The Angels Landing Hike at Zion National Park is Awesome, but it’s not for Everyone

If you’ve completed the 5.4 mile roundtrip hike to Angels Landing at Zion National Park you know exactly the feeling—it’s one of those hikes you’re glad you completed, but one time is plenty! The Angels Landing hike is also not made for everyone; if you’re afraid of heights or out of shape, we highly recommend taking a back seat on this one.

Getting to Angels Landing: Shuttles and Parking

The day prior, we hoped to get early morning tickets for the Zion Canyon shuttle when they were released at 9 a.m. Mountain Time. But after making the mistake of not adding a second ticket to the shopping cart, we lost precious time and the morning tickets all sold out, leaving us with some of the last available 2 p.m. shuttle tickets. Not a total blunder, because we learned some important lessons that helped us the following day! With 2 p.m. tickets we were confident there would be plenty of time to complete the Angels Landing hike and get down before the last shuttle left the canyon. In mid-October 2020 that was at 7:15 p.m., but be sure to visit the park website to check for schedule changes. According to the Zion Information Guide the Angels Landing hike will take most people four hours to complete. Before heading off to Zion for our Kolob Canyons visit and Angels Landing hike we made sure to set an alarm for 8:50 a.m., logged into the reservation site, loaded the shopping cart with TWO tickets this time, and the second the clock struck 9 a.m. hit that checkout button as fast as humanly possible. We scored the 8 a.m. shuttle tickets for the next day! We’ll tell you all about that adventure in our next post about the Narrows hike.

In order to limit park attendance due to COVID-19, the National Parks system has implemented a temporary reservation system for the Zion Canyon shuttle tickets. Each ticket only costs $1, but the shuttle is one of the few ways to access the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, because private vehicles are not allowed on the scenic drive when the shuttle is in operation—which is basically all year with the exception of January-February. Alternative ways to access the scenic drive include walking, riding bikes or renting a private shuttle. One block of shuttle tickets is released two weeks in advance of a specific date, and the other block is released at 9 a.m. Mountain Time the day prior. These tickets sell out almost immediately, but we learned a trick from other park visitors; if you don’t snag your desired tickets one the first go—check the site again around 9:15 a.m. Tickets that were held up in other carts at 9 a.m. get re-released when people change their minds or don’t get the ticket times they wanted.

Pro-tip: After you buy your Zion shuttle passes you’ll receive a confirmation email with a PDF attached—those are your tickets. Screenshot them in order to board the shuttle throughout the canyon. There’s no service in the Zion canyon, so you won’t be able to retrieve them in your email box later!

This temporary reservation system is quite a pain, but the COVID-19 safety measures drastically reduced the number of people in the park, and we actually preferred it that way! We visited a few years ago during the spring and found long lines and packed shuttles. This likely created a more enjoyable experience for us at Angels Landing, a very popular and often crowded trail that can become pretty dangerous when tons of people are on the chains section. Yes, there are chains…

Learning a few lessons from our last visit to Zion, we figured that by mid-afternoon the parking lot at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center within the park would be full. There is a convenient free shuttle in Springdale that transports visitors between the park entrance and nine stops in town. Throughout Springdale there is plenty of parking available for a fee in a number of lots and along the street. We found a dirt parking lot near the third shuttle stop that cost $10 for the day; it was only about a ten minute walk to Zion from there, so if you don’t feel like waiting for the shuttle that comes about every 15 minutes it’s pretty walkable. We were pleasantly surprised to find a random white chicken, who we dubbed “the Zion chicken,” strolling through our parking lot too!

The goal was to arrive in Springdale by 1 p.m. which we assumed would give us adequate time to find parking, eat a sandwich and ride the Springdale shuttle to the Zion entrance by 2 p.m. The Zion Canyon shuttle tickets are valid for one hour, so we just needed to make sure to be on a shuttle anytime between 2 to 3 p.m. Fortunately it was smooth sailing finding parking in Springdale and riding the free shuttle to Zion, and they even let us board the Zion Canyon shuttle early at 1:45 p.m.! Before arriving in Springdale we decided to use our available morning hours to visit the Kolob Canyons section of Zion. The separate Kolob Canyons entrance is a 45-minute drive northwest from the main gate in Springdale. The Kolob Canyons are beautiful! The views are very similar to the main canyon at Zion, but without all the crazy crowds. There are several hiking trails in the Kolab Canyons ranging between one to 14 miles, including a trail to the Kolob Arch—one of the largest arches in the world! We highly recommend making time in your itinerary to explore the Kolob Canyons, especially if you want to beat the crowds.

Hiking to Angels Landing

Angels Landing is accessed by the West Rim Trail, located across the road from The Grotto, stop #6 on the Zion Canyon shuttle. You’ll cross over the Virgin River on a footbridge, and before beginning the hike you’ll pass a sign at the trailhead for Angels Landing that reads ‘danger’ and lists the number of people who’ve died since 2004—10—reassuring, right?! This hike is not for the faint of heart! There’s a 1,500 foot change in elevation, steep drop-offs, and it is not recommended for children or anyone with a fear of heights. It may be possible to reach Scout Lookout, a 4.4 mile roundtrip trek, but getting there isn’t easy-peesy either. As the signs throughout the park caution, your safety is your responsibility. Some safety measures you can take include telling someone where you plan to hike, wearing proper clothing, footwear and sunscreen, and packing plenty of water and snacks. If you do not feel comfortable at any point on this hike, the safest thing you can do is stop and turnaround. The last thing you or anyone else needs is to become paralyzed by fear, especially on the chains section.

