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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

U.S. Trails - Facing demons at Angels Landing

For the visual oriented, skip straight to the pictures here.

The trails portion of my trip started out bright and early with a "where the hell is the sun" morning flight out of Chicago to Las Vegas. I was excited when we landed on time, but then had to sit around at the car rental center for 2.5 hours while I waited for my "reservation time." Oops, my bad.

Aside from a somewhat large fire that was blazing somewhere within Vegas (result of some wild night?) and the back-to-back traffic, my journey from LV to Cedar City was rather uneventful. Even with a generous interpretation of the 80 mph speed limit, the 2 hour trip became 5 hours, but at least I found myself a Starbucks. This Starbucks, it turned out, would be caffeinating me before my 1 hour drive every morning from Cedar City to Zion.

My "Harry Potter" room:

On the first morning I plugged in my Tomtom and typed in Zion National Park. Then off I went. I should mention that the maps on that Tomtom unit probably haven't been updated since Neil Armstrong made a giant leap for mankind. Which, of course, explains why it routed me onto an off-road trail that would have led me in a ditch, and then once again demanding me to turn right into the desert.

But anyways, onto the hikes. The first one I wanted to tackle was Angels' Landing, so named because some guy once claimed it was so large that "only an angel could land on it." The hike begins at the Grotto Trailhead, which lies at the Grotto shuttle stop. However, the no nonsense character in me saw a sign at the prior stop that said "Grotto Trail." Yeah, I got off at the wrong stop, and had to walk an extra half mile. Laugh it off rangers.

I was looking forward to this hike with three-quarters excitement and a quarter trepidation since every review of it talks about how dangerous it is. While the constant warnings aren't necessarily unwarranted, I don't think it's nearly as dangerous as it's made out to be - assuming people are putting their smarts to work - i.e. not going up if it's raining / wet / windy; not trying to pass other hikers when there's obviously no room to make the pass; etc.

The first 2 miles consisted of a steady climb along the West Rim Trail, which eventually leads to Refrigerator Canyon, the name of which is apt given the shade it offers. Afterwards, Walter's Wiggles, a set of 21 steep switchbacks, leads the way towards Scout's Lookout. By the time I arrived here I had already caught up to most of the folks who skipped the half mile I gratuitously added to my hike. Slow and steady does it.

At Scout's Lookout the trail goes southeast and leads hikers along a half mile of narrow spine (the official Angels' Landing trail) with ~1000-foot drop on either side. In honor of Jurassic Park, I'd reckon it would had been like walking along the neck of a brontosaurus that was cross-bred with an equally long-necked giraffe. This section involves a lot of scrambling and climbing and sometimes good old fashion crawling, but the view up top is well worth the effort. Just don't look down until you're at the top, where there's a 360-degree view of some of the park's best features, including the Virgin River, Observation Point, the Great White Throne, among others.

After 40 minutes of photo ops, eating, and resting, I headed back down. The return trip was slower as more folks were coming up and people tended to go slower back down. This is perhaps because there's no way to not look down. Rather than heading all the way back, I took the fork at Scout's Lookout towards the West Rim Trail. The crowd was non-existent here, and yet the view was equally jaw dropping. The remoteness of the trail, ironically, imbued me with a sense of aliveness that I had long forgotten. The trail goes 3 miles out, but I was short on water, so I headed back after 1.5 miles. Once I was at the canyon floor or thereabouts, I made my way down to the Virgin River, took off my shoes and socks, and showed my feet what heaven feels like.

By the time I got back to the Visitors' Center, it was early afternoon, and I decided I wanted to stay and watch the sun set. Unfortunately, that was 4 hours away. I busied myself by taking the shuttle into Springdale to re-caffeinate and re-nourish. There really isn't much else to do in Springdale. I headed back to Zion, watched a pixelated film about the park at the museum, and then headed toward the Pa'rus Trail, a 1.7 mile paved walk alongside the Virgin River from which The Watchman (below) is visible.

By the time the sun decided to take a rest, I was disappointed, to say the least, that clouds had rolled in and obscured the radiant hues of red, orange, and yellow I was waiting for. However, my drive back to Cedar City was nothing but gorgeous views of the clouds on fire. It was distracting enough that I was afraid I'd veer off the road from not being able to take my eyes off the sky.

Day 1 completed. See photos of my day 1 hikes here.

Total miles walked today: ~11
Total water drank today: a rainfall

Angels' Landing Summary
Difficulty: Like eating rocks, and definitely not for anyone with unshakable acrophobia
Length: 4.8 miles round-trip if you start from the Grotto shuttle stop
Altitude change: 1,500 feet
Time: It all depends on the temperature, crowd, your fitness level, etc., but I think the park says the average is about 5 hours round-trip. I made it up in an hour, but I've also been running on inclines, cranking out push-ups, and doing 800 crunches.
Tip: If you have climbing (or weight lifting) gloves bring them. It'll save you a few scratches against the rock as you grab the chains / protect your palms against the chains themselves. When you're all skin and bones like me, every layer helps. Unless I was a masochist, which I'm not.

Remember: hike at your own risk as your safety is your responsibility.


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