Thursday, June 28, 2018

An Inexperienced Hiker's Take on Angel's Landing

Hello, my name is Ericka and I am an inexperienced hiker.  A novice.  A complete and total rookie.  

Before my trip to Zion National Park, I had only truly hiked four times.  That's right - four; I had four hikes under my belt before I attempted to hike to the pinnacle of Angel's Landing, the most renowned day hike in Zion that consistently ranks as one of the best hikes in the United States and also as one of the scariest.    

During the 2.7 mile trek up to Angel's Landing, hikers ascend 1,488 feet from the canyon floor to the summit which sits at 5,790 feet above sea level.  Those who make it to the top are rewarded with incredible views of the Virgin River and canyon below.  Reaching the summit requires tackling steep switchbacks, facing sheer drop-offs on both sides of the trail, and more climbing and scrambling than hiking during the last half mile.

I like to describe my hike to Angel's Landing according to the distinct sections I encountered along the way.

Grotto Trailhead

The first 2.2 miles are on the West Rim Trail, which begins across the Virgin River from the Grotto Trailhead (stop #6 if riding the Zion shuttle).  Here the trail is mostly paved and it meanders along  relatively level terrain that gradually increases in elevation.  Angel's Landing is easily visible from the very beginning as the sandstone tower juts out into the canyon.  I found it absolutely impossible to ignore and I kept looking up towards its summit in the early morning hour.  

After some time, I came to the first set of switchbacks which took me up the steep rock.  The hike up the switchbacks wasn't terrible, but it definitely got my heart pumping and I stopped several times to catch my breath.

Beginning our trek to Angel's Landing, the huge towering sandstone 
formation in the background.

The first set of switchbacks.

The West Rim Trail and switchbacks as viewed before Refrigerator Canyon.

Refrigerator Canyon

As a reward for making it up the first set of switchbacks, hikers enter Refrigerator Canyon, a narrow canyon that is predominately shady and substantially cooler than the rest of the trail.  Given that I was hiking at an early hour and the temperature was already in cool (high 40s/low 50s), I couldn't tell any difference in the canyon.  After about a third of a mile, we reached Walter's Wiggles.

Walter's Wiggles

I can't help but chuckle every time I say that name, but, alas, I digress.  Walter's Wiggles is a series of 21 steep, zigzagging switchbacks that quickly rise to the top of the ridge.  I'll be completely honest, "the wiggles" are appropriately named.  As I continued the seemingly endless, relentless climb, my thighs burned like wildfire.  By the time I reached the top, my legs definitely had "the wiggles."  I stopped several times during this section to catch my breath and to give my legs a short break.

An aerial view of Walter's Wiggles. via

Scout Lookout

Hikers emerge from top of Walter's Wiggles at Scout Lookout, a relatively flat and wider area where the trail splits; the West Rim Trail continues to the north and the trail to Angel's Landing turns to the south.  Here hikers can catch their breath, use the available pit toilets, enjoy the scenic views, and/or continue on one of the trails.  This is also a common turnaround point for hikers who decide to go no further.

The Saddle and Hogsback

From Scout Lookout, I crossed what is known as The Saddle, a narrow ridge with sheer 1,000 foot drop-offs on both sides.    I remember very little about this section of the trail and I took no pictures while on it. I'm not afraid of heights, but I'm very realistic.  Prior to my Zion visit, I read many articles online and was hyper-aware of the fact that this is a trail from which people have fallen to their deaths. I gave the trail and my footing my complete and undivided attention. 
The route from Scout Lookout to Angel's Landing. via
The Saddle. via
The Saddle and Hogsback.  via

As the ridge widened slightly on the other side, I started to  climb the ridiculously steep section called Hogsback.  Most people, regardless of their hiking and/or climbing abilities, utilize the chains at this point. (The chains first appeared right after Scout Lookout.)  I used the chains and everything else I could grab onto to climb the rugged, rocky face.  Somewhere near the top, after emerging from a particularly hard chain section, I looked up expecting to see the summit. Instead I saw another set of chains looming ahead and "Holy shit..." escaped from my mouth.  I took a moment to catch my breath and continued to trudge upwards.

The ascent up Hogsback. via

Angel's Landing Summit

I don't think I realized that I had reached the summit until the chains disappeared and the sandstone path under my feet leveled out.  That's when I saw the expansive view of Zion Canyon and I knew I had finally made it to the top.

Exhausted and perhaps a bit delirious, I found a good spot to sit down, rest, and take in the wondrous view. Even though much of the canyon was still in the early morning shadows, the view was stunning. 

Yes, without my ball cap my hair was all crazy (I took it off earlier because I didn't want 
the wind whipping it off my head) and without my sunglasses I was squinting like crazy.  
Not the most flattering picture of myself, but I don't care.  That's how I looked at that 
precise moment.

