By Michael Lanza
Thrilling, scenic, and enormously popular, an impressive feat of trail building, an intimidating and exposed scramble—these are some of the descriptions commonly given to Angels Landing in Zion National Park, all of them accurate. It also has a reputation as one of the scariest and most dangerous hikes in the National Park System—a claim that would seem somewhat overblown just by virtue of the fact that innumerable tens of thousands of people, including many novice hikers, safely venture up and down it every year.
Constructed nearly a century ago and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, now one of the classic dayhikes in America, Angels Landing is absolutely safe for anyone exercising reasonable caution and should be in the sights of every avid hiker. Here’s what you need to know about it.
For those willing to brave the exposure—often hundreds of people a day during the hiking season—the 5,790-foot summit offers arguably the best view of Zion Canyon. I consider it one of “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
Having hiked Angels Landing several times over the years—and taken my kids up it as young as age five—at times when the trail has been packed with a conga line of hikers and when I’ve enjoyed it nearly to myself, I’ve seen the many faces of Angels Landing and enjoyed it every time.
The out-and-back hike begins from the Grotto Trailhead in Zion Canyon, one of the stops on the free and frequent park shuttle buses that operate generally from mid-March through October. (Private vehicles are generally only permitted in upper Zion Canyon outside the season that the park shuttles operate.)
Nearly five miles and 1,500 vertical feet round-trip, the route is paved for roughly its first two miles on the West Rim Trail, including the cool slot of Refrigerator Canyon and the 21 steep switchbacks known as Walter’s Wiggles. Then you reach Scout Lookout, at the beginning of the spur trail ascending the narrow, sandstone fin of Angels Landing, where hikers encounter steps carved into rock, steep scrambling, chain handrails anchored into the rock in the most intimidating spots, and drop-offs of 1,000 feet or more to each side.
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Anyone uncomfortable with the looks of Angels Landing can turn around at Scout Lookout. Beyond that point, many hikers who do not have a fear of heights generally have no trouble with the difficulty of the scrambling. There are fixtures in place in many spots to assist your ascent and descent.
The prime seasons are spring (April through June) and fall (mid-September through October), when temperatures are moderate and the trail is often dry. If the forecast calls for high temperatures (and to avoid the crowds), either start early in the morning, or if your party consists of strong hikers, wait until afternoon, when you’ll get more shade for the ascent and have beautiful, late-day sunlight slanting across the canyon for your summit view. Bring a headlamp for the descent and get off the Angels Landing spur trail in daylight. Avoid the hike in high winds, icy or wet conditions, or if lightning threatens.
Angels Landing has been the scene of several fatalities from falls, but if done with caution in dry weather, it’s safe for adults and school-age kids.
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See more information about hiking Angels Landing in my story “Insider Tips: The 10 Best Hikes in Zion National Park.” See also a menu of all of my stories about Zion National Park, including my feature stories about a family backpacking trip, a 50-mile dayhike across the park, hiking Zion’s Subway, and backpacking Zion’s Narrows, plus all of my stories about national park adventures, hiking and backpacking in southern Utah, and family adventures at The Big Outside.
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