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Braving Angels Landing plus other Zion National Park day hikes
Angel’s Landing day hike in Zion National Park is one of those terrifying things you do once in your life, just to be able to say you did it. Perched atop a razor’s edge traverse, reached after a grueling 1000ft ascent through countless switchbacks, with a final 500ft elevation gain on a chain-assisted scramble to the top, there is little room for error with 1000ft cliff drop offs inches from the edge of your feet. Certainly not for the unfit, faint of heart, or those afraid of heights, it’s a climb that tests both physical and mental abilities in order to reach the summit.
But hiking Angels Landing is just one of the many reasons I visited Zion National Park. Frankly you don’t have to be crazy enough to do that hike to enjoy Zion. There are many options to see spectacular scenery that don’t involve a brush with death.
Zion National Park was one of my day trip hiking destinations, while based out of Hurricane, UT following a conference in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas has a way of chewing you up and spitting you out after a couple days, despite having had the time of your life. So what better recovery plan than a few days of hiking in the open landscapes of Nevada, Arizona or Utah? The Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon are all within a rental car with tunes cranked road trip adventure away, rendering a couple days added to tour the Midwest, a Vegas trip must.
When to visit Zion National Park
Zion is open year-round to hiking. While it is at a much lower elevation than Bryce Canyon, Zion can still receive snow in the winter. It’s rare for the white stuff to hit the canyon floor, but snow and ice could certainly be experienced at higher elevations, so caution would be in order. They call much of the rock in Zion “slip rock” for good reason, since when wet, it becomes extremely slippery. For that reason, hiking is likely best in the summer or dry shoulder seasons. The extremely hot temperatures and crowds in the summer might be enough to convince you that autumn is the best time though. And while spring can also be nice, for anyone hiking in canyon areas, the threat of flash floods is real. I visited in late September which was ideal. The daytime temperature was a perfect 70-80F with clear blue skies, and early morning offered just enough coolness to make wearing a light fleece necessary when heading out on the trails.
How to get to Zion National Park
There are two entrances to Zion. The South is the main entrance, located on the outskirts of Springdale, a small town where many park visitors stay. The East entrance is more likely to be used by visitors entering from Bryce and other Utah parks. Even if not entering at the East entrance, it’s worth it to drive the 11-mile scenic Hwy 9 through the park and the Mt Carmen Tunnel. For more detail on that, check out this previous post: Route 66, The Grand Canyon & Zion National Park by Motorbike.
I stayed in Hurricane, UT which was 30 minutes from the South entrance. Vehicle fees for a 7-day period are $35.
Where to hike
There are numerous day hike options within Zion National Park. The vast majority of them are accessed by the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. This drive leads between the towering red-rock cliffs of Zions main canyon. The road is closed to private cars March-October, but the park offers a free shuttle service from the main entrance, with frequent 15-minute service and stops at all the trail heads.
Of note however, is that the visitors center parking lots does get full early morning if you are driving in from outside Springdale. Some accommodations in Springdale offer guest a ride to the visitor center, but I’m not sure that justifies the significantly higher accommodation costs to stay there. I just got up early to ensure the car was parked by 7:30am. I was warned it could fill in by 8am – and that was in September.
The one day hike not accessed from Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is the Canyon Overlook trail. The trail head for it is just east of the Zion Mt Carmel Tunnel when driving south through the park from the Eastern. We did the Canyon Overlook trail, a pretty easy 1 mile and 45-minute round trip, on a previous trip to Zion. Link here to read more about it. Be forewarned though, parking by the Mt Carmel Tunnel is extremely limited. We snagged a spot that trip because we were on a motorbike. If you are unable to spend a day hiking on the other more extensive trails, the Canyon Overlook trail offers a spectacular view with little effort, for those just driving through the park.
As noted in my introduction, Angels Landing is both spectacular and a little dangerous. As much a physical challenge as a mental one, even the fit and daring (and I’d put myself in that group) may have second thoughts completing the final leg over the narrow gap and unnerving final chain assisted scramble to the top. I of course joked about the “Covid chain” to my fellow hikers, knowing full well that every person on the mountain that day had touched it with their sweaty hands, and many more before them during the pandemic. Needless to say, I broke out the hand sanitizer at the top, before diving into a snack!
