Zion National Park boasts nearly 150,000 acres of jaw-dropping scenery, featuring a patchwork of landscapes each more worthy of its own canvas than the last. Zion’s extraordinarily shaped sandstone canyons, waterfalls that plunge over sheer cliffs, array of unique flora and fauna, and ancient remnants of the Native American civilizations that once inhabited the land draw over four million visitors per year from around the world. Despite the bountiful space and seemingly endless peaks and valleys to explore, the attention at Zion is fixed on the park’s main canyon, and its main attraction, Angel’s Landing.
Angel’s Landing is an isolated wonder of sandstone rock that protrudes straight into the center of Zion Canyon, with sheer drops that plunge over a thousand feet on either side. It’s a sky island in the center of the canyon, providing a view that attracts thousands of daily visitors to test the challenge of ascending its steep and narrow spine, so steep in fact that chains have been installed to assist hikers.
Like the multitude of hikers before me, Angel’s Landing was the first thing that came to mind when planning a hiking itinerary for my first trip to Zion. I figured that it was an obligation to scale the park’s most popular peak.
Now, weeks after my maiden voyage to Zion and first ascent of Angel’s Landing, I pose a question to myself, a question that some may find repulsive, while others might relate: Is hiking Angel’s Landing even worth it?
My short answer: it depends.
For the long answer, I’ll explain.
It’s just past 6am as I pull into the visitor center parking lot with my hiking group of four. It’s still pitch black at the mouth of Zion Canyon. The air is crisp, completely still, hovering near freezing. We lace up our boots, break out our newly-purchased-off-Amazon hiking poles, and make our way across the poorly lit parking lot.
We’ve just arrived fresh off an eight-hour road trip from California and a quick night’s sleep at a nearby cottage. We’re up before the crack of dawn with one goal in mind: to hike Angel’s Landing before the crowds become unbearable.
Zion Canyon has a no-car policy to limit air pollution in the area, so to get beyond a certain point in the canyon, you need to use the free shuttle service provided by the park. As we meander our way through the dark to the shuttle stop, we are not surprised to see a snaking queue already formed between movie theater-esque stanchions. I was expecting this but was half-hoping that we would be among a small handful of hikers aiming to get on the first shuttle, as unrealistic as it sounded.
Luckily, we got on the first bus, which was packed to the brim with hikers. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure where everyone was going — Angel’s Landing. The shuttle would slow to a halt at the designated stops along the way and open its doors. Not a soul exited, not until the Grotto, the stop for the Angel’s Landing trailhead. Predictably, everyone got off at the Grotto, leaving the bus empty for the remainder of its route.
Just like that the horses were out of the gates and the hordes of people, presumably around 100 by my estimation, were in a speed-walk race to the top of Angel’s Landing. The final chained section of the route is really best suited for one-way traffic and fills up fast during the day, so there is an advantage to beating the crowds.
We opted not to join the race to the top, and took our sweet time arranging our packs, using the restroom, and admiring the fearless dear roaming just meters away. When we were ready to commence the hike, the next shuttle, which come every 15 minutes, was already upon us, unloading another hundred or so people, many of whom entered the race to the top. Next thing we knew we were getting passed by speed walkers pushing up to the peak. Not wanting to join the stressful race, we kept at a steady pace and went with the “we’ll get there when we get there” attitude.
The hike up to the start of the chained section is actually quite easy by my standards. After two miles and about a thousand feet up a nicely paved trail, you arrive at the chains. This is where things get interesting.
The trail follows the narrow sandstone spine for a half mile to reach the top, with another 700 feet or so of elevation to climb. What looks like an overly dangerous trail from afar is actually not so bad as you take it section by section. I found it relatively comparable to other difficult hikes I have done, it’s just that the consequence is immense. A wrong step could be your last, as has been the case for six people on the chains since 2004 (a surprisingly low number). The chains do provide a sense of safety, but in my opinion the real danger is the people.
Many of the hikers on this trail are by no means what I would call experts. I was astonished by people who were hiking with kids seemingly under the age of seven, people who were afraid of heights and inching along on their butts, people who were overly confident, practically trail running away from the chains, and people who were simply ill-prepared with grip-less tennis shoes.
To not paint a picture of complete chaos, there of course were plenty of competent, prepared hikers too, but the point is that in my opinion the real danger, if any, is the people, not so much the route itself.
We proceeded with caution, communicating well with hikers traveling the opposite direction and being overly careful with our steps due to the high stakes at play. It was early enough that the traffic coming down was rather minimal. We made it to the summit with no incidents and took in the 360 degree view of Zion Canyon, which was impressive, but definitely not the most impressive view that I would get during my four days in Zion.
