Monday, March 6, 2017

Angels Landing

Angels Landing
5 miles round trip, 1500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous; extreme exposure in final rock scramble
Access: Zion National Park entrance fee required, Zion Canyon shuttle to trailhead

The name "Angels Landing" occupies an almost hallowed place in American hiking. The hike/scramble route to the top of this precarious sandstone fin in the heart of Utah's Zion Canyon is one of the most celebrated trails on the continent for both its stunning views of Zion and for the spine-tingling thrills of the route itself. In the last half mile of the hike, steel chains guide a rock scramble along a narrow ridge with thousand-foot dropoffs on either side, leading to a lofty destination high above the Virgin River with nonpariel views of the great walls and cliffs of Navajo Sandstone carved out by the river below. This is a popular hike because it is an extraordinary hike; both for solitude and to ensure safety through the rock scramble sections, I recommend that you visit very early in the day to avoid the masses that ascend the rock during regular tourist hours.

The dangers of Angels Landing should not be underestimated. Many hikers attempt to summit Angels Landing without sufficient water or appropriate footwear. Wear hiking boots. If you don't have shoes with good traction, realize that at multiple points along the trail, your solid footing will be the only thing preventing you from a freefall down to the Virgin River. At least fifteen hikers have died from falls on this trail; a solo hiker died after plunging off Angels Landing into Refrigerator Canyon less than a week after my visit. Hiking when there are fewer people on the fin also helps ensure safety: many parts of the rock scramble do not easily allow for two-way traffic, so it's much better to handle those parts of the hike without constantly battling a stream of hikers going the other direction. If you do not feel comfortable with rock scrambling or you have a strong fear of heights, it would be extremely foolish to try to venture past Scout Lookout towards the summit. Do not attempt to summit Angels Landing when conditions are wet or icy or when lightning is likely.

From March to October, Zion Canyon is closed to private vehicles except to those with reservations for Zion Lodge. A shuttle bus runs from the park visitor center to the Temple of Sinawava, making nine stops along the way including one at the Grotto, where the Angels Landing Trail starts; although this may sound inconvenient the shuttle bus has frequent service and moves reasonably fast and will save you a lot of time that you'd otherwise spend looking for parking in this incredbily popular park. The road is generally open to cars during the winter and the trailhead has parking for over 50 cars, but will occasionally be closed to cars and only open to buses on some winter weekends.

I drove to the trailhead on an early Monday morning, taking the road north into the park from Springdale just as the first hints of light began arriving in the dawn skies. I drove up the canyon and parked at the Grotto and started up the trail before sunrise.

The trail started on the west side of the Grotto parking area. I immediately crossed a bridge spanning the Virgin River and came to a junction between the West Rim and Kayenta Trails. The Kayenta Trail headed southwest towards Emerald Pools, so I took the right fork for the flat West Rim Trail towards Angels Landing.

The next three-quarters of trail were fairly flat as I hiked along the winding Virgin River. Towering walls of Navajo Sandstone rose around me on all sides. The most impressive of these stone faces was Angels Landing itself, a great monolith rising in the middle of the canyon. Observation Point and the Great White Throne were other notable and impressive rock features nearby.

Angels Landing and Observation Point rise above the Virgin River
The Navajo Sandstone of the walls of canyon form the main component of the White Cliffs of the Grand Staircase, a geological wonder stretching across the multi-layered Colorado Plateau all the way to the Grand Canyon. The many sedimentary layers of the Grand Staircase were laid tens of millions of years ago when this landscape was partially or completely submerged by a sea that filled the interior of the North American continent. The red and white Navajo Sandstone formed from the lithification of great sand dunes.

Vegetation in the canyon- and in the park in general- was quite varied. Juniper lined the trail, patches of prickly pear were scattered across the canyon floor, and I found copious sagebrush at higher elevations. A few days earlier, I had noticed creosote growing in the park outside the canyon; the presence of both creosote and sagebrush highlighted the ecological transition zones present in the park between the creosote-covered Mojave Desert and the sagebrush lands of the Great Basin.

Prickly pear in Zion Canyon
After a half-mile of flat hiking along the Virgin River, the trail began a gradual ascent up the lower slopes of Cathedral Mountain with the help of some switchbacks. Ahead, the trail seemed to be approaching a hanging canyon separated from the main Zion Canyon by an impassable rock wall. It was initially unclear to me how the trail would overcome this serious obstacle. The solution, it turned out, was a path blasted into the wall, with sandstone overhanging the trail through the cliff. Views from this part of the hike were already quite impressive: looking south, I could see a line of sandstone mountains rising from the canyon floor, including the Watchman in the distance and the Great White Throne directly across the canyon.

Angels Landing Trail
At the top of the cliff, the trail crossed a bridge and entered Refrigerator Canyon, about a mile from the trailhead. This narrow canyon has been cut between Cathedral Mountain and Angels Landing. The wash in Refrigerator Canyon was dry during my visit but presumably could flash flood during storms. The paved trail paralleled the wash through the cool and forested canyon.

