Scout Lookout

Virgin River and Zion Canyon at early morning

The next day we wanted to hike to Angel's Landing. It's the most famous hike in Zion National Park. Again, it's a hike that both of us had done before but it's well worth repeating. Angel's Landing is a 1,488 foot high sheer tower that stands in the center of Zion Canyon, connected to the main rim only by a narrow ridge. From below it looks like it's impossible to reach the top without serious technical climbing, but an unlikely trail does lead to the summit. The final ridge is quite exposed so the Park Service has installed cables along the route above Scout Lookout to provide extra handholds. The only hike/climb I know that is comparable in the US is the cable route on Half Dome. Angel's Landing is a serious scramble. Several people have fallen off the route in the past decade and been killed. It can be dangerous if there are lots of people on it. When climbers going up and climbers going down try to pass each other on narrow, exposed ledges there is the potential for an accident. We figured that it wouldn't be that busy since it was off season. But we did notice a lot of people on the summit of Angel's Landing when we were at Observation Point. We decided to give it a try anyway just to see how it was.

Angel's Landing - it looks impossible from the canyon floor

We started the hike right from the lodge. It added half a mile each way but obviated fighting for a parking spot at the trailhead. The Emerald Lakes trailhead is just across the road from the Lodge. We hiked for about twenty minutes when we saw a sign that the trail that continued beyond Emerald Lakes to connect with the trail to Angel's Landing was closed for maintenance. Dang! Couldn't you have told us that at the start? We turned around and hiked back to the Lodge. Start hike to Angel's Landing, Take Two. This time we took the trail that ran alongside the road and in half a mile reached the Grotto Trailhead. It had only taken us an hour of walking, but we were finally ready to start the real hike.

Bad news right from the start. There were a lot of people on the trail. We were just hoping that they were only going to Scout Lookout and not to the summit. We hiked up the first switchbacks that were blasted right from the cliff. We reached Refridgerator Canyon, a narrow hanging canyon that is always cool and shady. I doubt that the sun ever reaches the bottom. But there wasn't any snow here either. Obviously none had fallen all winter as there was no way it could have melted.

The intrepid hikers at Scout Lookout

Then it was time to climb out of Refrigerator Canyon, up twenty one short, steep switchbacks known as Walter's Wiggles, to Scout Lookout, the saddle between Angel's Landing and the West Rim of Zion Canyon. It's a spectacular viewpoint and there was a crowd of hikers there. Some were resting after the steep climb. Some were enjoying the view. Some were psyching themselves up for the final, difficult stretch to the summit. And some were waiting, intimidated when they looked ahead to the last part of the route, while others from their party went on to the top. We took a short rest too before continuing.

From there the summit trail, now augmented with cables that always seemed to start too late and end too soon, goes over one high point on the ridge and then drops to a final saddle before climbing the summit ridge of Angel's Landing. We went that far but weren't happy with how many people there were. When you pass people going the other way someone loses the value of the cables. And on a narrow, exposed ledge, you aren't just depending on your own balance and sense of judgement, but on the people you pass as well. Looking at them fooling around, or their lack of proper footwear, or poor technique, didn't inspire confidence. So we decided it wasn't a good day to go for the summit. We went back to Scout Lookout, which is certainly a worthwhile destination in its own right. We had our snacks, took photos and enjoyed the view. The hike down went quickly and we were back to the Lodge by early afternoon.

Upper Zion Canyon from Scout Lookout

Since we were back early and the weather was nice, we decided to do some car touring. Unfortunately the traffic was terrible. Zion is a very popular National Park with 3.2 million visitors in 2014. To handle the crowds, for most of the year the Park Service closes Zion Canyon to private cars and runs a free shuttle from Springdale Utah. But during the winter offseason they don't get as many visitors. The shuttle doesn't run and the road into the canyon is open to cars. But someone had the bright idea to have free admission to the park for President's Day weekend. The beautiful summer-like weather combined with the inability of a state full of Mormons to pass up anything free meant that there were hordes of people in the park. The road through the canyon was parked up on both sides for most of its length. There was barely room for traffic to get through. When we reached the junction with Utah Highway 9 we saw that the entrance to the canyon was blocked off by NPS police cars. Apparently every day that weekend they had to block off the road because the canyon was full.

Spectacular roadside scenery in Zion

We turned west on Hwy 9. It switchbacks up a canyon to what looks like a dead end at an impossible headwall. But the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, over a mile long, burrows through the mountain and emerges in the Zion high country. Because it was built in 1930 it is very narrow. To accomadate large vehicles (the RV's that everyone who drives mountain roads hates), traffic is only allowed through the tunnel in one direction at a time. So we had a delay waiting for our turn. I was hoping to do the short hike on the Canyon Overlook Trail, which starts just outside the far end of the tunnel. But it was a zoo there, with cars lined up in the other direction, cars parked everywhere, and people all over the place. We just drove by. The road passes through some amazing slickrock scenery. There are few trails in the area but people tend to park along the road and just head off on the slickrock. We drove almost to the East Entrance to the park before turning around.

Car touring in Zion National Park

Now it was time to head to Springdale for dinner. We went to my favorite place there, Zion Pizza and Noodle. I joked to Sandy that we had to watch out for Michelle, someone we worked with at the U of I, when we had dinner. Michelle and her husband were interested in starting backpacking this year and as the resident hiking expert at work, she had talked to me several times about places to go hiking. I of course recommended going to the Utah canyon country in the spring. Because she keeps track of everyone's vacation days at work, I copied her on my request to my boss for time off to go hiking. Two minutes after I sent the message I got a reply from her "Where are you going?" We traded several emails and by the end of the exchange she had decided that she and her husband would go to Zion for the weekend too. They were going to backpack but I finished by joking "see you at Zion Noodle and Pizza".

Imposing cliffs in the Zion backcountry

After I ordered our pizza and found a table, I went to get our drinks. I heard "Hey Steve!". I turned and there were Michelle and her husband Justin having dinner on the patio. Sandy and I went and talked for a while. They had arrived the day before, hiked the West Rim trail from near the East Entrance, camped overnight in the backcountry, and hiked out today. Afterwards they took a car tour up the canyon and then sure enough, there they were at Zion Pizza and Noodle, just like we had said. Good timing! It was their first visit and they both thought that even with the crowds, Zion was fantastic.

It wasn't our first trip but we had to agree. It was a rare beautiful winter weekend and we were lucky to be able to take advantage on such short notice. We had an easy trip back to Boise the next day to finish off a great trip. And Abby was glad to see us when we got back.