Climbing Angel's Landing at Zion National Park
As many people, I've had my sights set on Zion National Park for years. Its vast rock formations, infinite patches of desert that span for miles, and warm coziness of a superb climate (in my opinion) are everything that makes my heart sing. Yet there is something also serene and peaceful in deserts: the way you can get lost in all of the colors around you, and how the sound of the wind, if you pay close attention, can tell you stories.
We ventured out west for my 32nd birthday! In a party of wonderful friends + family, I swooned at the early mornings stepping outside into the fresh air at our Utah Air B'n'B. Cotton-candy clouds, the crispness of a new day, and the peaks of mountains in the distance. A dream! Not only did we want to explore all that we could fit in a short weekend in Zion, we also wanted to try our hand at making it to Angel's Landing: Zion's most-famous trek and adventure.
Angel's Landing is approximately a 2-hour hike, but that number means nothing. Personally, I think 2 hours is a bit ambitious! I've always liked taking my time, but on this particular morning hike, I had a boatload of energy and found myself racing up the steep slopes. Speaking of slopes, they are no joke. The trail-head begins at one of the last stops on the Zion National Park shuttle service, from where you take a gentle gravel path toward what looks seemingly simple: until it's not. The gravel soon changes into a well-paved road that starts to switchback at increasing inclines. While the legs burn and the quads shake, the views more than make up for the physical exertion.
There were truly no bad angles for photography! Every hill, overlook, and stop to catch your breath took another breath away, out of sheer fascination and respect for natural wonder. I couldn't help but think about the evolution of this place; how centuries of natural growth enabled such beauty that we can't help but be drawn toward it. This mecca of adventure is alive and growing! Each time that I stopped to take it all in, I tried to remind myself of this. How, too, am I growing along with it?
The series of switchbacks are the biggest chunk of the hike. As you climb higher, you eventually dip behind the large rock wall that you initially see when you start out; this takes you into a more narrow part of the trail that's ensconced between large boulders on either side of you. This also gives you a bit of a reprieve from the sun, as there is more shade here. The trail looks down into a dried-up river bed, and if you pause to visualize, you can imagine hearing the sound of water rushing by this echoing chamber of beautiful rock. In complement, the boulders on either side have small holes burrowed in, that sometimes open up into larger galleries of perfectly-carved shapes. They looked cozy enough for a quick nap or a quick encounter with a snake or lizard.
In one final switchback ascent, you start to see the top of the landing prior to Angel's. It's a collection of somewhat flattened rocks, where people rest, eat, and take in the wonder of where they are. It's also a good chance to see some adorable chipmunks begging for food. Note: please don't feed them. Not only is it bad for them, but you also run the risk of paying a fine for feeding wildlife. Should you be heartbroken to refuse a fat, little chipmunk, I whole-heartedly empathize. I chose to wait here for the rest of my hiking group and enjoy my food. The climb up was pretty exhausting, and I didn't even get started on the actual climb yet! Seeing my friends and family come around the final switchback, also exhausted but happy and smiling was the best birthday treat ever! Even though we talked about this hike and watched videos to prepare, as none of us have ever visited Zion before, we still didn't quite know what we were getting ourselves into. Having done the full hike now and with more knowledge to spare, I am so proud of all of us! We made it to our top: a band of women of all different ages, skill levels, and health conditions, absolutely kicking ass!
If all you wanted to do was hike up to this landing, it would be more than enough. The views are breathtaking and the space is comfortable enough to enjoy a much-deserved lunch. However, most people will continue on to Angel's Landing, which is what brought them to this trail in the first place. Angel's Landing is the part of the hike that requires some minor fascination with heights (or at least a modest toleration). This is also part of the trail that uses chains that have been secured to the rock the whole length of the remaining trail. I have seen people choose not to use the chains, and that's a bold choice in my book. The trail is not even a trail, per se; it's more of a series of rock steps and stones that you must essentially climb. The chains are incredibly helpful, as some of the steps are far away from one another, or too steep. I found myself, at one point, also using my hands to haphazardly rock climb up.
I don't know for how long I was climbing. Had the trail been emptier of people, I'm sure my timing would have been faster (not that I was rushing). The traffic on Angel's Landing truly lives up to the stories people have of this trail. At many points along the route, you end up in a long queue line of people who are coming up or going down, as the trail is essentially a one-way path. This is really a "watch where you step" kind of an adventure; the steep drops on either side of you alert you to the fact that you can easily misstep here, and the traffic of people certainly doesn't help. However, everyone is accommodating! That was beautiful to see.
Once you make your way up to the top, you feel like you're standing on top of the world. The expanse of the park is right in front of your eyes, and I personally didn't know which way to look or which way to point my camera. Everything was precious. Everything was worthy of the perfect shot. I decided to venture down to the farthest end of the cliff, where a young couple was kind enough to take my picture (the one above). I sat down, ate the rest of my lunch, and thanked my lucky stars for bringing me to such a beautiful place, safely.
There is energy in every mountain and in every rock. In every patch of grass or in the nucleus of a cloud, we can connect to this energy and feel alive. That's what this hike felt like. It also felt like this was the reason why Angel's Landing is such a challenge: if you want to sit at the edge of serenity, you have to work for it. It was an effort well worth the blisters and the soreness. I learned many years ago on my first trip to Peru that mountains allow you to walk on their bellies and reach their tops and peaks. It is not for you to take the opportunity. It is for you to receive it, as it is given to you. The mountain lets us pass. In return, it's customary to give the mountain something of yourself: a song, a prayer, a piece of hair, or a petal of a flower. It's a way to thank the energy of where you're standing for safe passage, as climbing up is only half the effort.
“The land is sacred.
These words are at the core of your being. The land is our mother, the rivers our blood. Take our land away and we die."
Mary Brave Bird, Lakota
My time on this cliff was invaluable. I thought about all of the people who climbed this before me, going back to the very first time someone explored this trail and made it known. I thought about the trail before the chains, how daring people can be to venture into something truly unknown; and I thought about death. It's not a surprise such a topic would come to mind on the ledge of an incredibly tall rock wall. I was far enough away from most people. My shoes were grippy but the fine sand dusting the rocks was slippery enough. People have died climbing Angel's Landing. Accidents here are not unheard of.
It made me think of my own life and how precious it is. I think that's what death does: it reminds you of how grateful you are to still have a pulse, a passion, a chance to do such crazy things, and more so for years to come. What we see as undoubtedly un-animated rock and stone are actually life teachers, reminding us how alive we really are, and they along with us. Perspectives that were once fuzzy are now cleared: we can more readily discern between what truly makes us happy and what and who we've tolerated for too long. We can pause the thinking mind from creating false realities, and in turn, drop into feeling the present moment in a place of such natural wonder. The present moment: the nectar I've long searched for in yoga and meditation is always on the ledge of some cliff, and to these holy places I'll always retreat.
As you can imagine, the climb down is not much easier. Not only is it overwhelming for the joints, you're also much more tired and with less of an energy reserve. I found myself getting sloppy on my descent, not as agile and careful as I was on the climb up. It was to be expected. Long traffic lines dwindled down as the day got longer, for which I was immeasurably grateful! Coming back down to the previous landing was a welcome reprieve, as was the beast of a lunch (and then dinner) that we all gobbled up upon our return to our accommodations. Belly laughs, together meals, hot tubs, and star gazing - all a perfect wrap to a perfect adventure, in the heart of Zion's magic.