How to Survive One of America’s Most Harrowing Hikes
Get epic photos on the way up Angels Landing, and safely reach the summit!
Come. See. Conquer.
Get the T-Shirt.
(There is a t-shirt though, really.)
Keep reading and find out exactly what you’re getting yourself into, because safety comes first!
It’s a long, scary way down to the bottom.
First, here’s some basics:
Angels Landing Trail Guide
MAP: Trails Illustrated
PERMITS: none (for now)
DESIGNATION: Zion National Park (entrance fee required)
BEST SEASONS: spring and fall
DISTANCE: 5.4 miles round trip
ELEVATION: trailhead at the grotto ~4,300ft / summit ~5,800ft / gain ~1,500ft
ACCESS: shuttle bus only throughout most of the season (Generally early February through late November)
DIRECTIONS: When shuttle buses are running, board at the visitor center and exit at the 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
Angels Landing is an extremely popular trail. I’d wager that it’s the most famous hike in Zion (This or the lower Narrows). It could even be the most crowded trail in all of southern Utah’s “Mighty Five” National Parks.
It gets so much traffic that it’s only a matter of time until the Park Service will enact a permit system, similar to what they did in Yosemite with Half Dome.
It’s also the deadliest place in Zion!
The attraction of Angels Landing is its “living on the edge” factor of sheer cliffs and genuinely dangerous exposure. The last half-mile of the route is dramatic and narrow.
The path is only a few feet wide, 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.
You’d have more than a couple of seconds to think about what happened before you hit the bottom.
How many people have died falling from Angels Landing?
It’s hard to say – there’s a number of different figures floating around the internet. The official statement from the National Park Service says “Since 2004, ten people have died falling from the cliffs along the route.”
Other answers around the web are probably not up-to-date with the the latest falls, or they count falls that happened before 2004. My friend 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.”
The most recent death was in November of 2019, when 19-year-old Savannah McTague fell. She a was a concessions employee from Maine.
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 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 group-think, peer-pressure stuff going on here, and I think it’s stupid.
The problem is that 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. 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. Duh.
- 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!
Four 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 a half an hour before the first scheduled departure.
There will often be a line that forms for the first bus. But 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.
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 should work 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 great.
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.
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.
Route Description & More Tips
There’s a restroom where you leave the bus at the Grotto. Use it.
There are no good 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.
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 fairly steep, 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.”
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, this rock formation was still probably called The Temple of Aeolus.
So it’s Walter that you have to thank for thinking it was a good idea for you 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 it will be the line of ants strung up and down the route (Line of people, actually… not ants. Whoops).
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. Seriously.
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, of course. With limited time on a group trip from the South Rim, I made the most of it by hiking Angels Landing and The Narrows.
Our group didn’t arrive in Zion until the early 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.
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.