Vegas to Zion
The southwestern United States is known for its dramatic and epic landscapes. Some of the best are in southern Utah at places like Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park. Landscape photographers travel from all over the world for the chance to capture an epic shot. Last August I was in Las Vegas for a wedding (at the awesome Neon Museum, featured previously as a Picture of the Week). The wedding was on a Saturday morning, which gave us plenty of time for shenanigans and Vegasing Saturday night, but after being there for a few nights I was about Vegas’d out.
My flight back to Dallas didn’t leave until midnight Sunday night, so I wondered what I could do in a day that was relatively close (similar to my visit to Antelope Canyon). I took out a map (meaning my iPhone) and searched for national parks in Utah. Hmmm….Zion is actually not far from Vegas. Flipping through some images, I saw a beautiful view over and over again, titled something like “The Summit of Angel’s Landing”. Hmmmm….
I awoke early Sunday morning and made my way to McCarran International Airport to pick up my rental from Sixt (these days I’d go with Silvercar). I didn’t really have any hiking gear with me and I’m actually not much of a hiker. I drove north of Vegas and started making my way east into Utah. I knew I would need lots of water and figured a hat would help with sun protection, so I stopped off at an outdoorish shop and inquired about a hat. I told the lady I was doing a day trip from Vegas to Angel’s Landing and she stopped and looked at me and said, “You know that’s a pretty dangerous hike, right?” Emboldened by her confidence in me I confessed that I did not. She informed me that it’s a pretty exposed hike and that numerous people die there every year. “If you’re not an experienced hiker, I wouldn’t recommend it.”
You all know me by now: challenge accepted.
Starting the hike
I eventually made my way into Zion National Park, loaded my camera bag up with 5L of water, hopped on the park shuttle, and arrived at the trailhead, which reiterated everything that the lady had said: Angel’s Landing is a strenuous hike with rapid altitude gain, exposed cliff faces, and areas where your only handhold will be a chain that’s stuck into the mountain.
Realizing that this could actually be kind of serious, I set off, my newly-purchased hat and scarf giving me comfort from the maniacal sun.
The first part of the trail hugs the valley created by the Virgin River. It was flat, sandy, and pretty relaxing honestly. All around me were staggering geological formations and everywhere I looked my eyes were rewarded with incredible beauty.
And then a slight ascent started. If you look in the bottom right of the picture below you’ll see a trail. That’s the trail that used to be next to the river. The trail snaked up the side of the canyon and for about an hour I pretty much walked up switchback after switchback, gradually making my way up the face of the canyon.
As you can see from the people in the picture below (down the trail on the right) these trails are steep.
After a while the trail turns away from the main canyon and goes around the back of what ends up being Angel’s Landing before the actual altitude increase begins.
Once you turn away from the main trail there’s a brief period where the entire trail is in the shade and the temperature cools by about 20 degrees (mercifully!). You’re still climbing but there are some flat stretches which were a nice break for my calves. The whole time I was still taken aback by the incredible scenery.
You’ll see in the picture below that the trail is still pretty severe in terms of the climb required. The temperature made it seem a bit easier though.
The entire time I was keeping a very close eye on my water intake. Although I’m not an experienced hiker I grew up in the Texas heat playing all sorts of sports, so I’m very familiar with heat exhaustion and dehydration. I was honestly feeling pretty good, but then I got to The Wiggles.
The Wiggles are a series of 21 rapid switchbacks carved into the face of the mountain. My calves have never quite felt like they did once I started up The Wiggles, a constant burn that I never even felt doing CrossFit. I finally made it to the top, after many breaks. Here are The Wiggles from the top.
Do I keep going or call it a day?
The hike to Angel’s Landing actually has two “parts”: the hike to Scout Lookout and the hike to Angel’s Landing. Scout Lookout is a plateau at the top of The Wiggles and has some pretty amazing views. Getting to Scout Lookout is relatively safe, there are no steep cliffs or anything like that, just a lot of elevation gain. If you’re afraid of heights but want a challenge, the hike to Scout Lookout should be wonderful for you.
Scout Lookout is also when the dangerous part of the Angel’s Landing hike begins. I sat there looking at this sign for a few minutes while I caught my breath.
That’s it, Angel’s Landing it is
I didn’t come this far to turn around. I wouldn’t call myself impervious to heights, but they don’t bother me too much, so I started putting one foot in front of the other as the landscape changed dramatically. Gone were the carved and manicured trails, replaced by rocky outcroppings and chains affixed to the mountainside.
