two-for-the-price-of-one birthday special
We set two alarms, rising with the sun. Zion was calling. We had already spent two days hiking in Utah’s grandest national park, but we had saved the best for last. Not only was this our last day in Utah, but it was also D’s birthday, which he had long wanted to celebrate atop Angel’s Landing.
In addition to wanting to make the most of the day, there were several practical considerations that made for an early wake-up. For one, we wanted to avoid the misadventure that befell us the previous day and arrive early enough to snag a parking spot along the Zion Canyon scenic drive. Also, D’s friend was excited to celebrate his birthday, and her young daughters even more so. They had planned a special birthday breakfast and we had to make sure to budget enough time to enjoy it before dashing off to Zion, which lay a little more than an hour’s drive away.
We arrived at the park entrance a shade before 9am and managed to improvise a parking spot at the Grotto trailhead even though it seemed that there was nowhere left to park. It was crisp outside but we walked at a brisk pace and quickly warmed up. The trail was still relatively unpopulated, but it paid to walk the paved parts quickly and get in front of as many slower-moving hikers as possible so as to minimize the bottlenecks that awaited higher up the route.
Angel’s Landing is easily the most exhilarating hike we did during our road trip, and may very well go down as one of the most memorable hikes we will ever do. The trail is only 2.5 miles each way, but the final half-mile takes longer to ascend than the two miles preceding it, and the adrenaline of the climb perdures well after one has returned back down to the valley.
We walked up a series of paved switchbacks, climbing rapidly up to a pass in the mountain. After cutting through a narrow canyon we ascended another set of even steeper switchbacks, which are named Walter’s Wiggles after Zion’s first park director. We covered the first two miles in 40 minutes and arrived at the first set of chains.
“Look, we’re almost there!” said S as we neared the top of a steep rock wall. Above was a wide ledge where several other hikers milled about. How wrong she was! We had just arrived at Scout Lookout, which offers a stunning view of Angel’s Landing and a tremor-inducing preview of the route ahead. A sign along the trail had warned that the climb would be strenuous, with cliff exposures along a narrow route. Another sign, just beneath Scout Lookout, hastened to add that since 2004 six hikers had plunged to their death from these very cliffs.
The last half-mile is a steep climb along the narrow spine of Angel’s Landing. We’ve hiked Knife’s Edge atop Mt. Katadhin, and this route makes Knife’s Edge seem like a broad freeway. From Scout Lookout, we had to traverse a thin, rocky ridge. If it wasn’t for the chains that anchored the path, it is unlikely that many hikers would even attempt to cross over to the narrow peak whose summit we sought. The path was perfectly safe, but with a thousand-foot drop-off to either side, it certainly didn’t feel that way. There was a few feet of space to either side of the chains before the mountain abruptly ended. The precipice gaped on both sides of the ridge with dizzying immensity.
The final summit push was only marginally wider in some places. We clung to the chains as if our life depended on it – and in some places it did. Without the looming precipice, we likely could have done a number of sections without the chains’ assistance, but up so high and feeling unnervingly exposed, we took no chances. We stopped now and again at the wider portions of the trail to let descending hikers pass. D sometimes stopped to take in the views and snap a few pictures. For her part, S tried very hard not to look any further than where her feet were stepping and where her hands were holding on.
With a hike like this, the way up is only half the excitement. Whereas on the ascent it was possible to look up at the summit, the yawning abyss around us was much harder to ignore on the way down. S was a little afraid that the vertiginous heights would make her head swim. Not only did we make it down without a hitch, but we were also treated to the majestic sight of two condors, which swooped down from their aerie somewhere along the sheer face of Angel’s Landing and made several passes, gliding effortlessly above the awe-struck hikers.
We returned to the parking lot around 1pm and hurriedly ate our snacks in the car while D drove towards the Temple of Sinawawa at the end of Zion’s scenic drive. We had debated for two days whether we should attempt the park’s other signature hike – the Narrows – this late in the season. The water was bound to be frigid at the end of October, but then again the water level was also about as low as it ever gets, which would work in our favor.
Though lacking the adrenaline and spectacular panorama views of Angel’s Landing, the Narrows is one of the most unique hikes one can do in America’s national parks. This is because the trail, insofar as there is one, follows the Virgin River up into a tapering canyon. There were some patches of trail – sandy wash covered with river-smoothed rocks – but for most of the Narrows hike, the river runs canyon wall to canyon wall. We spent about three-quarters of our hike wading through the water. For the most part it was only calf-deep, but there were also several section where the water was above the knee, and a couple of times the river reached just beneath the crotch.
The river was cold, but not unbearably so. We tried to tune out the cold, and after a while grew accustomed to it, though our ankles were frozen completely stiff by the time we decided to turn around. It’s hard to judge how far upstream we managed to advance. Walking against the current is strenuous and we had no grand illusions of hiking the entire 16 miles of the Virgin River. Our goal was to reach the section of the canyon where it truly tapers – about a mile upstream – and once we had accomplished this goal, the decision to turn back was mostly a function of time. We had a dinner date with our friends, so we set a turnaround time, hiked about ten minutes past it, and then retraced our steps.
It is possible to hike the entire 16-mile Narrows section of the Virgin River as a day-hike, walking top to bottom with the current rather than starting at the bottom as we had done. To do so, one needs a wilderness permit – an adventure we have mentally earmarked for another day. Even the little section we hiked was amazing – the icing on the cake of one hell of an unforgettable birthday.