Zion National Park
Distance: 5 miles Time: 4.5 hours Type: There and back
Angel’s Landing is one of the most famous hikes in the American West. If you are willing to put up with the crowds and have a stomach for heights, it makes for an unforgettable experience. It is without a doubt the most hair-raising and vertigo-inducing walk I’ve done and a hike I will never forget. The views are staggering along the path’s entire length and the summit offers one of the most postcard-perfect vistas you can imagine.
The first thing to mention is that National Parks in the US can get very busy in summer. Very busy indeed. And Zion National Park is one of the busiest of the lot. For that reason, the only way to travel in the main valley, Zion Canyon, is by using the park’s free bus service. It would be impossible for the park to accommodate the huge number of visitors to the relatively small valley if everyone were to drive. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of taking the bus. For one thing, you don’t have the freedom to go where you want when you want. For another, one of the main reasons I head out to scenic spots is to get away from people: getting onto a crowded bus full of camera-wielding nature tourists detracts somewhat from that experience. But the bus trip along the valley floor actually turned out to be quite fun and relaxing. And being a camera-wielding nature tourist myself, I have to be respectful of the system set up by the park management. The park is very well run and utlimately a car ban is the only way to ensure that people are able to visit and enjoy the park while protecting the environment and preventing traffic-clogged chaos.
The hike begins at the Grotto Picnic area, one of the stops on the bus loop. As we arrived, the driver told us over the tannoy to peer up at the top of a steep isthmus towering high above the bus. We spotted a number of small black dots. Those were hikers completing the Angel's Landing trail.
From the parking area the path crosses the river, which it then follows along the valley floor for the first mile or so. This is a very relaxing section and gives you a chance to appreciate the flora of the park before the big climb. We also came across a tarantula sunbathing on a rock.
The path then begins to zig-zag steeply up the rock side, offering increasingly superb views back to the valley with the path winding into the distance below.
Eventually you reach a flat saddle area called Scout Lookout, where some hikers choose to remain. For the hardy, the path continues on a narrow sandstone isthmus with sheer cliffs on either side. When reading about the hike, I had presumed this description was exaggerated or perhaps overly-dramatic. It is not. On one side there is an almost-vertical drop of 250 metres and on the other, a drop of 350 metres. The isthmus is narrow and at certain points a wrong step in either direction would spell disaster. There are cables along some sections and scrambling is often required. Yes, a number of people have fallen to their deaths, although safety has improved in recent years. This is clearly not a hike to undertake in bad weather. If the route to the endpoint seems intense, then bear in mind that the only way to return is by the same path.
The summit can be fairly crowded but the views of Zion Canyon are breath-taking. The hike must be completed by returning the same way. This is hardly unwelcome, however, given the views and the opportunity to experience the trail in the opposite direction.
We took a detour from the trail on the way back to spend a relaxing half-hour by the river bank, just far enough from the road and trail to feel a sense of what it would be like to experience the valley without other people.
That evening we camped at the Watchman campsite near the entrance to the park. We actually made the mistake of overshooting the site and inadvertently leaving the park, which meant joining a 20-minute queue to get back in!
A map of the park can be found here: