The chains section on Angels Landing was closed in March of 2020 because of Covid-19. It was re-opened in October 2020, but be sure check the park service website before your trip. Also note that the shuttle buses now require tickets until further notice.
how to survive (and enjoy!) your hike up Angels Landing at Zion National Park
Angels Landing Trail Guide
MAP: Trails Illustrated (or see below)
PERMITS: none (for now)
DESIGNATION: Zion National Park, entrance fee required
BEST SEASONS: spring and fall
HIKE LENGTH: 5.4 miles round trip
HIKE TIME: most take 3 to 5 hours
TRAILHEAD ELEVATION: ~4,300 feet
SUMMIT ELEVATION: 5,790 feet
ELEVATION GAIN: ~1,500 feet
ACCESS: shuttle bus only throughout most of the season (early February through late November). Parking is at Zion’s main entrance, though The Grotto parking lot is available in winter.
DIRECTIONS: When shuttle buses are running, board at the visitor center and exit at the bus stop for The Grotto. The well-signed trail begins across the street, and follows the West Rim Trail for the first leg of the hike.
Drive up the main canyon to The Grotto when buses are not in operation.
ROUTE: well maintained, crowded trail, signed junctions
GUIDEBOOK: Favorite Hikes in & around Zion
This is a very straightforward hike, but here’s a topo map that shows the Angels Landing Trail, marked in green.
The hike begins at The Grotto Picnic Area bus stop. From here you follow the West Rim Trail across the Virgin River and up to Scout’s Lookout, and take the infamous chains for the last half-mile to the top. (see trail description below)
The Chains Section is the Deadliest Place in Zion
The attraction of Angels Landing is its “living on the edge” factor of dangerous exposure. The last half-mile of the route, called the chains section, is dramatic and narrow.
The path is only a few feet wide here, thinner than a sidewalk, and exposed to high cliffs. Sometimes the cliffs are on both sides of the trail.
There’s a series of chain link handrails drilled into the rock. The chains add a measure of safety and intrigue to the hike, but accidents still happen.
Yes, people have fallen from here and it’s not pretty.
How many people really fell?
It’s not easy to dial in an exact death toll. There’s a number of different figures floating around from various sources, but I can say with confidence that there’s been at least 17 deaths. The great majority of those are falls from the trail.
The NPS FAQ page (reportedly not updated since 2006?) lists 8 deaths since 2004. They take special care to note that the figure does not involve incidents where foul play is suspected.
This CNN article about the most recent fall in 2019 (There’s no recorded deaths in 2020) quotes an NPS spokesperson on a figure of 9 deaths.
Several other tallies can be found around the web, unlikely to be up-to-date with the the latest falls, or clouding the number with other causes of death.
The most reliable source
Dave Nally, author of Deaths and Rescues in Zion National Park, states “Angels Landing is the deadliest spot in Zion. There have been at least 15 deaths there during the last century.”
Note that this figure cites “deaths,” rather than “falls.”
Dave shared this with me in early 2019 (a year in which there were two more ensuing deaths), so we can logically increase the figure to “at least 17,” or even bring it to a statement of “about 20” fatalities.
Timeline of 13 Falls Resulting in Death at Angels Landing
This list below may be incomplete, but it’s the most comprehensive take on the subject to be found on the internet. Here we can definitively see that at least 13 people fell since 1987, in sync with NPS statements that begin in 2004.
Since 2017 there’s an average of one death per year from falling!
2019 November – 19 year-old Savannah McTague fell – she was a Zion concessions employee from Maine. Portland WGME
2019 April – Pradeep Beryl Solomon, a 35 year-old resident of Salt Lake City. KSL
2018 February – 13-year-old girl from a southern Utah town (name unreleased) Salt Lake Tribune
2017 March – Tate Ryan Volino, a 45 year-old man from Osprey, Florida Deseret News
2010 April – 60+ year-old woman LA Times
2009 November – 50 year-old Tammy Grunig of Pocatello Idaho Idaho State Journal
2009 August – Nancy Maltez, age 55 of Glendora California LA Times
2007 June – Barry Goldstein, age 53, of St. Louis, Missouri National Parks Traveler
2006 August – Bernadette Vandermeer, age 29, of Las Vegas, Nevada Deseret
2004 June – Kristoffer Jones, age 14, of Long Beach, California Salt Lake Tribune
1997 January – John Christensen, 36, of Provo, Utah Deseret
April 1989 – Jeffery Robert Dwyer, 28, of Sandpoint, Idaho Deseret
May 1987 – Denver woman
Man pushes wife?
There’s a story in May of 1997 where a man was accused of pushing his wife (Patricia Bottarini, 36, of Medford, New Jersey) from a cliff in Zion. Sometimes the case is attributed to Angels Landing, but the incident actually took place along the Observation Point Trail.
James Bottarini was ultimately acquitted of the charges (AP News), but the notion of such an incident is not as improbable as you may think. Similar cases have occurred in other national parks:
- in 2012 a man pushed his wife in Rocky Mountain National Park (Huffington Post)
- in 2013 a woman pushed her husband in Glacier National Park (CNN)
- finally, there’s the classic story of serial killer Robert Spangler pushing his wife at Grand Canyon (Wikipedia)
If it sounds like I’m preoccupied with death and danger, it’s because I’m trying to scare you. A part of me wants you to choose another hike.
Why Must You Hike Angels Landing?
Ask yourself this.
The trail is vastly overcrowded and it’s not even the best view in Zion. The views from places like Observation Point and farther up the West Rim Trail are much better. The classic approach to Observation Point is currently CLOSED because of massive rockslide that obliterated the trail.
The thing is, people have established this as “must-do” hike.
After your visit, whenever you talk to someone who has been to Zion, their first question is likely to be “Did you do Angels Landing?”
If you say no, then you’re going to feel inferior. It’s simple peer-pressure stuff going on here, and I think it’s stupid.
This mentality leads to too many people on the trail! A majority of experienced hikers do not find Angels Landing to be especially scary. Even kids are often just fine and have fun with it. You may not even need to rely on the chains for balance. The problem is the crowds!
The chains and cliffs can be a whole lot of fun, but only if you’re surrounded by a manageable number of hikers.
Going on a hike where you share a half-mile, exposed section of the trail with hundreds of people doesn’t even feel like hiking anymore.
It feels kind of like Vegas.
But with cliffs.
WARNING: Do Not Hike Angels Landing If:
- You don’t like heights.
- You don’t like crowds of strangers.
- You can’t hike up and down 1,500ft of elevation in relative comfort.
- It’s noon in July.
- You’re not wearing shoes.
- You don’t have water.
- You don’t have a snack.
- You have to poop.
- Poop could possibly be in your future.
- You did not leave your drone in the car.
- You like for others to hear your awesome bluetooth speaker.
- You must feed alllllllll the chipmunks. They’re so cute!
4 Ways to Beat the Awful Crowds
1) Start Early
Arrive a day before the hike and find out when the first bus leaves the visitor center. It should be at six or seven in the morning. Then arrive at least half an hour before the first scheduled departure.
There will often be a line that forms for the first bus. Remember, it’s better to wait in line here than on a cliff!
If you do manage to start the hike early, don’t linger on the summit too long… the barbaric hordes are gathering below you.
Note that the bus system is running a little differently in 2020.
2) Start Late
Try this only if you’re experienced and at ease in the outdoors at night.
Time your hike so you’ll reach the top 30 minutes prior to sunset. If this method is for you, then I shouldn’t have to tell you how to calculate this.
After sunset you’ll have about 30 minutes of good light to get back down the chains.
Then use your headlamp to walk the remaining trail down to the road.
Be sure to check the shuttle schedule, but in most cases the buses run well after sunset.
This works because people are generally fearful of being caught out in the dark.
3) Go in the Off-Season
Unfortunately there isn’t much of an off-season anymore.
February is good. January is better. Early December is best.
Just be mindful of snow and ice.
Don’t go in March (Spring Break). March is bad. Memorial Day is worse.
If you’re in Zion when the buses aren’t running, you can drive to the Grotto and start before sunrise.
You get the idea. Buy low and sell high – easier said than done.
If you manage to work out your transportation, it’s doable for confident hikers to go entirely at night, too.
4) Do something else
You’ll have a much better experience.
Or go anyway, and just know what to expect.
So it’s August and you’ve slept in too late. You don’t like the idea of being on the trail at sunset.
Are you in good shape? Okay with heights? Can you responsibly handle yourself among a crowd of strangers, lined up on a thin trail along the edge of a cliff, and be patient? Will you refrain from judging others too much? Is your heart really set on this hike?
Then go anyway. Make friends and share jokes with your fellow hikers out there. You’ll be fine.
If, on the day of the hike, you doubt your ability to practice the qualities I’ve listed above, then please choose a different hike, or resign yourself to hanging around at the Scout Overlook while the rest of your party tags the top.
Trail Description (with more tips)
There’s a restroom where you leave the bus at The Grotto. Use it.
There are no good bathroom options along the trail, even for urinating. The Park Service maintains a couple of pit toilets at the Scout Overlook, but these are for emergency only! The NPS doesn’t have the funds to keep up with the regular toilets in the Park, let alone the extra maintenance required at backcountry locations like this.
From The Grotto Picnic Area you’ll cross the road, and cross the bridge over the Virgin River. Hang a right on the West Rim Trail.
You’ll start ascending a wide, paved trail. It’s a fairly steep grade, even from the very beginning.
At the top of the initial climb you’ll come to a narrow place called Refrigerator Canyon. This is the only place along the entirety of the hike where there’s good, reliable shade, so it’s a great place to take a break!
Take a deep breath, because at the end of Refrigerator Canyon you’ll trudge up the famous “Walter’s Wiggles.”
History of Walter’s Wiggles
Walter Ruesch was Zion’s first Park Superintendent, or “Custodian.” He’s largely responsible for planning the Angels Landing Trail, and overseeing its construction in the 1920s. Back then, Angels Landing was still called The Temple of Aeolus.
So it’s Walter that you have to thank for thinking it was a good idea for you to come up here – you and all your new best friends as you catch your breath up these 21 switchbacks.
At the top of Walter’s Wiggles you’ll come to Scout’s Lookout.
This is the place to stop if you don’t like heights. It’s okay, a lot of others will be hanging out here to keep you company. Think of it like a big, pretty, outdoor waiting room. This is where you’ll find the EMERGENCY ONLY toilets.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Rather than following all those boneheads up the chains, it’s from here that you can continue up the West Rim Trail to your heart’s content. Leave the crowds behind and actually have an enjoyable time up here.
The heart of hiking Angels Landing, of course, is beyond Scout’s Lookout. You’ll be able to see the rest of the intimidating route from here easily enough.
If you’re in good shape, sure-footed, and don’t have a problem with heights, the only thing intimidating about the last section will be the line of ants strung up and down the route (Line of people, actually… not ants).
Cross the narrow saddle and head on up. Have fun!
The summit isn’t especially spacious, and you may find it difficult to truly enjoy the scene from here in so much company.
Enjoy the exhilaration that comes with reaching the top.
Remember that you’ll have to retrace your steps and do it all over again on the way back down.
Watch out for the aggressive chipmunks and squirrels. Their only purpose in life is to relieve you of your food. Do not underestimate their speed and cunning.
My Trip Notes and Photos
I first hiked Angels Landing on the evening of August 25, 2008. It was my first trip to Zion. Since I didn’t know if I’d ever come back again, I wanted to experience the “must-do” hikes. With limited time on a group trip from the South Rim, I made the most of it by hiking Angels Landing and The Narrows.
It’s certainly possible to experience Angels Landing and The Narrows to Wall Street in one day, but it made more sense for me to split it up.
Our group didn’t arrive in Zion until the afternoon, and I set out immediately to go do this hike. In doing so, I inadvertently accomplished my #2 recommended method of beating the crowds – start late.
more photos from August 2008:
November Photos (Fall Color)
Later in 2008 my brother Steve came to visit, and I talked him into doing Angels landing with me on November 7th.
Have you hiked Angels Landing? What did you think? Leave a comment and let me know.