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Knocking At The Gates of Zion

Zion-road“We wanted to go up Angel’s Landing, but we couldn’t make it.”

“I told my friends I would do Angel’s Landing with them, but I chickened out at the last minute!”

“Oh, Angel’s Landing? That is one harsh climb. We decided not to go.”

I kept hearing fellow hikers in Zion National Park uttering similar quotes all week. Their trepidations piqued my interest: as a backpacker I was always ready to tackle any formidable ascents. I was in southwestern Utah to explore the delights of wading through the Zion Narrows: a route that wends through the middle of the secretive Virgin River. It is one of the most unusual trails in the national parks, a waterlogged thruway that slices narrowing violet and rust colored slot canyon walls rising hundreds of feet on either side. Nevertheless, as I slogged waist deep in water treading slowly over the rocky and pebbled stream bed, I kept hearing passersby mention Angel’s Landing over and over again.

Zion-riverThe wild waters of this tributary hurtle over a precarious bed of glassy rocks and pebbles waiting to trip the unwary traveler. The protracted effort of managing this uneven walk allowed me the pleasure of chatting for brief minutes with more dexterous waders who passed me by. One of them, a lanky man with his overalls tucked into duck boots, told me that the 1,488 foot (454 meters) ascent leading to the 5,785 foot (1763 meters) summit called Angel’s Landing was one of the most beautiful he had ever hiked. The route, he explained, carved its way from the same river bed we were traversing towards sandy terrain dotted with pine and yucca, ascended through a series of picturesque switchbacks known as “Walter’s Wiggles” before making a decisive push towards the vertical peak. Despite the comments I had heard about the tremendous difficulty of the course, I was eager to attempt it and believed I would easily prevail.

I started early next morning from a spot called the Grotto near the visitor’s center, armed with a knapsack full of snacks, a full water bottle, and the self-assurance that this experience would be easily conquered. The mounded rim of Angel’s Landing shone white and bright like a steeple against the pale light. A satin breeze floated several cotton ball clouds across the flushed sky and the Virgin River sang a soothing song as I skipped my way up the serpentine lane. The canyon walls deepened, the paved road began twisting faster, and before I knew it, I was racing past other hikers convinced that rumors about the strain of scaling Angel’s Landing were greatly exaggerated. Instead, this was a scene from the Snow White movie with butterflies accompanying my avenue, cactus and sagebrush waving me forward, and a whistling tune as soundtrack.

“Even a gnarly tarantula stopped in its tracks to let me pass.”

The 2.4 mile (3.9 kilometers) long course melted with every step.

zion-ridgeAt the Wiggles, I was still keen to forge on. The series of twenty quickly turning bends designed in 1926 by the national park’s first superintendent, Walter Ruesh, were only partially carpeted by wheezing footslogs. Though the way was steep, my breath was hale and my legs hearty. The dizzying switchbacks conquered, I arrived at Scout’s Lookout believing I had finished the course. I was wondering to myself what all the fuss was about when a trio of photographers kindly alerted me that I had not reached the end of my excursion. They pointed up and I saw the craggy hump of the solid rock mountain ahead. A mere half mile lay in front of me, but my road seemed to have ended at my feet. Onward I saw no markers, no ladders, and no pathway. Instead my three new acquaintances signaled to a spate of metal chains along a paper-thin fin jutting out from the cliff: this was my passage to the top.

It was a rock climb with no rope or harness; only intermittent iron link railings to use as aids. Either side of the slim and silky face was a precipitous drop whose terror increased the higher I went. Spying a flock of white-throated swifts swooping level with my eyes I grew dizzy. The canyon walls cast giant black shadows upon the jade ribbon river far below; sagebrush clung to the crags alongside me for dear life; every which way I looked the smooth vertical cascade of rocks plummeted. There was little room to maneuver and nowhere to sit, so I perched awkwardly against the trunk of a lone Juniper and shut my eyes to the giddying sight.

“I could understand now the remarks I had heard from previous explorers of Angel’s Landing.”