The first section of the hike is a nice gradual climb along the Virgin River, which was just absolutely stunning surrounded by the golden fall foliage. As you climb higher up the hill you’ll begin leaving the riverside and start encountering switchbacks more frequently. At first the switchbacks look a bit intimidating as you watch all the hikers, who look like tiny ants, ascend up the side of the canyon wall. If we choose to complete this hike again someday, we would definitely start in the early morning or late afternoon in order to avoid the heat and midday sun that was beating down on us! As we reached the top of this first section of switchbacks, before heading into Refrigerator Canyon, there were these powerful and much-needed gusts of wind that felt AWESOME after that hot and sweaty ascent! The next leg of the journey is Refrigerator Canyon, a shady, breezy and flat refuge that lies between the two sets of intense switchbacks. Hikers on the way down said this was the best part of the trail and to be sure to enjoy it while it lasted. Sure enough Refrigerator Canyon was the calm before the storm; we knew exactly what everyone meant when we encountered Walter’s Wiggles, the last set of switchbacks that bring you up the final stretch to Scout Lookout. These switchbacks are particularly annoying because they’re short and there are 21 of them! We would hammer out about five sets and then stop for a mini break. Although we’re both in pretty good shape, we hadn’t hiked in a long time and COVID severely impacted our normal workout routines. At times my legs felt a bit like jello, which I assume is why they call these things Walter’s “Wiggles.”

Once you reach the top of Walter’s Wiggles, Scout Lookout is only a short walk from there, and what a glorious site it is! Finally a large open space with plenty of room to stop for a rest. The river, road and shuttle buses below look tiny; at that moment you realize just how high up you are on those canyon walls. It’s a pretty amazing feeling to know my little legs carried me 1,000 feet to the top! Anyone who makes it to Scout Lookout should be proud, that alone is a huge accomplishment-—it’s a strenuous hike! This is where many hikers choose to turnaround, and for good reason; the final 500 foot stretch to reach Angels Landing is the dangerous and famous Hogsback chain section. It’s a combination of hiking, scrambling and rock climbing. Chains have been fixed to the rocks to help pull hikers up the rock cliffs. There’s a section where the trail is only a few feet wide with steep drop offs on both directions. It’s highly recommended by us and many hikers we met along the way—don’t look down. We overheard a seasoned climber say, “just don’t look down, don’t think about it too much and just keep going.” We fully agree with this advice unless you reach a point that you’re too scared and no longer feel safe. If you’re feeling that way at Scout Lookout then don’t even go on any further. If you feel that way at any point along the way, stop, breath, assess if you can continue on, and if not start slowly making the descent back down.

Looking ahead to that final stretch and the chains can be pretty overwhelming and even terrifying. Although I felt some nerves and anxiety, I mostly felt this intense drive to make the final push to the summit of Angels Landing. To protect against COVID-19 infection climbers are asked to use hand sanitizer before starting the chains and also wear gloves while using them. It was reassuring to see that most hikers complied with one or both of these safety measures and a good number wore masks as well. We were concerned about having to share the chains with hikers going in both directions, as this is an out-an-back trail, there is no alternative route. In our experience fellow hikers were very respectful and responsible; groups going in either direction would stop and wait for all the members in passing groups before moving ahead. If you’re nervous about the chains there’s a pretty tough section right in the beginning where you can get acquainted with them. You’ll likely know right here if you can manage the chains for the next 1.1 miles of the hike or not. After accomplishing the first introduction of chains we both felt confident enough to keep going. Following a strangers advice we just continued to keep our eyes ahead and on our feet, and refrained from looking over the edge of the cliff. It felt as if we were climbing forever when we reached a point and realized that we’d need to climb back down in order to climb all the way up—AH! It was at this ridge, with stunning nearly 360-degree panoramic views overlooking the canyon and Angels Landing itself, that we chose to take a break and decide whether or not we could continue the final climb. As we tried to avoid getting stuck in our own heads and working ourselves up, we eventually mustered up the confidence and courage to keep hiking—the summit was just within reach. After a few more tricky sections, and some advice from and confidence instilled in us by a hiker in our group, we successfully reached the promise land! There’s one last bit of chains and a small climb that brings you to the top of the ridge, from there the summit of Angels Landing is only a short walk away. Once I realized I could stand upright again and walk without the assistance of chains—and that I’d MADE IT!—I cried a little from joy. Overall the entire hike took us a little moire than three hours to complete.

Our Favorite Memories of the Angels Landing Hike

The views from Angels Landing are breathtaking and I don’t believe anyone can argue that; you literally have a 360-degree view of the Zion canyon. But the views are not what we’ll remember the most from this whole experience. Obviously we’ll remember the chains and the rock climbing, the fear and the overwhelming sense of accomplishment, and the soreness and the blisters. But they say travel is more about the journey than the destination, and in the case of Angels Landing that is 100% accurate. Hands down one of the best things about this hike were the people we met along the way. Everyone was super supportive and encouraging, because we were all on this crazy journey together! Throughout the hike we often leap-frogged with many of the same groups, so those familiar faces started to become your new buddies. We learned that big bearded men in bright colors, i.e. Bob, provide other hikers with lots of positive motivation! It was quite obvious just how happy everyone was coming down the hill; we saw the biggest smiles! We passed one of our favorite dudes as he walked down Walter’s Wiggles, hiking in jeans and double-fisting an apple and a bologna sandwich and raving about how awesome it was to reach Scouts Lookout. There were also an unusually high number of people talking about how they planned to reward themselves with steak dinners that evening! We had countless conversations along the way, and it feels like we have a bond with all these total strangers. It’s always fun and inspiring to find people who enjoy and appreciate adventure as much as we do.

If you enjoyed this post, check back for our next one about hiking the Narrows at Zion National Park the following day. The Narrows hike is literally in the Virgin River—in the water and up a slot canyon. It was like nothing we’ve ever experienced. Let us know if you have any questions about Zion or any of our adventures!

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