After taking some time to rest, reflect, hydrate, and eat while simultaneously fending off an aggressively foraging chipmunk who wanted part of my Clif Bar, I started the downward hike.  Overall, the descent was much easier, but still difficult in tight, narrow spots. Even though my group reached the summit early, by the time we started our descent, we encountered a steady stream of uphill climbers on the narrow spine.  This made two way traffic very difficult.
I'm smiling because it was all downhill from there.

Once we left Scout Lookout, the rest of the hike down to the canyon was easy with one caveat - a steep uphill climb to the summit translates to a steep downhill hike on the return trip which can be murder on the knees.  To take some of the pressure off, I walked with two trekking poles which really helped.

Pointing to where I had just come from after reaching the end of the trail.

Even though I had a good idea of what I was getting into, Angel's landing surprised me in a lot of ways.  I had no idea how challenging and strenuous it would be and how much climbing would be involved at the end.  

Here's the bottom line - you can read descriptions of the hike and watch YouTube videos galore, but until you've hiked it, you have no idea of what it's truly like.  So, having said that, here are some tips for newbie hikers like myself who are contemplating a trek to Angel's Landing.

Go Early

My hiking party was on the trail before 6:00 a.m. for two reasons:  1) to beat the heat and 2) to beat the crowds.  

Zion can get very hot during the summer; temperatures often exceed 100 degrees.  The hike to Angel's Landing is exhausting enough without adding heat exhaustion to the mix.  And, given its popularity, the trail can get very crowded and tends to do so throughout the day.  As I mentioned earlier, parts of the trail, especially the last 1/2 mile, are steep and narrow.  Two way traffic in these sections is difficult, dangerous, and often impossible.  When the narrow sections are clogged with people, the difficulty and danger are compounded.

An example of congestion on the trail.  Coincidentally, this is the spot on the trail that gave
me the most trouble.  En route to the summit, I had to literally jump down into this crevice
because I couldn't find any foot or toe holds that my uber short legs could reach.  On the
return trip, getting back up into this crevice required a lot of unique footing, straddling, scaling,
and upper body strength in order to pull myself up using the chains.  via

Pace Yourself

There's an old saying about leaving your ego at the door and that saying applies here, too, just leave your ego at the trailhead instead.  All of the people I hiked with are middle aged, myself included, and I couldn't tell you how many times we were passed on the trail by younger hikers who basically left us in their dust.  It was very tempting to try to match their pace and keep up with them, but we had to be realistic about our ability levels and remember that it was not a race.  In the end no one cared how fast we got there or in what order we arrived; the main thing is that we got there.  

Take Water and Food

The trail to Angel's Landing is 5.4 miles roundtrip and most posted signs claim that it takes an average of 4 hours to complete.  Do not skimp on water on this trail.  Given the elevation, the abundant sun exposure, and the physical exertion required, it's important to stay hydrated, especially during summer months. Remember, while there is water available at the trailhead, there is none available on the trail.

It's also a good idea to take a snack.  You expend a lot of energy on this trail and your body needs fuel. The last thing you want is to be hangry while negotiating the chains or while waiting on people to pass. This is definitely not the trail to be on if your sugar levels drop.

Wear Appropriate Footwear

As I descended, a lot of hikers were making their way up and as I passed them I noticed two things: 1) if they were carrying any water and 2) what kind of shoes they were wearing.  I saw a wide variety of footwear, ranging from flip-flops to Crocs to men's dress oxfords to women's heeled booties - I kid you not! Although I cannot fathom walking 2.2 miles uphill to Scout Lookout in any of them, I guess it's possible and the only person affected would be the wearer (blisters).  However, if those people went on to Angel's Landing wearing those shoes they not only put themselves in danger of  falling, but also the other people with whom they shared the trail.  You need to be as sure-footed as you can be on this trial. Hiking shoes, hiking boots, hiking sandals, or at the very least trail sneakers are essential.

Don't Bring Young Kids

Also on my way down, I saw a disturbing number of families hiking to Scout Lookout with young children in tow.  I can only hope that Scout Lookout was their final destination and that they didn't attempt to go on to Angel's Landing. Angel's Landing is rated as Difficult/Strenuous for a reason and it's simply too dangerous for kids. 

Be Patient

Along one of the chained sections on Hogsback, I got behind a lady who was moving at a slower pace than I. There were several times in which my climb came to a complete stop and I had to stand precariously on a narrow step clutching the chain as she figured out how to propel herself upwards.  So I waited...  patiently. This is not the place to rush people or to be in a rush yourself.  One rushed, miscalculated step could be deadly.  It's also important to keep in mind that most of the last 0.5 mile is so narrow that only one person can pass at a time.  There will be times when you have to stop in a wider section to let others up or down. This requires patience.

Respect Your Limitations

One of the most disturbing things I saw before I left Scout Landing on my way back down was a couple who was attempting to hike out onto The Saddle.  The guy was coaxing the girl down the narrowing path and it was obvious that she was scared to death.  I was very concerned for her because I knew that the trek was only going to get harder from that point on.  