The real challenge came on the return trip as the great number of later morning hikers poured up the chains. People were determined to claim their right of way and there definitely was a bit of tension in the air as to who would pass going up or coming down. Trains of people formed on the trail. As the people going down ceded to the people going up, a backup would form where the descending traffic stopped, and vice versa.
A few times the person leading the train that we were in going down had to shout around blind corners “no more!” to indicate that the bottleneck of descending hikers was getting out of hand.
Most people were in a great mood on the trail, taking an almost comical approach to the non-stop traffic jams occurring before us. A few were not so light hearted, clearly angered or annoyed as they passed, most likely due to their inner fear or anxiety of hiking the trail.
With a lot of patience and waiting, we made it past the chains at Scout’s Lookout. It was definitely an exhilarating, unique experience summiting Angel’s Landing, but that brings me back to the original question: Was it worth it?
Now, given that I have only been to Zion once (not much of a sample size to work from), I understand that my opinions might not be the most well-informed. I do understand that this hike is the highlight of some people’s lives, so I don’t want to take that away from anyone. This is just my subjective opinion after my experience.
That said, let me explain my original answer, “it depends.” Here are the top-line factors that I think play into that question.
Length of stay
If you have multiple days in Zion, I would say sure, go for it. Give Angel’s Landing a chance. If you aren’t too fond of it you still have plenty of time to try other hikes.
If you are zipping through Zion with limited time to do a wide variety of hikes, I would say don’t be afraid to skip it. There are plenty of other hikes that have less crowds and the same views, if not better. You don’t even have to look very far. After I hiked Angel’s Landing I continued just a few miles up the West Rim Trail (the same trail that gets you to Angel’s Landing) only to discover a previously unimaginable solitude, sweeping views, and beautiful landscapes. The east side of Zion is also littered with similar hikes that show the vast beauty of the park, minus the crowds. We did an amazing loop-hike at Cockeye Falls and literally did not come across another soul the whole day. Just empty, stunning landscape and thousands of big-horned sheep hoof prints.
If you are an intermediate level hiker and want to do a hike that will challenge you, while staying relatively in your comfort zone, sure, go for Angel’s Landing. If you are an experienced hiker, the relatively short five mile hike and 1,600 feet of elevation gain may leave you wanting more, a hike that will feel like more of an accomplishment. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are a novice hiker, out of shape, or don’t have particularly good balance, I would say look for easier hikes elsewhere.
Are you the kind of person that prefers to enjoy the solitude of nature? If so, you may be driven crazy before you even get to Angel’s Landing by people with music playing out loud through portable speakers, others doing Facetime calls while they hike, and hordes of little children who will throw handfuls of dirt on you (we experienced all three). I lean towards the solitude side of the spectrum, but understand that many popular hikes are popular for good reason, so crowds are just part of it.
Are you the social type that loves meeting strangers and listening to their music and/or children? You’ll feel right at home.
Does anything need to be done about it?
Before I deter anyone from Hiking Angel’s Landing, I must say that I truly did enjoy the hike. You really can’t go wrong in Zion. But out of all the hikes that I did in the park, this one ranks at the bottom simply because of how incredible and empty the other hikes were.
I don’t see the current system at Angel’s Landing being sustainable for too long as the amount of park visitors continues to grow. It reminds me of a situation closer to home in Yosemite National Park. For years the final “cable” route up to the top of Yosemite’s famed Half Dome was open for anyone, resulting in over a thousand daily hikers jamming the narrow pathway, major traffic jams, and long waits to reach the top. It got to the point where the hike wasn’t very fun for anyone and unnecessarily dangerous with the crowds. Yosemite implemented a permit system in 2010, limiting the number of hikers to 300 per day and making the experience much more enjoyable for everyone.
I see through Zion National Park’s communication channels that they acknowledge the overcrowding and are actively contemplating solutions. I imagine that someday they may look at the Half Dome solution for inspiration, which could have a silver lining. Limiting the amount of people on Angel’s Landing may encourage visitors to be more proactive and discover other corners of the park, hikes that they may find even more amazing and enjoyable. Let’s just hope an accident doesn’t have to catalyze the solution.
My first trip to Zion was amazing and my first ascent of Angel’s Landing was… nice… mediocre when compared side by side with the other hikes I completed over my four days there. If you are heading to Zion and thinking that Angel’s Landing is at the top of your itinerary, I’m not saying don’t do it, but maybe take a second to think about some of these factors that I brought up. It is Zion, after all. You can’t go wrong.