Monday, September 5, 2011

Epic hikes: Angel's Landing

I was stuck in Las Vegas for a week and quickly realized that the attractions of the city, while photographically interesting, didn't hold much appeal.  I started looking for something outside of Vegas that might be worth visiting.

I first called a friend of mine who did an RV circuit of America over a number of months to ask for suggestions for something within easy reach of Las Vegas.  He unhesitatingly suggested the Grand Canyon and this was echoed by at least 3 other people who said that if there was one place I went to in that area it should be the Grand Canyon.  It turned out that this was about a 5 hour drive from Vegas.

Other options (just so you know) are the Hoover Dam (about 1-2 hours drive away), Death Valley (probably about 4hours North and West), Zion National Park (3 hours North and East) and Antelope Canyon (5 hours).

I called one of my Flickr contacts (Farkled) thinking that he might have a good sense of distances and value for money "photographically" and we settled on Zion as the best option all round.

John, my hiking friend, had thought the Grand Canyon was closer but when he heard that I was heading for Zion he suggested that if I only did one hike it should be Angel's Landing.  I confess that I had fixated on the prospect of photographing beautiful luminous slot canyons but only realized much later in the day that these are famously photographed in Antelope Canyon and will have to be the subject of a later trip.

I set an alarm for 2:30 am and after being (very disappointingly) turned away at the door to conference party featuring The Killers (exhibitors not permitted) I went to bed early and woke up with a start at 5:19am to discover that setting and activating an alarm are two separate actions on my iPhone.  10 minutes later I was on highway 15N heading to Arizona and then Utah through towns with evocative names like Mesquite, Hurricane and Virgin.

I took a couple of photographs with my iPhone on the highway as it wound through these huge sandstone features and stopped at one point to photograph a barn.  When I turned around to look behind me I saw a large 9ft (3m) snake on the road near me.  I know that the snakes out in the desert are not all friendly, but I had to get closer for a photograph anyway.  This it turns out is a very common Californian King snake.

The drive into the park is spectacular.  You are surrounded by massive orange and white vertical cliffs.  The park requires that visitors park their cars and use the shuttle bus to drive the length of the scenic drive inside the park.  If you continue on Rt9E through the park you eventually get to a long tunnel hewn through the rock and low enough that RVs and large vehicles have to get escorted through at an extra charge.  It is through this tunnel that you get to the town of Page where Antelope Canyon is.

I pulled into the Visitor's Center parking lot and onto the next shuttle.  The window of the shuttle bus could open enough for me to get my camera out to get some shots of the cliffs on the left side of the valley as it drove about 4 stops along the scenic route.  I got out at the stop called The Grotto where the trail-head for Angel's Landing is.  I had left a message for John asking about narrow slot canyons on this trail - still hopeful that I'd get a shot of some of the narrow curved rocks that I'd imagined were here, but by then I was far out of cell phone range and knew that regardless of features, John's judgement on both epic and visual quality are faultless so I was going to do the hike anyway.

I took a photograph soon after crossing the footbridge across the river that meanders through the valley.  It is hard to imagine that this river course is responsible for carving these sheer cliffs as the plateau was lifted over time.

You can see the trail off to the left and the huge monolith that is Angel's Landing.  Within 90 minutes I would be standing at the very top right edge of that vertical cliff.

The hike is described in the trail guide as steep and strenuous and is also rated as fairly dangerous because of the narrow sections near the top.  After some of the hikes in the White Mountains of the North East, I found the mostly paved path less than strenuous, but the heat of the day and steep incline did have me walking at a slowish pace to keep my breathing steady.

I had two small bottled water bottles and a bladder filled from the Las Vegas hotel bathroom and was disappointed when the bottled water ran out near the top and I had to start sipping the over-chlorinated tap water from Vegas.

I took a few photographs as I hiked higher.   On the left of the huge cliff is a saddle which is where the hike goes over into a gorge that takes you to the back of the Angel's Landing and then doubles back to the top.

