Confronting my Fears on Angels Landing, Zion National Park

A few years ago, my friends and I decided to take a road trip to the southwest.  My road trip to Colorado a number of years earlier had inspired me to push further west to the state of Utah.  Many outdoor enthusiasts often refer to southern Utah as a playground for hikers or any outdoor activity for that matter.  The temptation was too great and I managed to convince some friends to join me for a two-week road trip.  And yes, that included convincing them to come along to hike the incredibly popular Angels Landing trail.

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Go ahead and look up Angels Landing with any search engine and you will find hundreds of thousands of stories and photographs.  This is simply one of the most iconic trails in Zion National Park.  Due to its increasing popularity (very likely thanks to the Internet and social media), it is also one of the most trafficked trails in the park.  This popularity grows in spite of the strenuous and at times, pretty risky trail.  I’ll try to describe the trail and my experience as best I can to illustrate the challenges that anyone will be confronted with, in addition to any sort of fear of heights.

A few years ago, my friends and I decided to take a road trip to the southwest.  My road trip to Colorado a number of years earlier had inspired me to push further west to the state of Utah.  Many outdoor enthusiasts often refer to southern Utah as a playground for hikers or any outdoor activity for that matter.  The temptation was too great and I managed to convince some friends to join me for a two-week road trip.  And yes, that included convincing them to come along to hike the incredibly popular Angels Landing trail.

To reach the trailhead, we had to hop on a shuttle bus, which was initially quite busy and crowded. We thought everyone was heading to Angels Landing but gradually people got off at the earlier stops until a handful of us remained.

Pretty much the first thing you see when starting off the Angels Landing trail.  Note it is your responsibility for your own safety. Pretty much the first thing you see when starting off the Angels Landing trail.  Note it is your responsibility for your own safety. Fortunately the switchbacks were shaded because it was going to be a pretty harsh in the sun later into the day. Fortunately the switchbacks were shaded because it was going to be a pretty harsh in the sun later into the day.

Our visit took place around mid-late May and there already were quite a few people.  I can only imagine and shudder at the thought of the amount of foot traffic we’d encounter if we had been visiting during the months of July and August.  If you are not comfortable with heights, I seriously recommend planning your trip earlier in the year or during off-season months.  You may also opt to start your hike earlier in the day because the later you begin, the more likely you’ll encountermini traffic jams on the way up and down Angels Landing.

It is pretty incredible that the trail was built back in 1926 and people have been using it since.  The initial twenty-one switchbacks up the cliff side alone are amazing to experience, despite the challenging hike up.  If you think this is tough, just realize that this is merely the tip of the iceberg.  You have just started…

A look at the view of the canyon and the way up we came from the switchbacks. A look at the view of the canyon and the way up we came from the switchbacks. Trekking through a gorge area -- a very pretty area that was also thankfully, shaded. Trekking through a gorge area — a very pretty area that was also thankfully, shaded.

Eventually after contending with the switchbacks, you may get some reprieve from the blazing sun and heat as the trail leads you through a gorge.  The nice thing about this part is that this area is still shaded in the morning and is relatively flat.  Don’t worry if you’re looking for a challenge because it does not last too long before you’ll encounter more switchbacks to ascend further up the gorge and cliff side.  Some people find ascents exhausting while others find descents challenging.  I’m of the latter.

It was a tough hike up for some of my friends. It was a tough hike up for some of my friends. Beginning to make our way further up and out of the gorge. Beginning to make our way further up and out of the gorge. Of course this ascent involved more switchbacks! Of course this ascent involved more switchbacks! Some of the beautiful flora along the steep switchback ascent. Some of the beautiful flora along the steep switchback ascent.

The ascent up the gorge takes a while but along the way there are many beautiful things to spot.  This is probably the one part of the overall trail where you will not be focused on the views and lookout points so take advantage of that time to enjoy and take in the beauty of the surroundings closer by.  The flowers were beautiful and the patterns along the walls of the gorge were spectacular to observe.  Just wondering how this came about thrilled me to no end.

A look down at a fallen tree from further up the trail. A look down at a fallen tree from further up the trail. Foot traffic on the switchbacks up and out of the gorge. Foot traffic on the switchbacks up and out of the gorge.

