Monday, November 30, 2009

Zion's Angels Landing Hike: So Popular, It's a Killer

Recently, there has been some interesting debate on the National Parks Traveler website about the hike to Angels Landing in Utah's Zion National Park. On Black Friday, Tammy Grunig fell to her death while hiking up the trail. This was the second fatality on this trail in 2009. The previous accident occurred in early August, when Nancy Maltez died after she also slipped and fell en route.

Now, how dangerous is it really to hike to Angels Landing? There's a huge range of opinion out there -- just scroll through all of the comments on National Parks Traveler's original news post about the most recent fatality, and you'll see what I mean. I've hiked the trail myself, and can testify that the last narrow section from Scout Lookout (aka "Chicken-Out Point") to the tip of Angels Landing, which overlooks the Virgin River from an uneasy height of almost 5800 feet, is a white-knuckler. You've got to scramble over slickrock, grab onto chains that NPS has installed and take care with every single footfall. For a virtual look at this infamous trail, check out Zion's Angels Landing eHike.

But Angels Landing is not the most dangerous hike in Zion National Park, let alone the entire national park system. So why all the fuss? The same reason that deaths on Yosemite's Half Dome get plenty of media attention. Both are insanely popular trails with park visitors, not all of whom are experienced or well-prepared enough. I've seen people in tennis shoes with no tread and only one small water bottle to sustain them on both hikes. Perhaps what makes each of these trails a killer is the sheer volume of day hikers. Rush hour on either trail can be a dangerous scenario. Not only is it too crowded to be safe, but also there is the psychological effect of, "Well, since everyone else is doing it, I will, too."

So what's the solution? Being an avid hiker, but also having worked as a seasonal national park ranger, I can see both sides of the story. Requiring hiking permits would be too costly, in terms of the time required for rangers to give safety talks, write permits and enforce regulations. So, what about closing these classic trails? Unthinkable, to outdoor enthusiasts. Taking risks in the wilderness is what many of us love to do. Of course, hikers who get in trouble don't end up paying the bills for costly search-and-rescue operations, so that's easy to say.

Ultimately, the possibly fatal cost of hiking these trails is a choice we all make, every time we pull on our hiking boots in any national park. I still vote that we get to take reasonable risks, as long as we're honest with ourselves about how experienced we are in the wilderness and come prepared with more than just a bottle of water, a few peanut butter cookies and a banana, like my mom packed for us when we hiked in the Grand Tetons when I was eight years old. We never made it to that summit lake (though, thankfully, we all survived to tell the tale).

How Not to Be an Idiot While Hiking
Our National Parks: So Wild That You Should Sue?
Yosemite's Half Dome Through the Back Door

Photo: Zion Canyon (Sara J. Benson)


  1. Hi Sara! Great post about this. I love Zion National Park and got to hike the Angels Landing trail last March. It was a hike of a lifetime. A major adventure. Not only is it stunning in beauty, but the heights and exposure and inherent risks make it truly an exhilarating adventure.
    Like Yellowstone's Grand Canyon, Yosemite's Half Dome, valleys that are home to grizzly bears, and so many other "wild" places that can't possibly be fenced or managed like amusement parks or playgrounds, Zion's Angels Landing trail is not for the faint of heart. But as you indicate, one can mitigate the risks by going early, using all the cables and chains, and showing extra caution.
    Still, even if one does all of these things, from time to time an accident (tragedy) will happen. These are, after all, wild places.
    Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

  2. Sam, great writing as always. You mention two famous hikes that visitors should honestly evaluate their personal level of experience before embarking on such challenges. Other hikes where there's lots of visitors and lots of risk:
    -- hike to Longs Peak at Rocky Mountain NP
    -- hike to the Camp Muir base camp at Mount Rainier NP
    -- day hiking out of Obstruction Point at Olympic NP
    -- day hiking around Logan Pass at Glacier NP