If you are scared of heights, this may not be the trail for you.  If you have vertigo and balance issues, this may not be the trail for you.  If you are not in good health or out of shape, this may not be the trail for you. And you know what - that's ok.  There is absolutely no shame in knowing what your body is or is not capable of and stopping.  None.  This is another instance where you need to leave your ego at the trailhead.

Final Thoughts

The experience of hiking to Angel's Landing took several days to fully process.  When I started the hike that morning, I wasn't sure if I was going to continue past Scout Lookout or not.  I went with an open mind and trusted that I'd know what I could and wanted to do once I got there.  Looking back, I'm so very glad that I continued on.  It was by far the most strenuous, physically demanding, and dangerous thing I've ever done, but also one of the most rewarding.

For a first person perspective on the hike to Angel's Landing, please check out this video that my uncle filmed.  It's pretty cool and condenses the 2 - 2.25 hour trek into 13 minutes.

Linking up with:


  1. Wow, Ericka! Congratulations! What an amazing feat. And I love the way you told the story step by step through your personal navigation of the trails. The views and the photos are spectacular and breathtaking. But in all honesty, I started feeling anxious and a bit nauseous just from viewing the photos, so I don’t think I will ever add such a hike to my bucket list! I am utterly terrified of heights and get terrible this is definitely not for me. But what a tremendous and beautiful experience for you. Thanks so much for sharing!


    1. Thank you! It was a hike/climb that I've been mentally preparing for since back in the winter, even though I didn't do as much physical preparation as I would've liked! It is definitely not a hike for everyone bc of the elevation and bc of the uneven, rocky terrain. Thank you for reading!

  2. I went to Zion National Park when I was a kid. Beautiful place.

    I think my boy went on more hikes than you had by the time he was 3, LOL.

    Your advice to be physically prepared is good. Once when I was a kid we went on this hike with a bunch of switchbacks. Really difficult hike. On the way down, almost at the bottom, there was an old man with an ice chest on his back. Guy might have had a heart attack trying to get there.

    1. Growing up in the mountains of southern West Virginia, I played/walked/romped/ran through the woods all the time, we just didn't call them hikes. LOL! So, I probably have more hiking experience than I'm giving myself credit for, but as far as official hikes go, I am a complete rookie.

      Wowzers! You are right (man with ice chest)!

  3. Wow! Well done you. I definitely could not cope with that even if I was fit (which I'm not). It looks really scary but the view from the top is amazing. You must be so proud of your self.

    1. Thank you! I will admit, it gave me a tremendous sense of accomplishment!

  4. Congrats on doing the hike! I would love to someday but not sure if I can get my courage up. I can't believe some people attempt it in flip flops. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. Thank you! It's definitely a very rewarding trail, but it's not a trail for everyone. Yeah... I saw some of the most absurd footwear for trail hiking. SMH...

  5. Wow for being a novice, you managed QUITE the epic hike!! Looks like it was definitely fun! Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard!

  6. We've been to Zion many, many years ago, when our son was only 5 years old. We didn't hike any trails and kept planning to return when he was older. Time passed and we never did. I'd love to do Walter's Wiggles. Angel's Landing seems more difficult. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  7. Congratulations! I don't know if I'd be brave enough; I think I'd chicken out the moment I saw the Saddle. Your photos give a great idea of what to expect. #theweeklypostcard

  8. You had me at "inexperienced hiker"! I used to hike long, long time ago in high school with my friends, though all of them were always better hikers than I was. Still, I remember how thrilling it is to get to the top, and would like to do some more hiking with the kids. Your post reminded me I should really get off my butt, find a route, and just do it. Your photos look spectacular! Zion Park here we come, sooner or later.

  9. Oh gosh, I'm terrified of heights so I could never do this, but go you! I don't know why people wear the wrong shoes for things like this--- heeled booties? Like why? Thanks for sharing all of your tips! :)


    1. LOL! Thank you! Yeah, I'm not sure either (regarding inappropriate shoes). It would've been interesting sitting at the bottom and watching this people as they came down and seeing what shape they were in then...

  10. Walter's Wiggles are intense! (I definitely had to LOL at that name, too.) I'm not much of a hiker myself, so I'm super impressed that you did ALL OF THIS with no experience. I feel like Zion is where the pros are!! Good call starting early though - if I'm going to hike (lol), it's going to be before it's 100 degrees. 100%. ;) Well done!!

    1. LOL! Thank you! I think what made it doable for me, given my limited experience, is that I grew up in the mountains of southern West Virginia and as a kid the woods were my playground. I grew up climbing trees, swinging on grapevines, and scrambling up and down steep hillsides. Thanks again!

  11. I have vertigo issues. Not for me! Loved reading your experience though.


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