Where Angels Dare

As if visitors to southern Utah aren’t spoilt enough, Zion National Park lies only a short distance from Bryce Canyon. By the time you get there you find yourself in a region replete with Biblical nomenclature: to reach Zion you have to drive through Mt. Carmel Tunnel (itself a marvel of modern engineering), while looking down over the canyon is a trio of patriarchal peaks named after Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was also a place I remembered fondly, because when Bryce was buried in snow the lower-lying Zion was sunny and warm. At this point my parents succumbed to a temporary case of canyonitis. Unable to cope with any more wonders, they opted for a day of shopping and relaxation, leaving my brother and me alone to venture into Zion.

Why have I named this post Where Angels Dare? Well, any excuse to evoke memory of Alistair MacLean’s fantastic novel, but mainly because the hike to the lonely pinnacle of Angels Landing was to be the highlight of the day. Named so because its first beholders were convinced that only angels could reach it, you certainly have to be daring to reach the narrow summit. It ranks as one of the best short hikes in America, so we’d been practically salivating in anticipation of getting to do it.

It’s actually only 2.7 miles each way, but it’s the 1,500 feet of elevation gain in that short space that makes this the hike it is. Angels Landing is a huge monolith projecting out into the valley, forcing the Virgin River to loop in a wide meander around it. We hadn’t ventured far up the path before its unrelenting steepness became apparent. We also couldn’t see how we were going to get up. Looking ahead, it was hard to see any way of scaling this apparently sheer canyon cliff. But as we got closer we found the path snaking up and into a side canyon. We would creep up the back, switch-baking up a crevice where the back of the monolith adjoins the main canyon wall. Even though we were in the shade, it was hot work and punishingly hard. In short, perfect training for the Grand Canyon, where the trails are very similar in gradient.

The route up Angels Landing
The route up Angels Landing

When the inexorable switchbacks come to an end, you find yourself atop a saddle of land between higher points on both sides. On one side was the slender isthmus connecting Angels Landing to the canyon side; and on the other was Angels Landing itself. Only now could we appreciate the nature of the task ahead of us, and only now could we truly appreciate the giddy drop beside our feet. This is not for the faint-hearted. The saddle was only forty feet wide, and a thousand feet above the valley floor; Angels Landing was another thousand feet higher up and alarmingly narrow. To get up, we had to clamber up little grooves in the rock face and strain up slopes so steep they’re at the limits of viability for walking. True, there were regular lengths of chain to cling on to, but that didn’t stop my heart being in my mouth the whole way. It is this combination of steepness and fear-factor that makes this short hike so demanding. It was like climbing the spine of some monumental leviathan turned to stone.

The slender summit of Angels Landing
The slender summit of Angels Landing

When we reached the top, we found that the summit ran along the length of the tower like a wall-top, 15 feet wide at most. It’s not a knife-edge like Aonach Eagach in Glencoe, but the dizzying drop-offs on all sides but one are deeper and steeper. Our reward was 360-degree views of Zion Canyon from above. It is truly an angel’s eye view of the world, absolutely breath-taking. Most visitors to Zion spend their time craning their necks up at the heights above, but we could now gaze down serenely from above.

Angel's eye view of Zion Canyon
Angel’s eye view of Zion Canyon

I had a much clearer view of the peaks crowded along the canyon’s rims on either side, and could enjoy the light-show as the daylight grew sharper and dispelled the shadows in the folds and creases of the landscape. With feet dangling over the side, I followed the Virgin River with my eyes as it looped past, watching it vanish upstream into the cloven corridor of The Narrows – my next stop. Turkey vultures soared in circles from cliff-side larders and over-friendly chipmunks darted all along the tower-top with the boldness that only comes from being fed by too many well-meaning humans. Ignoring the other hikers who had braved the climb, I settled down to contemplate, doing nothing but gaze at the astonishing view and write down the odd note.

Virgin charms
Virgin charms

Some time later, with great reluctance, I left my cliff-edge perch and retreated back along the top of the tower. I sped back down the chains, going much faster than on the way up, and loped down to the valley floor. I waited at what is possibly the world’s most picturesque bus-stop and then caught a shuttle up to the top of the valley, ready for my next challenge. Chris had already returned to the campsite after conquering Angels Landing, but I couldn’t leave without exploring one of Zion’s other main draws: The Narrows. This is a place where the canyon narrows to a deep gorge, a haunt of intrepid multi-day trekkers and home to many wonderful rock formations.

World's most scenic bus-stop?
World’s most scenic bus-stop?

The first part of the path is flat and sandy, suitable for tourists of any fitness, but I charged along this section, keen to leave behind the masses. After 1.5 miles the path ends at the river. There’s no more trail, just the water channel, with sheer canyon walls rising up on the far side. Thankfully I’d brought my sports sandals for just such a reason. Consigning my hiking boots to my rucksack, I plunged into the surprisingly cold water. Unfortunately the river didn’t deter that many people, so I was one of hundreds who waded upstream in search of adventure.

For the most part the water is only knee deep, but in places it could plunge unexpectedly to thigh or waist deep. The resistance of the water made it quite hard going, but the real challenge was in keeping my camera dry whilst maintaining my footing. If I went in then so would phone, wallet, passport and camera. Thankfully the worst I suffered was a pair of damp pants and shorts, a small price for such an exhilarating excursion.

The secret world of Zion's Narrows
The secret world of Zion’s Narrows

I passed ribbon waterfalls trickling down from the heights, their spray giving life to the barren walls in moss-green hanging gardens of Maidenhair fern and Columbine. I encountered deep recesses where the river’s passage has gouged out dark spaces under overhanging ledges, and huge boulders that had to be clambered through. Rain-clouds overhead made me nervous, because a flash-flood could arrive with minimal warning, and turn this benign river into a raging torrent that would sweep us all to our deaths. No storm came, but the shifting patterns of cloud and sun overhead made for wonderfully varied lighting inside the slot canyon.

After slogging upriver for a couple of miles or so, my time run out, as it so often does. Turning my back on the rest of the canyon’s secrets, tucked away up ahead somewhere, I retracted my steps. On the shuttle back to the visitor centre I was protected from the heavy shower which arrived nicely late. Reflecting on the day, I thought how I had seen the best of Zion from two key angles: its soaring splendour from up above, and its intimate secrets in the hidden depths. It had only been one day, but a fantastic and well-rounded one. My training was over. Now for the main challenge…

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