Saturday, September 20, 2014

Postcards from Zion National Park: Hiking Angels Landing

Oh Las Vegas. It's good fun once, twice.. but to someone who's been there, done that, Zion National Park is a close enough drive to north to escape the Las Vegas scene.  While I love (and also hate) Vegas for its over-the-top vibe and for its repertoire of impressive restaurants, I truthfully would rather not go.  The diversions and stimulations of Sin City are decidedly endless, but somehow, there is just not enough of the right kind for me.

So we gunned for the national parks within driving distance of Las Vegas the minute we landed.  Our first stop was Bryce National Park, then we drove back to spend the night in Washington, UT.  Bright and early the next morning, we drove up to Zion National Park (a mere 20 minute drive) with the intent of going mountain biking.

The rental mountain bike selection at the adventure shop was mediocre so instead we opted to go for a hike.  We were not able to go hiking in Bryce Canyon the day prior, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to get close and personal with these canyons. Without doing any research prior to the park visit, we heeded the recommendation of the shop guy to hike Angels Landing.  Zion has numerable religious references, it being once an early settlement of Mormons.  Angels Landing was named such in the belief that it is a place so beautiful, it is the place for angels to gather.  
It was a spontaneous decision to hike this trail.  2.5 miles shouldn't be that extreme.  I also always have it in my head that if I can mountain bike it up, I can certainly hike it up.
In this case, I am happy we were hiking (no mountain bikes on the trail).  It was definitely a challenging and steep hike up to the top of a cliff then the trail would level out, then resume climbing another cliff, and yet another.  If you look closely at the photo below, you would see tiny dots of people traversing up the switchbacks.  There are guardrails only in 5-10% of the trail so on one hand, it is amazing to be that unrestrained to wilderness, but on the other, it's daunting that you're also that close to falling to your death.
We are in fairly good shape and did not stop much.  With our relatively brisk pace, we made it up in about an hour.  (And we actually stopped at Scott's Landing, 500 feet away from the actual Angels Landing peak.  There was a throng of people all trying to get to the top, clinging to guard rails and it didn't seem like it was safe to be hiking behind someone clutching on to a guard rail).  The unobstructed views from where we were was already staggering.  What a sight to behold!  It was so wild!
I was berating myself for only taking a fixed point lens, but no matter.  I wouldn't have been able to capture the magnificence of the 360 views all around us anyway.  It would have been impossible.  It also astonished me that no matter how high we got (I believe it was 1,000 feet of ascent), the sky overhead still felt as infinite as the way it did when we started.  I was bewildered.
We snacked on raisins and split a banana and watched these cliffs, taking deep breaths of the pure oxygen.  Who knows when we will get this chance again?
It was told that the massive sandstone cliffs were formed by sand blown away by wind thousands and thousands of years ago.  These cliffs would have had the volume of sand of an entire desert.  The sand mixed with minerals that caused it to harden, and with iron, that caused it to turn red.  I'm not a geologist, though, and I could refer you to one if you need more explicit information. :)

Pretty soon, we were descending and we had the opportunity of seeing everything again, from a different vantage point this time.

The skinny switchbacks to get to the top of Angels Landing
Hikers cooling down in the Virgin River

I could remember a time when I could barely run half a mile without sending in the ambulance.  Its extraordinary moments like these that I am so grateful to be healthy and well.  I never really was fit or athletic growing up, and to hike such extents (this hike is called "extreme" by many, taking some five hours to complete) without batting an eyelash is really an accomplishment.

I advocate for living a healthy and active lifestyle and this is precisely why.  The photos speak for themselves.  I want to keep hiking to heights and exploring the world until I am very, very old.  Being a voracious traveler, it is imperative that I stay healthy, and more importantly, I am able to say yes to experiences, rather than confront them with an attitude of "Oh no.  I can't do that."  
If you go:
  • If you have a car, you will need to pay the park entrance of $25 per vehicle.  If you are visiting Bryce in the same trip, it is almost worth it to get the National Parks annual pass for $80 which is valid for one year and will you give all access to all the national parks in America.  We haven't been to Yellowstone or Denali and with this pass, we just make a go for it in a year.
  • If you are visiting for a day, you can save $25 per vehicle if you catch the free shuttle bus in Springdale, right outside the park.  More information can be found here
  • If you are the less adventurous type, you can just ride the shuttle around the park.  It stops at the major sights and the entire tour would take you about 80 minutes.
  • I love my Merrell Gore-tex hiking boots, but when we hiked Angels Landing, we actually did them in running shoes that had great grip.  I had on my all-around Asics Noosa Fast (which I also wear mountain biking and traveling - they are GREAT) and they did amazing.  If it was raining or muddy, then it would be the hiking shoes for sure, but with thinner sole shoes, I felt I could move my feet and toes around more to grip the trail and rocks.
  • If you are prone to vertigo or have never hiked in your life, I would prepare a few weeks in advance of this hike.  I don't think the hike itself is very technical.  It does require a fair amount of stamina and endurance.  
  • Be also prepared for the elevation where air is thinner.  Elevation is not to be scoffed at because it could really make your day miserable with headaches, vomiting, oxygen shortage, etc.  Our elevation at home is 4,500 feet, so for us to be high up at 9,000 feet is no trouble.  We are used to it.  I can imagine it is not the case for everyone. 
  • Pack your wide angle lens if it is no trouble.  It could be a hassle lugging that thing around up the cliff, but it is worth it.

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