Walking in the sun is draining and it was a relief to get over the saddle and walk in the shade up the  paved path above it.  I was astonished to see the tracks of some machines that had been driven up the path to make some repairs.  Some trail maintenance on the trail was underway and the machines to mix cement had been driven up the path!

Zion is a very busy destination.   I met several groups on the way up to the summit.  There are approximately 3 million visitors a year to this park so this was not surprising.  Angel's Landing is not a hike that most visitors would attempt though, so the human traffic was not claustrophobic.

Once you have managed to hike to the top of the paved path you look out over the back shoulder of the peak.   A sign warns that the path ahead is narrow and dangerous and an obviously altered "6" counts the number of hikers who have fallen to their death on this hike since 2004.

At the foot of the first narrow section, which has chains hanging from the rock to help stabilize you as you walk, sit a few people who have tried and failed to navigate the next section, waiting for their hiking partners to come back from the summit.

There is an interesting psychology to a narrow, dangerous hike like this.  To be clear nothing could be worse than tripping or turning an ankle on these sections and high winds, rain or ice would make it treacherous (even if you clung to the chains).

The ground is wide enough and the rock abrasive enough for you to walk upright for most of the areas with chains but the presence of the chains makes people contort and contrive to somehow cling to them as they lean as far away from the edge as they can while they navigate forward.

I tried to strike a balance.  There were sections that were wide and flat enough to avoid holding the chains - indeed the chains would have forced me to bend over into an unnatural crouch and there were other sections where you wouldn't have persuaded me to pry my hand from the chain with a gun.

I stopped often to take pictures both of the sheer cliffs and of the narrow ledge that we were walking on.  At one point I waited for a party to come down a section that was single file and one of the people was saying that she had to go down in a fashion that felt natural to her, no matter how inelegant it looked.  When she got to me and apologized for holding me up I told here that she had shown impeccable technique - a comment that she enjoyed with good humor.

I was thinking about it afterwards.  It is very impressive that someone who is so afraid of the narrow trail that they walk bowed over and awkward still make their way up and then down again despite this fear.

Each corner of the narrow trail yielded more and more spectacular views and when eventually I reached the top rounded slab I was very satisfied.

I lay flat on the ground and took a photograph over the edge at the valley below.  At this point the drop (like most of the summit) is absolutely vertical.

I had left at about 9:15am and most of the valley was in shadow.  Going down at around noon I was able to photograph some of the red rock features in sunlight - some of them glowing in the afternoon sun.

When I got down to the trailhead I saw a sign that said 1 mile to the Emerald Ponds.  I had intended to make that a second stop in the shuttle, but decided to walk instead.  Unfortunately this was in direct sunlight and in the valley so it didn't take too long before I regretted the decision as the midday heat pounded me relentlessly.

The destination made it worth it, though.  The pools (top and bottom) are very pretty and when I got to the top pool - unfortunately it is too small for them to allow swimming - I filled my hat with water and poured it over myself to cool down.

The lower pool is just below this little kettle-spout waterfall which was very pretty in the sunlight and I found myself back at the shuttle stop at the Zion Lodge in time for some food and a soda at about 2:30pm.

If I had thought about it a little more carefully I would have taken the shuttle bus deeper into the canyon for some more photographs of the cliffs further along, but I still had a notion that I could make it to Page where some hikers had told me I would find the luminous slot canyons I had expected to find here.  I realized as the bus was taking me out of the park that I would not make it to Page in time and so decided to take a drive back to Las Vegas stopping a couple of times to take some pictures from the roadside of the distant mountains.

What a great diversion!

You can see a slideshow of all of the photographs from Zion here.


  1. Absolutely gorgeous! Curt

  2. That's a great shot looking down from the top of Angel's Landing.

  3. Wow! What a great series, Tim! I'd love to go out there.