It’s best to start early as possible, since the trail is very popular. Whether it’s due to increased exposure through Instagram influencers, or a deluge of people who flocked to national parks, during a time of increased domestic travel during the pandemic, interest in Angel’s Landing has ballooned. So much so, that the park is rumored to be considering a lottery system in the future, for day passes or time cards to hike it, not unlike what has happened at Machu Picchu in Peru. At issue is the frequent bottlenecks at the narrowest chain assisted sections. The day I was there a park ranger was helping to “green light/red light” traffic on the way down which hadn’t been as issue just an hour earlier. Definitely plan to be climbing down before midday, the time when traffic seems to back up the most. When I was there in late September 2021 it was busy for sure, but many people only hike to Scout Lookout, and stop in their tracks at the sight of the bread knife slim passage traversing the 1000 ft cliffs below. The view from Scouts Lookout is indeed spectacular, so don’t consider yourself a failure if you bail at that point. It’s a physical challenge to get that far, and a psychological win to allow good sense to save you from further risk. To date, 14 people have died doing the hike, a fact clearly stated on the final warning sign before heading for the hand grip chains to the top. Talk about unnerving!
Angels Landing trail head is at the Grotto shuttle stop. Across the road from the picnic area, take the foot bridge across the river and bear right. From this point to Scout Lookout you’ll be following part of the West Rim Trail. Initially the trail meanders along the desert floor, then ascends gradually but relentlessly, becoming steeping as you climb long paved switchbacks up the canyon wall. There is a brief reprieve through the shaded Refrigerator Canyon area, which gives way to more aggressive switchbacks, affectionately known as “Walters Wiggles.” The 21 short, steep stonework engineered zigzags were named after the early Zion Park superintendent who constructed them.
At the top of these is Scouts Lookout, and your first look at the cliff-face climb.
If you do decide to brave the final leg, the last half mile is steep and rocky with chains bolted to rock for much of the way to grab while you climb. Trails end, a slopping 30ft wide flat rock surface at the top offers a stunning 360-degree view of nearly all of Zion Canyon. Truly spectacular, and well-earned if you make it that far. Is Angels Landing really that scary? Check out this video of the final leg to preview if you’re willing to brave it: Angel’s Landing – Scariest Hike in America?
I was on the trail by 8:30am and finished by 1pm, with stops along the way and at the top to take in the view. Guide books suggest allowing 3-4 hours. I’d ere on the generous side to give yourself time ample time at the top, as well as allow for the possibility of crowds slowing you down on the return.
Since the lottery access and time ticket is quite possibly a future reality, if you get a chance to do Angels Landing before that, go for it. It’s one of the most memorable hikes I’ve ever done. See links at the bottom of this post to learn more about the National Parks Service plans to regulate traffic on this trail.
But of course there are other amazing day hikes in Zion National Park to consider. If Angel’s Landing isn’t your thing, consider hiking to Scouts Lookout as your final destination, or take in one of the following options. Any of the hikes below can easily be added to your day at Zion.
I did Watchman Trail the previous day at sunset, on my way back from a day hiking in Bryce Canyon. Watchman Trail is a 3.3-mile round-trip hike. Essentially an up and down trek to a lookout, it takes 1.5-2hrs. The trail is of moderate difficulty, with a modest ascent of 370 ft, but it provides a pretty fine view of the park mountain formations, particularly pretty at sunset. Since the trail is exposed, even at sunset it can be a hot one. The trail departs from the visitor’s center parking lot.
Riverside walk is a 2-mile round trip easy walk, with a departure point at the Temple of Sinawava – the last stop on the shuttle bus route. It’s a popular path which follows the river at the end of the canyon, with hanging gardens by the cliff along the way. This trail also serves as a feeder route for the Narrows hike, where people cannoneer hike down the Virgin River through a 1000ft gorge known as the Narrows. You’ll meet several well provisioned folks prepared to hike in bone chilling waste deep water headed for the canyon. A far greater number are only going to the to the river’s edge to cold off. I used it as a nice end of day hike to cool my feet after the Angels Landing trek.
The trail head for Emerald Pools is at the Zion Lodge stop. It’s a popular trail leading to a series of bucolic ponds and hanging gardens. It’s a short and easy hike to introduce you to Zions unique eco system. There are the lower, middle and upper pools all feeding waterfalls below. Depending on how far you go, expect to allow 1-2hrs for the 1.2 – 2mile round trip distance. I tucked this walk in at the very end of the day returning from the Riverside Walk, and checked out Zion Lodge, a structure built in 1924 as a compromise with developer who wanted a large hotel.
