I hiked Angels Landing. It’s the strenuous trail in Zion National Park and one I wasn’t going to attempt at all. To be fair, I never decided to do it. It just happened, one step at a time.
Angel’s Landing is only 5.4 miles long, but it has an elevation gain of 1,500 feet with long cliffside drop-offs. It is not for the faint of heart.
There is a trail called “Rim Trail,” which looked like it led to Angel’s Landing on the map. I had a few hours to kill and it was the only hike at that stop I hadn’t done yet, so I figured I would make Rim Trail until it got to the Angel’s Landing Trail and then I’d turn around. The problem was, it never technically ended.
Or perhaps Rim Trail is just very short because it starts as a flat and easy path along the rim, but not far along the incline becomes noticeable steeper. At one point, I made a left turn and around the bend was the rock face. I knew then that I was on Angel’s Landing trail. Up ahead, I saw other hikers, zig-zagging switchbacks along the edge of the mountain high above me.
I sighed, realizing the trail ahead would only get steeper. Still, I had more gas in the tank and a few hours to burn, so I forged ahead. I figured I would keep going until I got tired and then I’d turn around. I noticed in the distance the first summit, which other hikers had told me about. They said it flattens out at the midpoint before going up again. I figured I might aim for that as my ultimate goal. However, I wasn’t opposed to stopping sooner.
So I kept going, leaning forward onto the sloping trail, fighting gravity and the extra 30 pounds I carry around because I love pastries.
It was late in the day for this hike. It was 5:30 pm and they say it takes four hours to get up and back down. The last shuttle out of the canyon leaves at 8:15. If you’re not on it, there’s an eight-mile walk back to your vehicle through the canyon in the darkness.
There weren’t many other people heading up on the trail at that point, but several groups were coming down. None of them looked particularly pleased with themselves for having achieved this challenging hike. They just looked grateful to be done. The few I chatted with said things like, “Just glad to be coming back down.” Or “The view is nice, but it’s tough.” It wasn’t exactly inspiring, but I wasn’t going to the top, so it didn’t disturb me.
I kept going, sure and steady, frequently stopping for a minute to let my heart rate slow and wipe the sweat from my brow. It was 104 degrees in the canyon.
The trail, though loosely paved with foot grips, was steep enough to sled down. I began to doubt my ability to make it to the midpoint. Plus, my fear of falling was starting to get the better of me. With each switchback, I went higher up the mountain. Some of the drops off at the precarious edge were a bit too close for my comfort.
Finally, three-quarters of the way up, I met a cliff face I did not want to pass. It edged out around a corner I could not see past and had about 750 feet drop over the edge. My breath caught. I was afraid.
The signs and information about the trail admonish anyone who is not physically fit not to attempt this trail. They further show graphics of people falling off the mountain and encourage you not to try it if you are afraid of heights. If that doesn’t deter you, they also post signs like the “how many days since we’ve had an accident” signs you see in factories in warehouses where they’ve scratched out the number each time it goes higher. It showed that 13 people had died attempting this trail.
It didn’t say where precisely they had died and you would presume it was at the top where I heard chains were used as handholds. But it could have been at the switchback ledge I was now facing, couldn’t it?
I turned around and was a few steps away when I realized I’d turned around out of fear instead of tiredness. I said I’d stop when I got tired, not when I got afraid. I stopped and sighed again. There happened to be a boulder just the size for me to sit on, so I did. Taking my water bottle out of my backpack, I sat there and looked out at the majestic canyon view.
In Zion, the rock is such a bright red-orange that it glows when the sun hits it.
There I was, sitting on the edge of a mountain, so high up you wouldn’t even be able to see my body if I fell to the ground. A small lizard crawled near me. I watched it grip the rock and climb around unafraid.
There is only one way to conquer fear. That is to face it. I’ve faced my fear of falling many times and it gets easier each time, even if it never really leaves. It’s surprising to me how many times I still run into it, this fear that waits, quite literally, around corners for my approach so it can make a coward of me. But I am no coward.
I stood and hiked around the corner and kept going. It wasn’t nearly as daunting as my mind had made it.
Eventually, I made it to a flat terrain in between two rock faces about 40-feet wide. That went for some way to the other side of the mountain. There again, I was greeted by another series of switchbacks heading straight up.
It’s always at this point in the hike where I start to think, “We’ll I’ve come this far. It can’t be much further now, may as well keep going.” But it is always much further than I think it is.
I trudged up and up and up, stopping to catch my breath many times until, finally, it flattened out to what looked like a sandy beach with spectacular views. A bit further on, the trail continues. The sight of it stopped me in my tracks.
I’d known that there were trail chains you could hold on to, but not that you must hold on to them. Nobody in their right mind would have called it a “trail” if it weren’t for the telltale chains showing you the way. From my perspective, it looked more like climbing than hiking at that point. Several people were holding the chains, appearing to struggle mightily for a foothold above a 1,200-foot drop.
Since it was an out and back trail, the people coming down had to maneuver around the people going up, while only one side could hold the chains at a time.
“Nope.” I must have said out loud.
“Agree,” a woman next to me said. “I tried that first part here that you can see and slid back down on my rear end. It goes on like that for a while. It didn’t look like the view would be much better.”
Another couple nearby heard us talking and joined in. They’d done the entire thing.
“The juice is not worth the squeeze,” the man said.
I had never planned on coming this far, so I didn’t need convincing. I’d far surpassed what I set to do, having never intended to attempt Angel’s Landing at all.
I was tired and it was late. I would feel rushed and nervous. That was not a good combination. So, I took a picture and turned around to head back down.
Because you know the people who don’t die on Angel’s Landing? The smart ones. The ones who know their strengths and weaknesses. The ones who know how to limit themselves and when to stop instead of pushing too far.
Plus, you'll have to save some of that juice for the way down. It's a different challenge entirely. Gravity wants to push you down the mountain and I realized the bumps in the pavement that I crossed on the way up were actually speed bumps to slow you on the way down.
Overall, I think it's a popular trail because it's hard, not that the views are that great. You could get comparable views from other trails. This one is valued because of what it takes to get there.