My acrophobia meant that the rest of the half-mile jog was going to be far more painful than plodding through the middle of the Virgin River. Yet, I was confident that I could manage to the end: I only had to keep focused on my feet rather than the majestic and paralyzing scene.

Zion-mountainI scrambled on elbows and knees up a polished nodule. I heaved on the last railing to mount up to a sharp-edged protuberance. Then a tapered ledge required me to shuffle sideways with my stomach and face pressed against its sheer façade. Next, a returning hiker and I eyed each other warily over the six-inch wide ridge to see who would make the first move. There was no end of unnerving moments on my ascent, but I was vanquishing them one by one, a triumphant smile on my face. The peak seemed so near I could taste the feeling of planting my feet on it. I stood aside on a tiny platform of Navajo sandstone to rest and allow several sets of couples to descend.

“Am I almost there?” I asked them as they dropped down to my area.

“Almost,” one of them replied, smiling, “it’s only another fifteen minutes away.” Another fifteen minutes? I balked. They must be mistaken about the time, I thought, as I glanced up. There didn’t seem any more mountain left after this knoll.

“Don’t worry,” another encouraged me, “the view makes it totally worth this final tough part. You’ll soon be there!”

I wasn’t so sure. I let a handful of trekkers behind me pass as I debated what to do. My position upon the dais was secure and comfortable while the immediate slope looked leg-breaking. I didn’t think my psyche could endure another fifteen minutes of precipitous clambering.

“It would be a shame, however, if I turned back after having made it so far towards Angel’s Landing.”

I had to go on! Teeth clenched and with clammy palms I set off once more, hoisting myself upon the next set of protrusions.

Zion-Angel-LandingTen minutes later I was heaving like an over-worked buffalo on a never-ending slope. A man was impatiently waiting to overtake me uphill; another warrior was hoping to make her descent. I stepped towards the formation’s flaky edge to make room for them. As they vanished with catlike precision beyond the turns, I sat down to gloat over my accomplishment. I was on par with a solitary peregrine falcon who drew a patient circle in the air. I could no longer see the squirming river or cliff-rose dotted valley. Canyon walls eyed me sternly and the wind whistled that I was nearly there. I turned to see a father and his teenage daughter pause above me.

“You haven’t far to go…another ten minutes before the end,” the father coaxed me as we exchanged glances. Another ten minutes? I thought I had already traveled far in the previous ten minutes. How high up was this unreachable peak? I straightened and looked once again at the vertiginous array of stone which disappeared around a bend. I could only imagine there was a similar scene on the other side. I had been too Sisyphean in my triumph and now, minutes away from the pinnacle, I realized I was not going to finish. I was mentally exhausted, no longer able to silence the terror of ascending towards the heavens.

“My body was still willing, yet my heart and mind refused to budge.”

My nerves were pulling tight from head to toe, too intimidated to brace for the attack. The ultimate gradient was an insurmountable barrier, the final ten minutes stretching to infinity.

Zion-canyonDowncast that I would not see the view from the crown of Angel’s Landing, but convinced that I could not venture farther, I began to muse on the danger of foreseeing imminent success in an endeavor. Thinking my goal was a ripe picking, I had been careless about preparing mentally for the journey. Overconfidence got the better of me after completing so many trails at various national parks. I believed Angel’s Landing would be as achievable as other successful undertakings. I was proven wrong. Many years of traveling have inured me to its unpredictable nature. If circumstances start off in my favor I tend to believe that I will end up victorious, but the beauty of travel is that it always surprises me. Angel’s Landing has taught me to never assume I’ve won until I cross the finish line. The last ten percent of the trail, the concluding days before returning home, or the end most elevation from the capstone are times when I need to push harder and be most alert.

I began my long descent back to the shuttle stop. I will probably never master the crest of Angel’s Landing, but I will be planning future climbs with a lot more humility. I won’t expect to succeed at all of them until I have reached the ultimate marker. When I reached Scout’s Lookout I met again the girl and her father who encouraged me. They asked me how I enjoyed the view at the tip and I was too embarrassed to reveal that I came close but didn’t make it. I would have to add myself to the list of people who were defeated by Zion’s onerous formation. I understood what it felt like to not finish a task I was convinced I would achieve. I was disappointed in myself and yearned for the next challenge. Angel’s Landing had humbled me; it had also made me more tenacious.