The switchbacks can get pretty boring.  All you see are people ahead of you, below you, and behind you as you trudge up to Scout Lookout, where the gorge ends and the real climbing begins.  I noticed some people had their earphones on and iPods blasting music but to me it seems like a waste if you can’t handle hiking with only the sound of your immediate surroundings and the beat of your heart.

I don’t know where most people will end up if they want to do their business (aka. go to the bathroom, go pee, etc.) if they are further up Angels Landing but Scout Lookout is the last point along the trail I am aware of that has an outhouse or two that people can make use of.  I don’t think there is room for any — and I doubt anyone would ever want to lug a portable toilet of that size up Angels Landing!

Finally out of the gorge and on to Scout Lookout -- we can begin to enjoy some of the views. Finally out of the gorge and on to Scout Lookout — we can begin to enjoy some of the views. Looking up at the mountainous canyon 'wall' behind us (opposite of the views). Looking up at the mountainous canyon ‘wall’ behind us (opposite of the views).

The views may have you thinking that you’ve accomplished quite a bit — and you have — until you turn around and see the canyon wall behind you.  Then you realize how little you’ve actually hiked up, but don’t give up!  This is where your willpower begins to get put to the test.

This is just the beginning of Angel's Landing.  From here, you can't really see what the hike will look like. This is just the beginning of Angel’s Landing.  From here, you can’t really see what the hike will look like. The rock scrambling begins!  Some people start turning back here... The rock scrambling begins!  Some people start turning back here…

Here is the point where many many people turn back.  All hiking involves legwork, and a small portion of that will require a bit of scrambling using all four limbs.  Not everyone is ready for that and psychologically prepared to see and tackle what is in front of them.  I have to admit that I was nervous about this but I was determined to push forward at my own pace, regardless of the speed others were moving at.

A couple who had been tailing a group of us all the way up the switchbacks had just gotten to the point where they began a bit of rock scrambling when the woman told her husband that she couldn’t do it and had to turn back.  This was completely understandable because as you’ll see in a number of the photographs, Angels Landing is a strenuous hike and more importantly not an easy psychological barrier to overcome.  This is also what makes this trail so incredible — it isn’t the highest and most physically-challenging ascent but due to the nature of the trail itself and its environment, there is a significant psychological challenge or barrier that one must confront.

Here's the warning sign for everyone. Here’s the warning sign for everyone. This part of the trail slows down as people are going both ways and no one really wants to get too close to the ledge. This part of the trail slows down as people are going both ways and no one really wants to get too close to the ledge.

Once we do a bit of scrambling up the trail leads us to the side and everyone leans away from the ledge despite there being quite a bit of space.  There is no barrier and although the trail itself is flat, you can’t help but question your own confidence in your footwork as you take step by step.

I will add that it isn’t always flat and chains begin to make an appearance for safety and stability reasons.  Is the trail safe?  Yes, but the notion of safety is really dependent on yourself and your ability to operate in these circumstances.

Do you get to enjoy the view while you’re holding on to the chains tightly as you make your way forward — one step at a time?  That depends on you.  I remember that I was pretty focused on simply ensuring I was same.  Photographs were always secondary.  Of course, it didn’t help that I brought two cameras and a 3 litre camelbak that would weigh me down significantly.  So here’s my other recommendation:  Understand what you really need and balance it with what you can handle to ensure you don’t waste energy dragging up useless weight. 

If you drag up 4 litres of water — you are carrying most likely more than you require and you may end up expending more energy than you would have if you had only brought along 3 litres of water.

For safety and psychological reassurance, there are chains for hikers to hold on to.  And yes, that is a cliff drop-off to the left of my friend. For safety and psychological reassurance, there are chains for hikers to hold on to.  And yes, that is a cliff drop-off to the left of my friend. Once we made it past that slight bottleneck is when we realize the full challenge ahead of us. Once we made it past that slight bottleneck is when we realize the full challenge ahead of us. Looking to the side of the trail.  A pretty grand view as we ascend! Looking to the side of the trail.  A pretty grand view as we ascend!

