26 Apr Zion National Park’s iconic hikes: Angels Landing and The Narrows
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Tips for exploring two iconic Utah hiking destinations
Mention your recent trip to Utah’s Zion National Park and, inevitably, people will ask, “Did you do Angels Landing?” That question will probably be followed by, “What about The Narrows?” This article describes both of these destinations, their appeal and the drawbacks.
Upon reaching Angels Landing, you’ll be atop a 1,500-foot cliff with spiritual views of Zion and its carved canyons of red, yellow and white sandstone. Inside The Narrows, you will experience the beauty and power of the Virgin River as it carves the vertical canyon walls. Both destinations draw people from all over the world.
My wife and I are retired and we’re not extreme outdoor enthusiasts, so my goal is to convince readers that they can sample or conquer these two places with some careful planning.
Entering the Narrows through the Temple of Sinawava
I’ve hiked The Narrows two very different ways. First, I’ll describe my family’s adventure. We drove to the Temple of Sinawava and then strolled the paved River Walk for one mile, where the Narrows begin. My wife, daughter and I hiked up river, for about three miles. And yes, you’ll be walking in the water as you trek upstream.
The three-mile mark is significant because there you experience the awesome beauty of The Narrows “Wall Street” section, where 2,000-foot walls close around you to form a slot canyon. This six-mile round-trip experience is, of course, flat because you’re hiking in the river, but you’re also walking against the current and over riverbed stones. So most people take their time.
The first two times hiking The Narrows we used our own hiking shoes knowing they would get soaked. For the third trip, we rented aqua hiking shoes along with trekking poles from an outfitter in town. My family preferred the aqua shoes; I preferred using my own hikers. But poles are a must for balance; without them, you’ll inevitably take an unplanned bath in the Virgin River and end up performing in someone’s social media post.
At the beginning of your hike, once you leave the paved River Walk and enter the Virgin River, don’t get discouraged with the crowds. Lots of people walk only a short distance up the Narrows and turn around. Most importantly, always check in with rangers at the visitor center for the weather report. Even light rainstorms can turn The Narrows into a nightmare – people have perished inside this canyon. But hundreds of thousands of visitors safely walk The Narrows each year by following park ranger advice.
Hiking the entire length of the Narrows, top down
My brother-in-law and I applied for permits and hiked the entire length of the Narrows, 17 miles from top to bottom. I was 58 at the time, my brother-in-law 68. We’re not ironmen (more like tinmen) but we do enjoy a fun challenge.
We contracted with an outfitter to drive us to the beginning of the Narrows, a 90-minute vehicle ride from Springdale to Chamberlain’s Ranch, just outside of Zion National Park. Some people make this a two-day trip and camp on the shore. We weren’t interested in an overnight, so we made the trek in one day. It took us ten hours, stopping for short breaks and our snack lunch.
Water levels vary during the year. We hiked in July, during fairly low levels, which made the day easier for us. If the water levels had been higher, our workout would have been more strenuous. The park service hosts an informative video on its website, a good place to start your investigation and planning.
Ascending Angels Landing
Angels Landing offers a completely different experience. First of all, you don’t get wet. Secondly, your trek is shorter but adds the challenge of elevation.
The five-mile, round-trip hike gains 1,488 feet. My wife and I ascend more than that on some days, but usually over a gradual climb. And this trail is busy, very busy. Rumors float that the park service is considering converting Angels Landing into a permit hike to help control the crowds, improve safety and enhance the experience.
The hike includes Walter’s Wiggles (named after the park’s first superintendent), which consists of 21 steep switchbacks. But the trail really gets exciting when you reach Scout Lookout and the “chains,” anchored in rock to help you navigate the last half-mile up the sheer cliffs to reach Angels Landing.
The last half-mile is not for anyone afraid of heights. My wife turned back at this stage after a few minutes, but my daughter and I continued, slowly and safely. To this day she describes reaching Angels Landing as her greatest outdoor thrill.
In full disclosure, people have died attempting Angels Landing. However, I would never take my daughter on a hike with great risk. We took our time and defaulted to caution with each step. Most fatalities, here and in other park venues, occur during adverse conditions and when mistakes are made. Never attempt this hike during or right after rain or snow. And hike early during the day before the trail gets overcrowded or too hot from the summer sun.
Make Zion National Park your hub
We’ve visited Zion ten times over the past 35 years and plan on returning in the future. We always add it to other Utah, Arizona and Nevada destinations such as Bryce Canyon National Park, Lake Powell, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and some of the most interesting state parks in the U.S. like Valley of Fire and Snow Canyon.
Check out this accompanying article that provides a general overview of Zion and tips on how to avoid the vacation snafus and the crowds.