August 22, 2012 by Deborah W. Trotter
If you could hover a thousand feet or so above the Virgin River in Zion National Park, with unobstructed views up and down Zion Canyon, you would have some idea of what it is like to perch on the top of Angels Landing. And it does feel like a perch. The top is narrow, uneven, with sheer fallaways on the sides. If your feet are on solid rock, usually you feel safe and secure, but on top of Angels Landing you feel as if you are just a couple of missteps from being airborne. And you are!
My family’s most recent visit to Zion was in June of 2005, during the “summer of four teenagers.” Hard to believe, but it seems more crazy looking back on it than it did living through it. The four teenagers part, I mean.
Anyway, when the kids saw the pictures of the trail up Angels Landing at the Visitor Center, getting to the top became their number one priority. When I looked at the same pictures, my knees began to shake and my heart began to quake, and I wondered if I could possibly manage it. I am not afraid per se of heights, but I’m definitely not at my most comfortable when my sense of balance is called upon to be at peak performance. I expressed some misgivings, but all the kids told me I could do it, so I committed to giving it a try. Just . . . scrambling up a steep spine of rock, sometimes using chains to pull yourself along, when you could actually tumble to your death . . . thinking about it was a little paralyzing.
We decided to attempt our ascent of Angels Landing on our last full day in the Park, so I occupied myself with enjoying our other hikes in the meantime.Since Zion Canyon runs more or less north-south, we employed a keeping-cooler strategy of starting hiking on the east side when it was in morning shade, and on the west side in the afternoon shade. It makes a significant difference because when you are hiking in the sun, alongside rock that is baking in the sun, you will be much hotter than if everything is in shade. We were surprised that other Park visitors didn’t seem to make that calculation, but the fact that they didn’t made our more shady hikes less crowded, too.
The trail up to Angels Landing was nearly deserted that late Monday afternoon. The climb was gentle along the river, but then went up in some tough switchbacks and a steep pull up into Refrigerator Canyon, so named because walking into it, you immediately feel chilled air. The high rock walls close to both sides of the trail at that point assure that not much sunlight penetrates the canyon during the day, and not for very long. So the rock doesn’t get a chance to absorb much heat.
Exiting Refrigerator Canyon, the trail soon becomes Walter’s Wiggles, a set of 21 short, very steep switchbacks that present a relentless uphill climb. Kind of like a miniature Lombard Street, for hikers instead of cars. (You know. The “Crookedest Street in the World” in San Francisco, California? But you can only drive down that, not up!)
Just a little bit beyond the top of Walter’s Wiggles is the saddle below the actual Angel’s Landing. The rock formation that juts out into Zion Canyon, accessible by scrambling up a steep, narrow, stone spine with sheer drops on either side. Where the men separate from the boys. Or the teenagers separate from the parents. Or the fearful try to calm themselves before making a rational decision about whether to continue.
There was no one else around at this point, except a young man who had just come down from the top. He said it was doable and encouraged us to go ahead and give it a try. “If you get to a point where it isn’t cool for you anymore, you can stop and go back down.” That made sense, and I credit him with giving me the courage to head for the top of Angels Landing.
Our kids went up fast and left me and my husband behind. I followed him. I looked down off the side once or twice, but that was enough to threaten my ability to keep going. After that I looked mostly at my feet and the trail just ahead, trying not to think about my kids, hoping they were being smart. The sections of chain attached to rocks along much of the way served as handholds, but also as guides to where you should go next. I would never say it was easy to find the way up!
But finally we made it to the top. And it was worth all the effort. The view up and down the canyon was spectacular, and the 6 of us had it all to ourselves, which was an unhoped for treat. With Angels Landing extending by itself out into the canyon, both of its rims still higher than we were, we felt as if we were suspended there. Not quite hovering . . . but almost.