Zion National Park has many strenuous technical hikes and climbs, and every year a handful of fatalities occur on them. Therefore it is important to remember that safety is your personal responsibility. Trust your inner instinct and understand your physical limitations. Always stay on trail paths, observe posted warnings, and drink plenty of water. Never ignore park alerts which are posted daily on the website as well as in the visitor’s center.

Have you forged the Virgin River Narrows or visited Zion National Park? What has been the hardest climb or hike you have undertaken?

25 replies »

  1. I love your pictures ! Zion National Park is such a nice palce, one of my favourites parks ever ! Besides, Angels landing is a fantastic hike ! Did you try the Narows too?

    • Thanks for your comment. I couldn’t argue with anyone loving Zion NP, it is so unique and beguiling. Yes, I did try the Narrows hike as well and I think this is one that sets Zion apart from the other US national parks. Hiking through the river is such an amazing experience and certainly unlike anything else I have tried. Have you hiked the Narrows often?

  2. Zion National Park is one of my all time favorite places to visit. I love Angels Landing what a spectacular view. Thanks for sharing your experience. My Grandma lived in Toquerville, Utah just 30 minutes from the park entrance so I have been to the park dozens of times.

    • Angel’s Landing is definitely worth the hard work! We also thoroughly enjoyed the Narrows hike through the Virgin River. It’s such a unique experience we haven’t had at any other US National Park.

  3. It’s important to know our limits. I’m also an avid hiker, but serious heights requiring chains for long periods and sheer drops is beyond my ability. It is humbling to turn back. But you made it farther than most people could have. And the view you had…my head spins just looking at the photos. Is the view at Angel’s Landing that much more spectacular, or do people tell themselves that so they feel better about making such a push to the top? Did you hike alone yet again? It seems that you passed quite a few people so maybe it wouldn’t be as dangerous as less popular trails.

    • The view from the top is actually shown in the fifth photo in my story, taken by BT photographer Jesse who made it to the top. Other hikers who also reached the summit claimed that I wasn’t missing anything, but perhaps they were trying to make me feel better? 😉 Angel’s Landing is a very popular trail, and during certain times of the year can be prone to traffic, which has its own dangers when you are trying to climb narrow ledges. Thanks so much for your kind words Julie! Though it was incredibly sad for me that I didn’t achieve my goal, I am glad I got as far as I did.

  4. What spectacular photos and captivating narrative, you had my heart pounding just reading it from my sofa! You may not have reached the top of Angel’s Landing but you learned many valuable lessons, as we so often do when we take off on these ‘hikes’ with such high hopes. What you did achieve though was no small feat – for one thing, you attempted it and gave it your all; for another, you were able to share this journey with us today. Such a beautiful, majestic place, thank you for inviting us share the view 🙂

    • Thanks for your encouraging words Sherri. Zion is not over-the-top like the Grand Canyon or exotic like Bryce, but it has a quiet beauty that overtook me slowly during some once-in-a-lifetime hikes.

  5. I cannot believe how far you pushed yourself! What an incredible effort. I had sweaty palms just reading your cliff scaling. I know absolutely that I couldn’t do this. I’d just have to make due with the views lower down. How stupendous they are! 🙂

  6. I’m impressed that you had the sense to know that, for you, not going on was the right decision. I personally do not support the popular saying, “If you dream it, you can become it”: human beings are finite and unique, and we each have a different set of limitations. Just my two cents’ worth 🙂

    We went to Zion 5 years ago but did not attempt Angel’s Landing; we enjoyed the Narrows, but, boy, was it crowded in August. We spent one night in the lodge there, and I still remember how peaceful it was at night in Zion NP.

    • It is disappointing to realize what our personal limits are, but you are right, being human we are not cut out for everything. It sounds so much better when people tell us “anything” is possible. 🙂 So glad you loved the beauty and peacefulness of Zion, especially the Narrows. I had never experienced hiking in the middle of a river before and it was such a spectacular experience for me!

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