Refrigerator Canyon
I noticed multiple small caves in the sandstone to the right of the trail. I was unsure whether these caves naturally formed in the Navajo Sandstone or whether they were created by blasting as part of constructing the trail, but either way I found them to be unexpectedly beautiful; the walls of the small caves seemed to give off their own light on that overcast morning.

Sandstone cave in Refrigerator Canyon
Towards the end of Refrigerator Canyon, the trail began to climb up the east wall of the canyon away from the wash. The grade here was fairly steep, becoming steeper as the trail made a few sharp switchbacks blasted into the rock face. As the trail rounded the fifth switchback, I found myself at the base of a series of extremely short, steep switchbacks blasted into the wall of Angels Landing. These were Walter's Wiggles: a set of twenty tight switchbacks set into the cliff that solve the problem of bringing a trail up the sheer walls of Angels Landing. The Wiggles are named after early Zion Park superintendent Walter Ruesch, who ordered the construction of the switchbacks so that visitors would have a way of accessing the views of Angels Landing. Impressively, Reusch designed these masonry-enforced switchbacks up the canyon walls without an engineering background. This is the steepest section of paved trail on this hike; while some trail guides describe this section of trail as being difficult, frequent hikers will find the grades of the Wiggles to be fairly standard fare.

Walter's Wiggles
Atop the Wiggles, the trail straightened out and soon arrived atop the narrow ridge connecting Angels Landing with the western wall of the canyon. The West Rim Trail split from the Angels Landing Trail here; two outhouses have been placed near the trail junction. A short metal railing marks the location of Scout Lookout, a viewpoint down into the canyon below and the turn-around point for many hikers who choose not to tackle the final scramble to Angels Landing.

Here, the Angels Landing Trail headed off to the south along the narrow ridge. A sign at the start of the scramble warned hikers of the risks ahead. The chains started right away, with the trail cut into the cliff face overlooking Refrigerator Canyon. The route was Class 3 scrambling, made substantially safer by the presence of the chains and footholds etched into the rock. However, the exposure on the route was still quite extreme and should be approached with much caution. It's particularly important to be patient with traffic at extremely narrow sections of trail: many areas are not wide enough to accomodate passing or two-way traffic.

Ridge scramble along Angels Landing
The trail emerged on an intermediate summit before the final climb that provided a jaw-dropping view of the fin of Angels Landing rising directly from the Virgin River below, with the towers of Zion's eastern wall rising across the canyon. Past this summit, the trail entered some of its most hair-raising segments, crossing a two-foot wide sandstone isthumus with drops of a thousand feet on both sides.

Ridge scramble on the way to Angels Landing
The final ascent was a constant scramble up the spine of the fin with constant views and continuous thrills from the precarious nature of the path itself.

Scramble route
It took me about half an hour to complete the half-mile rock scramble from Scout Lookout to the summit of Angels Landing- importantly, this time estimate came from a hike in which I ran into few other hikers and no traffic at chokepoints along the scramble.

Looking back along the fin of Angels Landing
Once atop the summit fin of Angels Landing, I followed the sandstone spine to its southern end and enjoyed views over the canyon. Observation Point and the Great White Throne lay directly across the canyon, with the Virgin River making two huge, sweeping bends around the Organ directly below. A temporary waterfall, fed by melting snow in the park's higher elevations, plunged hundreds of feet down the sandstone walls at Weeping Rock. Strong winds whipping through the canyon caused the waterfall to dance around and also made prolonged sitting at the summit of Angels Landing a somewhat cold affair.

Observation Point, the Organ, and the bends of the Virgin River
Waterfall at Weeping Rock and the Observation Point Trail
My favorite part of the view was to the north: here, the canyon walls came closer and closer together until they almost appeared to meet north of the Temple of Sinawava. There, the Virgin River emerged from the Narrows, where the wide Zion Canyon becomes a slit just a few meters wide sliced into the Navajo Sandstone. The canyon is narrow where the river still slices through the Navajo formation: this tough rock can easily form vertical cliffs. However, the underlying Kayenta formation is much softer; when the Virgin River cuts into the Kayenta formation, it erodes it much more easily, which causes the collapse of Navajo sandstone blocks above the hollowed out Kayenta layers; this mechanism is responsible for Zion's unique combination of sheer walls and a wide river canyon south of Angels Landing.

The Virgin River exiting the Narrows
View down canyon from Angels Landing
Zion's steep cliffs and wide canyon floor are remniscent of another renowned national park. In many ways, Zion Canyon seemed like a sandstone Yosemite with fewer waterfalls. However, while Yosemite's distinct U-shape and steep walls were the result of glacial erosion, Zion's U-shape derives from its unique geology.

Great White Throne
By the time I started my descent, midday hikers were already setting out up the trail. Luckily, I managed to get back to Scout Lookout before the main pack of hikers reached the scramble. I passed well over fifty hikers on my way from Scout Lookout back to the parking lot; I was glad I didn't have to be on the chained section as the same time as all the other hikers that day. Setting out early on this classic and deservedly-renowned hike certainly paid off.

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