The little bit of scrambling that we were confronted with was just a taste of what’s really to come.  With jaw-dropping views on all sides as well as what was up ahead, my friends and I took a short break before endeavouring onward.  The beginning of the real trail is here.  All that we had experienced so far was just prep work.  Here’s another recommendation:  If you want to really enjoy this hike, do some training to boost your stamina and endurance.

Far too many people were hiking this trail with very little preparation.  I noticed a number of people with iffy balance and some were exhausted.  Despite the fact that my friends and I had hiked a few times in a number of parks within Ontario prior to this trip — I wish we had done more prep work for this trail.  That said, we don’t have even close to the amount of rugged terrain that you see here in southern Utah.  Perhaps we should have run up and down the stairs?

Okay, deep breath! Here we go!  We begin to tackle the real part of Angel's Landing. Okay, deep breath! Here we go!  We begin to tackle the real part of Angel’s Landing. The steps leading to the most narrow and often considered scariest points of the trail. The steps leading to the most narrow and often considered scariest points of the trail.

The photograph above, is what I was willing to take before I made my way to tackle what could be considered the narrowest point of the trail.  This is also the bottleneck where traffic jams often occur.  I highly recommend reading about the Hike Guy’s experience and I’ve also shared his video below.

I would agree with him that this is a rather terrifying part of the trail for anyone with even the most remote level of fear with heights.  Both sides of the trail are sheer vertical drop offs making it seem quite overwhelming to the senses.  I think if one were to stand there for a while, it’d be possible to get accustomed to it but the most important thing to do is to just hold on to the chain and focus on taking one step at a time.  My friends said that surprisingly, the Hike Guy’s video below looked scarier than it really was for them because of the wide angle lens effect.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/12463658?wmode=opaque&api=1

Making our way further up after successfully getting past the narrowest section of the trail. Making our way further up after successfully getting past the narrowest section of the trail. Stopping to enjoy the flowers. Stopping to enjoy the flowers.

As much as I realize most people would just want this to end as quickly as possible — I just want to also point out that there are a lot of trails that don’t offer even nearly as great of a number of views.  When we hike mountains, there may only be one or two points where one would be rewarded with a view after such a challenging climb (and that includes the summit).  In comparison, this trail continually bombards your senses with awe-inspiring sensory-overloading views.  So what? you might ask.

Trust me when I say that it is quite rare to not just be trekking through the woods for hours and hours.  Sure Angels Landing may be a bit overwhelming but feel free to slow down and try to enjoy the moment.

Finally reaching a peak but only to realize -- as usual -- that there is still more to go so I look back and take a breather. Finally reaching a peak but only to realize — as usual — that there is still more to go so I look back and take a breather. Looking out from a part of the trail that felt relatively safe... Looking out from a part of the trail that felt relatively safe… Until I looked up ... this was then the tougher part of the rock scrambling up! Until I looked up … this was then the tougher part of the rock scrambling up!

On some parts of this trail, you just can’t help but wonder if it was ever meant to have so many people trekking it.  On parts where I’d have to scramble up or use all four limbs to stabilize myself — along the way down, there sometimes wouldn’t be room for everyone to stand and wait for opposing traffic to come through.

The view nonetheless keeps evolving into a more dramatic and larger picture.  Details that we saw earlier were now minuscule at this elevation.

Similar to a lot of hikes, there are a lot of ups and downs -- only this time, Angel's Landing can feel a bit scary at times. Thank goodness for chains. Similar to a lot of hikes, there are a lot of ups and downs — only this time, Angel’s Landing can feel a bit scary at times. Thank goodness for chains. We begin to really get an awesome view of the canyon along the trail.  This is Zion. We begin to really get an awesome view of the canyon along the trail.  This is Zion.

As we made our way to the last leg up Angels Landing, the sun was really bearing on us. Unfortunately this trail is very exposed so we sought out the only shade we could find to have a quick snack.  We’d later have a late lunch here on the way back down from the summit.

The small shaded area also made for a great place to sit and enjoy the view of Zion as a canyon.  I think this is the difference between my experience viewing the Grand Canyon and sitting here on Angels Landing.  You feel immersed and Zion just seems massive.