Observation Point & Weeping Rock Trail
Two other popular day hikes, the Weeping Rock Trail, and Observation Point were closed when I visited in September 2021, due to rock slides. Weeping Rock Trail is a short 20-30-minute, steep climb leading to an impressive alcove and hanging garden. It’s a half mile round trip paved shaded trek, with flora and fauna along the way
Observation Point on the other hand is a more difficult hike, offering a challenging 8-mile trek, requiring 5hrs to complete. It offers spectacular views of the valley from a slightly different angle than Angels Landing. The hike has a similar elevation, without the fear inducing final scramble. Depending on when you’re reading this, conditions may have changed, and it may have reopened. Observation Point was on my list as a solid contender if I ended up backing out of Angels Landing.
Angels Landing permit access coming in 2022
The National Parks Service has proposed a permit system to access the final chained section from Scout Lookout to the top of Angels Landing. While they are still seeking public feedback, the pilot is set to go into effect in March 2022. You can learn more about the plan here.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to also check out Bryce Canyon in One Day: Hikes and sights not to miss also from the CarryOnQueen. And if you’ve ever dreamed of riding a motor bike through the area, you’ll love this post: Route 66, the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park by Motorbike.
Where to stay
Hurricane UT is about 30 minutes from the South entrance, and offers lots of economical accommodation and dining options to choose from. Springdale is right at the South entrance to the park. Options there will be more expensive and often book out in advance. Virgin UT is a small town about 10 minutes outside Springdale. It’s not as touristy, and some accommodation is available there. It’s not every day you get to say you slept in Virgin.
Check out Expedia, to search the area. Or click on this map to pull up a visual of accommodation options in the area. Zion’s two main campgrounds require reservations and should be booked months in advance. If you’re looking to rent an RV to tour the area, be sure to check out RV Share RV Rental from RV Shareor Outdoorsy.com who also rent RVs in the Utah area.
What to wear & Pack
It really depends on the season you plan to visit, but keep in mind that temperatures and sun will be intense during the summer season. A hat, sunscreen and sunglasses are a must, as is ample water if you are doing day hikes. Solid running shoes will do for most terrain, but to save yourself a turned ankle, hiking boots might be a consideration. If you plan to hike Angels Landing, be sure that your footwear has good gripping soles, especially for the last portion up the chains, since the terrain under foot is weather worn smooth slip-rock.
While I did not have hiking poles, many folks did, which would no doubt be handy for steadying yourself. I wouldn’t recommend them for the final leg of Angels Landing however. If you had fold up ones, you could pack them away from Scouts Landing onward. You’ll be hanging on to the chains for your dear life and need both hands free! Light weight and collapsible is key – check out options here. I’ve used poles in the past while hiking in Peru and they definitely made a difference in saving your knees. A backpack to carry items like your water bottle, sunscreen, additional clothing, cell phone and a snack is a must. See my personal recommendation below. Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC) is a great resource for outdoor gear, as is Altitude-Sports.com for hiking gear and apparel. Altitude-Sports carries leading brands such as Pantagonia, Columbia, North Face, Arc’teryx, and Canada Goose. And they also sell my new favorite thing – A 3-way backpack/tote carry bag by Lako which I absolutely love.
It served as a great backpack on this trip (with separate wet/dry compartments), but doubled as a tote on the plane, plus with its padded laptop sleeve, quick access phone compartment and sleek professional looking design it became a briefcase tote for the business meetings portion of my trip. I believe in packing light (as you know) but also maximizing space – so since this bag can double as your “purse” on flights ladies, you can still bring along that carry-on bag for the overhead. “Man purse” fellas? Why not! Cabelas is another option you might want to check. Sometimes they have deals on their outdoor gear online. Because temperatures dip lower overnight, the shoulder season can actually go below freezing, so early morning hikers will likely want a fleece or warm hat and gloves until the sun warms things up. Of course if you’re visiting in the winter, plan for full on snow and cold temperatures.
Zion & Bryce Canyon by Lonely Planet is an fantastic planning guide. It contains maps and descriptions of all hikes noted in this post. Best Easy Day Hikes Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks by Falcon Guides is another handy guide with extremely detailed descriptions of all hikes in both of these parks. Both books are small enough to pack along on your trip and have as an easy reference while hiking. You can get both at Barnes and Noble or at Indigo online to patronize your national bookseller, or go the Amazon route!