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Don’t scare the Angels

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In the 1930s when the nation’s Civilian Conservation Corps began construction of an ambitious trail that would carry hikers 1,400 feet up and across a daring narrow fin in Zion National Park, Utah, no one would have guessed it would become one of the most popular hikes in the National Park System. Anyone who has ever been there gets it. This is a place where angels would come to land, and everyone else too as more and more people flock to the perch high over the Virgin River.

The Angels Landing experience is one of great rewards, and one that is certainly accessible to the adventurous. Within a matter of hours we had a miniature mountaineering experience.

A wandering approach led us up through a paved path created 80 years ago by the CCC. After several meandering switchbacks, we entered the so-called Refrigerator Canyon, a sort of hanging slot canyon where our watch thermometers immediately dropped.

Dazzling elevation gains began with the ascent of Walter’s Wiggles – a comical portion of trail that leaps uphill with countless short turns. At Scout’s Lookout, a point of no return – or at least the place where you should turn back if tempted – park staff give talks on the local California condor population. Once almost eliminated, today the area is home to as many as 70 condors. The birds, which lay claim to 10-foot wingspans, are native to Utah and Arizona, and several call Zion home. We watched one giant condor take flight all afternoon. Stunning.

Beyond Scout’s, it really gets good, scrambling and climbing with overwhelming exposure as inherent doom lingers everywhere (a chain hand line is nearby for safety.) The views, the condors and the pastel shades of Zion Canyon; It’s no wonder this is such a popular hike.

And that has been causing problems.

It’s crowded – too crowded. So crowded that the National Park Service is studying Zion’s capacity for safety, not to mention quality of experience. Zion, like other national parks, sets new visitation records each year. Don’t expect desert solitude.

“The hiking path could be a lot of fun, but it was so crowded for us,” one visitor wrote in a review of the hike. “Most of the walk was standing in line.”

But even among the crowds, we found an astonishing experience.

It’s simple: if you want that piece of desert solitude, you have to go a little further. At a few hours up and down, Angels Landing is Zion’s low-hanging fruit, and that fruit is delicious.

And we found a small spot of a perch overlooking Zion that we had all to ourselves. For brief moments it was quiet, and the condor just kept soaring.

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