rush-hour-like conditions on the spine. One group would come down, while those waiting to ascend would patiently huddle out of the way. The trail struggled to safely accommodate the chaotic rush of people. My memory of the trail could not have been more different. I hadn’t remembered the paved trails. I didn’t think the crowds had been this oppressive. It simply felt different.
On my own again, I decided to give Angels Landing another shot, to attempt to rectify the shattered memory of that long ago hike. I headed straight from Vegas to Zion, stopping only for gas and for a quick resupply. Once in the park, I weaseled my way into a parking spot and shouldered my pack, heading directly for the bus stop. It was pretty clear from my fellow bus riders that most people in the park were winding down their visit. I, on the other hand, was just getting started.
Hopping off at the Grotto bus stop, I trotted up the trail, sacrificing more than a little sweat to the unforgiving switchbacks. Racing against the sun, I swung unimpeded along the chains up to the top of Angels Landing. The ascent took forty minutes. I had seen maybe two-dozen people. With deep breaths, I threw on a warm layer to protect my sweaty body from the chilly gusts of wind. Taking stock of my situation, I realize that my faith in Angels Landing had returned. There were no crowds, no waiting lines, and no overpowering sun. The scene before me couldn’t have been more different. A few people sat idly enjoying the last rays of sun, quietly chatting or silently meditating. Eventually, they wandered back down the trail, leaving me alone atop a pillar of stone in the midst Zion Canyon. Bats and birds silently swirled around the summit, darting in and out of the labyrinth of cracks set into the sandstone cliffs. The softening breeze and the dull roar of the Virgin River created a muted, but living silence.
I sat atop Angels Landing for two hours. I did some writing, took some photos, and sent my sister a birthday text, but mostly I just sat there. At one point, I even considered sleeping up there. Even though it is totally against the rules, I doubt they regularly patrol the top of Angels Landing after dark… I guess I will have to save that adventure for another day. All around me the warmth of daylight melted into a brisk dusk, but not before bathing the walls of the canyon in a rusty glow. Finally, the clouds above the Narrows gave their ultimatum. In a finale of cotton candy hues of blue and pink, the light of the sun disappeared. Now, I excitedly began my next challenge: descending the peak before the last bus left the Grotto bus stop. The final canyon bus leaves the Narrows bus stop at 8:30. From my vantage point, I had timed how long it took three different buses to get from the Narrows to the Grotto. The average time was about 10 minutes. That meant that I needed to get to the Grotto by 8:40. If I were late, I would have to walk the five miles out of the canyon. While that wouldn’t be the end of the world, I decided to make a go for it.
Overextending my stay atop Angels Landing, I began my descent at 8:10, hoping that I would move significantly faster on the way down. Navigating the chains in the dusk proved a surreal experience. At one point, I even headed down a steep chimney that wasn’t actually part of the trail. This became exceedingly obvious when I arrived on a ledge with no discernible way to get to the chains twelve feet below. After retracing my steps, I hopped back on the trail and followed the chains diligently until I hit Scout’s Rest. There, I began running. I zipped down Walter’s Wiggles, sprinted through the canyon, and thundered down the final set of switchbacks. At this point, my headlamp was the only source of light leading me forward. When I rounded the corner of a switchback, I saw the pale green reflection of the eyes of a ring-tailed cat. It scampered off at the sound of my heavy footfalls.
Then, I saw it. The lights of the final bus cast long shadows along the canyon road. Shit. I brightened my headlamp and started sprinting, hoping that I would make it in time or that the driver would take pity on me. As the bus turned into the Grotto parking lot, I saw the red glare of brake lights. Picking up my pace, I bulldozed across the Virgin River and straight into the open door of the bus. Phew.
As I peeled off sweaty layers and caught my breath, the driver mentioned that he had used Angels Landing as a training run for a few seasons. He could tell from my pace and bouncing headlamp that I was going to make it. As we wound back through the canyon, he grumbled about overcrowding, focusing directly on the impact on the ecology of certain sections of the park. Even as I nodded in agreement, I thought to myself that the parks popularity simply means that the determined need to find ways to avoid the crowds, which often leads people to a deeper understanding of the park. If it hadn’t been for the crowds of my first hike, I might never have decided to re-attempt Angels Landing for an epic sunset.