There isn't much shade as we make our way up so we are pretty exposed.  Fortunately, we duck under this one tree. There isn’t much shade as we make our way up so we are pretty exposed.  Fortunately, we duck under this one tree. Enjoying the incredible view as we continue on the trail. Enjoying the incredible view as we continue on the trail. Looking back down the trail of which we came.  It almost feels like the trek up is taking forever at some points. Looking back down the trail of which we came.  It almost feels like the trek up is taking forever at some points.

Finally, as we made our way over the last chunk of rock we had to scramble and climb over — we began to see some really interesting changes in the rock and the environment.  At this point, most of us were not tired yet but just a bit shaky when looking outwards into the canyon.  The scale of it all can sometimes mess with your mind a little.

The landscape and scenery is beginning to change dramatically. The landscape and scenery is beginning to change dramatically. Steps away from the ledge of Angel's Landing and the end of the trail. Steps away from the ledge of Angel’s Landing and the end of the trail.

The top of Angels Landing leading up to the summit point and end point of the trail is actually a lot of fun. Granted, you feel at times like you could slip down a slope and off the cliff but your boots don’t let you do such a thing.  It’s also incredibly hot at this elevation with full exposure to the sun.

We take solace in the shade where we can as we gradually make our way to the summit.  Some hikers on the trail are quite brave and take on different stands, poses, and positions for unique photo opportunities.  My friends wanted their photo taken constantly but I, on the other hand, was not in the mood for such a matter and simply went on my way.  I just wanted to get out of the sun and sit down somewhere!

Okay... maybe more than just a few steps!  Still need to hike across this top part. Okay… maybe more than just a few steps!  Still need to hike across this top part. My friend hiding under the only bit of shade.  This is pretty much the top of Angel's Landing and it is completely exposed.  Beautiful view though. My friend hiding under the only bit of shade.  This is pretty much the top of Angel’s Landing and it is completely exposed.  Beautiful view though.

The summit of Angels Landing actually takes a while to reach, even when you have reached the top of the rock so to speak.  Along the way, there is the occasional woman or man standing on large protruding rocks with hands free in the air for a photo op — I grimace a little as my heart skips a beat for their safety.  I wish I could be as free as they were but I am already confronting the fears at hand as I trek along this sloped rock face towards the end.

Looking back at the way we came across the top of Angel's Landing. Looking back at the way we came across the top of Angel’s Landing. The end of the trail on Angel's Landing, where everyone is gathering. The end of the trail on Angel’s Landing, where everyone is gathering.

As we reach the end of the trail, I frown a little because I see so many people on the summit.  I’ve always preferred a more quiet atmosphere when at the top of a mountain but here it seemed more like a party.  At least it wasn’t as crazy it would be during the summer months.

Looking back at where we came from, I just stood staring at the canyon wall.  It was amazing to see the arches within the mountain. It felt like they were pretty close by but I knew it’d be an illusion because to trek over there would probably take us at least half the day if not more.

Another look back at the trail -- it gets a little sketchy at times hiking over and around this peculiar terrain.  The arches in the backdrop embedded within the mountain are pretty incredible to see. Another look back at the trail — it gets a little sketchy at times hiking over and around this peculiar terrain.  The arches in the backdrop embedded within the mountain are pretty incredible to see. The view just keeps getting better...! The view just keeps getting better…!

Once we arrive at the summit, our view of Zion is complete on both sides.  Simply fantastic.  We chat with some other folks on the summit before heading back down the trail.  We’re noticing the increasing number of people at this point.  We take a few photos together and start making our way back.

I often encourage people to sit back and relax at the top of the summit but in this case with so many people and no cover from the sun, I’d recommend finding shade if you can.  If not, you might want to make sure you have a full-brimmed hat or a lightweight umbrella that you can tie to your backpack and shield yourself and perhaps a fellow hiker from the sun for a bit.  I recommend this because you don’t want your umbrella to get blown away if it is windy up there.

