Trail details last updated 2/11/2016.
Angel’s Landing is not the toughest, longest or tallest hike out there by a long shot. Heck, it’s not even the hardest hike leaving from the Grotto Trailhead where it starts and yet it’s one of the most iconic trails out there with mentions on many “must do” hiking lists across the globe. Why? Because of the exposed, scramble to the top climb it involves and the experience that gives the summit — both in epic views and epic fear factor! While most established trails stick to wide plateaus, the final push up Angel’s Landing is little more than a ridge line and a chain, carved out by years of footsteps to climb an otherwise technical mountain, ending at a point that could be called harrowing and is most certainly not for the faint of heart. Oh yea!
Getting to the trail: Located deep inside Zion National Park along the scenic canyon road, Angel’s Landing stands out as a notable rock formation long before you see the trail leading up to it. Accessible by car in the off season or the Zion Park shuttle in the busier summer months, the adventure starts at the Grotto Trailhead where you’ll find a few restrooms, water fountains and picnic tables. The actual trailhead is across the street from these facilities — if you’re wondering why everyone is heading that way, many other trails share the same start including some very tame ones so don’t worry too much about the flip-flop hikers, yet! That said, it’s made clear from the first trailhead sign that Angel’s Landing is no typical hike despite it’s unassuming, 1,500′ / 5 mile round-trip route (Scout Lookout is 1,070 and 3.9 miles r/t).
Part 1 – Hiking to Scout Lookout: Then again, it’s hard to take that sign half as seriously as you should as you start out on a completely mellow and paved trail heading further into Zion Canyon. After a few minutes of cover by the hill and trees, the trail opens up and Angel’s Landing reappears in front of you unobstructed and in it’s full awesomeness for the first time since the Grotto. From the ground, the summit looks far higher than it actually is but also far larger than you’ll discover things to be when you get out about Scout Lookout.
Move on briskly as things stay easy for a few more minutes with pavement still under your feet. Soon, the trail will begin to weave up, mildly at first and then into a series of switch backs that will get the attention of your legs. If you’ve made the mistake of hiking in any sort of heat, you’ll be fully exposed for the next few hundred vertical feet (and at the top); even on a cool day, the sun’s rays have a powerful, baking effect through this stretch.
After completing one final, truly steep switchback, the engineers seemed to have taken pity and reward you with a nice, shaded break as you walk between a narrow slot canyon that takes you towards the back of the rock formation where you’ll make the final ascent up to Scout Lookout. Here you’ll find the famous “Walter’s Wiggles,” a series of switchbacks that wind right up the side of the mountain, gaining >400 vertical feet in just a few hundred yards of distance. It’s an amazing feat and they are a story worth reading about all their own.
As imposing as the photos can look and intense as the hike can feel, in all reality, the journey up to Scout Lookout is hardly bad, a mere 1,070′ over about 2 miles. That’s quite certainly enough to turn back anyone well out of shape but it’s no Grand Canyon climb. When you reach the top of Walter’s Wiggles, you’ll immediately come out of the shade and onto a large plateau. If Angel’s Landing was built now, this is where the trail would have stopped and it is where it officially ends.
Oh, as a quick note on the wiggles, in winter this is where ice starts to build thanks to the shaded protection of the canyon. If you’re hiking off season, this is the time you’ll want to start using that traction system and if there’s ice here, plan to keep them on to the top.
Without going a step higher, you’ll already have a view down more than 1,000′, out across Zion Valley and up to the summit of Angel’s Landing some 400′ above. For many people, this is the end of the journey, a chance to take in the view, use one of the two restrooms (but no water) and perhaps have lunch as friends scramble up to the top.
Part 2 – The chain climb to the summit: If you’re still good with the heights, feeling strong and the weather looks perfect (seriously, don’t mess with this hike in anything but great conditions, at least 6 people have died falling off the edge and rain / snow make it really, really not fun), this is where the real challenge starts. The next 0.5 miles ascent almost 550′ (you’ll go up, down and then back up) directly over rock. There’s no more switchbacks to meander around, no more blasted in trail to level the ground, and while there is a chain to help you along the way, it sits just inches away from the side of a very big cliff. This is the thrill that makes Angel’s Landing so fun but it’s also something to really be sure of — once you step out, the only way back is the same route.
Heading past the final warning signs, the trail disappears as you start walking directly on rock. Years of footprints, traction spikes and some park service attention make route finding pretty straight forward (there’s a few sections between chains where you may be confused… slow down, look up and there’s usually a carin / chain / divot to follow) but hardly easy as you half scramble your way up. After climbing up a short ways, you’ll find yourself on a wide, flat section (relatively speaking that is), this is a good place to reasses everything as you get a full view of the climb above you to come.
Still good? continue on by heading down around a hundred vertical feet, over a wide but exposed flat ridge to end up on another, smaller, flat landing that sits under the summit climb. From here it’s all up, several hundred feet in an incredibly steep fashion. The chains that have been here and there leading up to this point become almost continual for the remainder of the hike and are well bolted in though it’s your feet that will really keep you in place — trust them!
In winter expect everything to be icy, in summer, expect everything to be brutally hot, and either way, remember that up is way easier than down. Speaking of down, if you’re struggling on the return, think batman! Turn around, lead back, engage your legs for control and hold onto the chain for balance and go.
By this point you’re hopefully past your fears, what’s done is done and you’re going to the top so this is all fun… There are huge steps to scramble over, ridges to cautiously step along, views down, amazing trees and rocks to look at and yes, a ton of exposure to test your nerves. As you reach the last section of chains, the hard part is over.
The actual summit sits several hundred yards ahead and requires you to walk out over the now completely unprotected ridge (shown in the photo above) but it’s wider than anything you’ve stood on for a while. Even on a slow day, you’ll find people snapping photos, peering over the edge and enjoying a well deserved break but don’t stay too long — getting back to the lookout point can take longer than going up from it!
Looking for a related adventure? Try Yosemite’s Half Dome Cable Hike. It’s the next step up from Angel’s Landing though the cables to that summit are a lot more predictable than the chains here!
What you’ll need to bring along:
- 2 liters of water (more in summer)
- Trail snacks for 3-4 hours
- Sunblock & sunglasses
- Protective layers for wind / sun / cold
- Shoe traction (microspikes) in cold weather
- Light gloves to help with the chains
- The rest of the 10 essentials
Quick facts about the trail:
- Official Rating: Difficult
- My Rating: Buying the t-shirt
- Start point: The Grotto Trailhead
- Distance: 5 miles r/t
- Duration: 3-4 hours (~2.5 if you hike straight through)
- Climb: 1,488′ elevation change with ~1600′ total gain
- Crowds: Heavy in summer and on spring / fall weekends
- Recommended time: Mornings to avoid the heat
- Facilities: Restrooms & water at TH, restrooms only at Scout Lookout
- Cost: Zion Park Pass of $30 / week
- Permits: None for day hikers, no hiker limits