I made it past the first series of bumps without ill effect. Below you’ll see a guy I encountered. Whenever you hit traffic on the trail you just kind of figure it out, because many places on the trail are not wide enough for safe crossing.
Just past Scout Lookout are a series of narrow ridges, as narrow as 3 feet (1 meter)!
So here was the ridge that I named Scary Ridge. On the right is a 1500 foot drop. On the left is a 1200 foot drop. Eek!
The ridge behind me I kept pushing towards the summit. The chains were secure and gave me comfort when I needed them, but there were only a few times where I felt completely exposed. The only truly scary time was when I bumped my tripod against a rock pretty harshly, popping it loose from its clasp on my backpack. I watched in horror as it bounced towards the cliff face but luckily it stopped before going over the edge. I wasn’t concerned about losing the tripod I just didn’t want it to hit anyone below.
The trail continued up the ridge and I sensed I was nearing the summit.
After a few more inclines and a few more traffic jams, I noticed the landscape flattened out a bit and the chains went away.
I MADE IT TO THE SUMMIT OF ANGEL’S LANDING!
I turned to my right to see the view of the canyon and my breath was taken away. Granted, it was a strenuous hike so I was already breathing heavily but it would’ve taken my breath away even if I wouldn’t have been.
I caught my breath and grabbed a seat on the summit. Of course I was going to take some pictures but I didn’t want that to distract from me enjoying the moment with my own eyes. Just a short drive from Vegas and a most likely ill-informed hike up a dangerous trail later I was in a place that most people only dream of seeing. It was simply magical.
I caught my breath and figured I might as well take some pictures, since I had lugged my stuff up the trail.
I walked over to the side of the summit where there was a relatively flat area and it gave me a better look down Zion Canyon.
As I was sitting there I heard, of all things, a harmonica. A girl was sitting atop a rock playing a harmonica beautifully. It was something that I’d normally consider kind of annoying at such a serene place, but she played that harmonica so beautifully that it actually made the experience even better. I was able to get a great shot of her with my zoom lens that captured the scene pretty well. I have no idea who she is, hopefully someone knows her and points her to this post!
The sun began to set and I knew that my time on the summit needed to draw to a close pretty quickly, as I didn’t want to do the downhill portion of the hike in the dark. I convinced myself to wait until the sun descended past the mountain to the west so I could get one last shot. I’m so glad I waited, this panorama of the sunset is one of my all-time favorite pictures!
Back down the trail
Satisfied that I had taken enough pictures I started my descent. The descent was much easier, which surprised me, I thought going down the steep faces with the chains would be harder but I guess for some reason I was able to see it better? I dunno. I kept my camera out so I could see how the shadows changed the look of the landscape.
I took one last look back at Zion Canyon from the Summit then started down the trail home.
Like I said, the shadows danced around the landscape and cast everything in a more saturated, soft light which helped me notice much more detail instead of just being blown away by the geological formations.
I stopped briefly at Scout Outlook and noticed a formation that reminded me of Horseshoe Bend, had to get a picture of it!
I made my way back to the shadowed area from earlier in the hike and it was much darker. The canyon walls almost looked like they had been painted! I love the patterns of nature.
As I emerged from the shadowed area I was able to see the last bits of the fading daylight shine their light on the peaks of the mountains, it stopped me in my tracks and took my breath away yet again!
The moon rose over the mountaintops as Zion Canyon fell into the dusk.
I was almost back to the easier part of the trail and I noticed my pace quickening. I stopped for a last water break and noticed the trail carving out a beautiful path through the canyon and the trees.
I put the lead out and made it back to the trailhead right as a shuttle was coming by to pick me up. I made it back to the entrance of Zion National Park and had a short walk to my rental through this cool little field.
(For the photographers: I love my Sony a7rII because of pictures like this. I was too lazy to get my tripod out and pushed the ISO to 6400 and recovered like two stops of underexposure from this image and it looks amazing!)
Back to Dallas
I drove back to Las Vegas and caught my flight, smelling very much awful I’m sure. On my way out of Utah, though, I stopped for one last picture, the last bit of daylight sneaking out over the horizon, a reminder that the day was almost gone and would never be seen again. I am so thankful that I got to visit Zion National Park and Angel’s Landing that day. I consider it a massive blessing that I made it to the top and back safely and I can’t wait to go back to Zion to see the rest of the hikes that I missed!
[editor’s note: I also consider it a massive blessing that no police officers happened to see me driving back to Vegas! I was running late and had to…um…go above the speed limit juuuuuuust a bit]