And better on the other side.  It is simply astounding how this puts a person in perspective.  I can only imagine how the first people who discovered this area felt. And better on the other side.  It is simply astounding how this puts a person in perspective.  I can only imagine how the first people who discovered this area felt. Heading back down, the gorge was fully exposed to the sun. Heading back down, the gorge was fully exposed to the sun.

I didn’t take many photographs on the way down because to be honest, it was simply ridiculous.  There were times when I felt the trail was overcrowded — and this was in the month of May!  Some people were unfortunately sitting around on the very narrow trail so it made it even more challenging to make your way down.  I don’t want to step on anyone but I can’t help it if there’s no room.  I’d also prefer not to trip over someone and fall.  This is why I’d recommend starting the hike as early as possible.

The way down wasn’t as interesting now that the sun was fully out but the gorge turned out to be significantly more so.  Now that the gorge itself was fully lit, there so many more details to observe and take in.  Thankfully, there were some parts of the gorge that served up some shade.

Cliff sides are potentially good for shade at times. Cliff sides are potentially good for shade at times. Another grand view of the canyon as we descend towards the switchbacks. Another grand view of the canyon as we descend towards the switchbacks.

While I loved the view from the summit, I have to say I enjoy the canyon just as much from the switchbacks now that it was fully lit up.  This place almost looks like a massive corridor.  Descending on the switchbacks wasn’t much of an ordeal itself thanks to the fact that this part is a paved trail.  We simply let inertia and momentum take us gradually down to the floor of the canyon.  It’s a relief because at this point our legs are a bit wobbly and shaky.  Hiking poles would probably make it easier for anyone with knee issues but I will point out that the poles won’t help at all on the way up once past the Scout Lookout point.

Looking down at the switchbacks, it amazes me to some extent what an engineering and trail design feat it was to build this trail. No it may not have directly generated billions of dollars for the economy like a large highway would have but the stories and the experiences that are a result of this trail in addition to the tourism dollars from all the visitors really does showcase the brilliance of Angels Landing.

Looking down at the switchbacks.  I'm glad we took this route in the morning because it is brutally hot with the searing sun on our backs. Looking down at the switchbacks.  I’m glad we took this route in the morning because it is brutally hot with the searing sun on our backs. Eventually reaching the base of the canyon. Eventually reaching the base of the canyon. Noticing a beautiful wildflower blossoming from a cacti. Noticing a beautiful wildflower blossoming from a cacti.

Once we reach the floor of the canyon — I am surprised to spot some beautiful flowers growing from the cacti next to the trail.  I could be wrong but April and May might be a good time to spot these around the canyon and along the trail.  It is impressive that the flowers can handle such searing heat from the sun in the month of May — let alone the summer months of July and August!

We make our way past the very dry riverbed towards the shuttle bus stop.  Thank goodness for shuttle buses — it would be insane to have all the cars driving around this park.  If you’ve been to Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, you know what I’m talking about. Two words: traffic jam.  None of that here in Zion!

The river is rather dry at this time of year with water levels pretty low. The river is rather dry at this time of year with water levels pretty low. At last, back at the starting point -- and hopping the shuttle bus to the visitor center for some cold refreshments. At last, back at the starting point — and hopping the shuttle bus to the visitor center for some cold refreshments. Laying on the grass at the visitor center -- resting after our successful hike up Angel's Landing Laying on the grass at the visitor center — resting after our successful hike up Angel’s Landing

Soon after the shuttle buses picked us up — we got off at the Zion Lodge to grab a bite to eat and also check out the gift shop. After confronting my fears on Angels Landing, I wanted to reward myself with this t-shirt.  I highly recommend just laying down under a tree and relaxing for a few hours after a hike like that.  Throw in a couple of cold drinks and it is a perfect end to a challenging and rewarding hike up this incredibly popular trail.

Would I do it again? Probably at some point when I don’t have any other trail to hike, but next time I think I’d go even earlier in May. I didn’t like the fact that there were so many people and it made me nervous. I loved the experience but I got to know myself better and next time I’ll be better prepared.

Author: Ehren Cheung

An explorer of life and data. Reluctantly philosophical. A seeker of the ultimate cookie. Another tree-friendly soul with an affinity for hiking and sketching.

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