Zion National Park’s Angels Landing hike is one of the most popular trails in all of Utah, if not the US as a whole. And it’s easy to understand why. The route involves a mere 1,500 feet of ascent over a distance of 2.5 miles, and yet the return on this modest investment of effort is huge. Along the way, hikers enjoy the kind of thrills that are usually reserved for people jumping out of planes or venturing to far higher altitudes, and at the top are treated to views that most would be willing to hike days for. In the last 20 years, however, 13 people have died on the hike, and following two further deaths in early 2021, we began to ask: “why do so many people die at Angels Landing?”
According to the US National Parks Service, the greatest dangers faced by hikers on any trip are encountered on the drive to and from the trailhead. The wilds, after all, are home to far fewer hazards than your average road or freeway, and unless you are either particularly careless or strolling through bear country smothered in honey, the odds of making it back home in one piece are stacked in your favor. This being so, when one trail begins posting inordinately high death rates, our curiosity is piqued.
Far from an indulgence of any fascination with the macabre, our wish in creating this post is to alert would-be Angels Landing summiteers to the trail’s dangers and bring attention to a worrying trend that threatens to impact the safety of trails far beyond this small corner of southwest Utah.
The Angels Landing Trail: a bit of background
The first ascent of Angels Landing was reported in the Washington County News in 1924, at which time the landing was dubbed the “Temple of Aeolus”. In 1926, a trail was carved into the solid rock on the spine – the fin-like summit ridge – after the construction of Walter's Wiggles, a series of 21 switchbacks that connect the spine to the West Rim Trail.
On the face of it, the hike poses nothing too out of the ordinary. It’s a 2.5-mile out-and-back hike involving 1,500 feet of ascent on the way to an airy but commodious summit, which is reached via a slender ridge that’s well protected by poles and chains anchored into the rock. On the Yosemite Decimal System scale, the hike is given a rating of 3 (easy but exposed scrambling), which puts it in company with many other popular hikes around the globe – Scotland’s Aonach Eagach Ridge, the Sawtooth on Colorado’s Mt Evans, Crib Goch on Snowdon, or any of a hundred or so hikes in the Italian Dolomites – where recorded deaths are low by comparison.
So why is Angels Landing so dangerous? Let’s start by taking a look at the numbers.
Are the Angels Landing deaths caused by overcrowding?
Almost 4.5 million people visited Zion National Park in 2019 and it’s estimated that up to 1,000 people per day take on the Angels Landing hike in peak season. For any landmark, that’s a lot of foot traffic. For one where visitation requires a scramble up and along a narrow ridge with a 1000-foot drop on either side, occasional fatalities seem less of a surprise and more of an inevitability.
The law of probability alone dictates that any trail hiked by hundreds of thousands of people every year is likely to see its fair share of accidents. However, while on most trails an errant step, slip, or stumble may result in a grazed knee, bloodied hand, sprained ankle, and/or a touch of embarrassment, Angels Landing’s slim margins for error and vertical drops mean that the consequences of the slightest mistake are graver by far.
The trickiest section of the Angels Landing hike begins at Scout Lookout, the saddle that connects the West Rim Trail to the 0.5-mile ridge walk that constitutes the Angels Landing Trail proper. From here, hikers still have 500 feet of ascent before reaching the summit, and things soon take a turn for the airy and scary. While the subsequent ridge is well protected by fixed chains, in places the trail narrows to no more than a few feet wide, creating bottlenecks and traffic jams sometimes 50-100 people deep. And among those waiting in line, alas, there are always likely to be at least a few whose patience falls short of the proverbial saintliness and who try to hurry other hikers along or skip by them, thereby putting themselves and others at risk of a tumble.
Impatience and the nitwittery of fellow trail-goers are hard to legislate or account for, but what is it that’s causing the overcrowding that makes both especially dangerous on this hike?
While the Angels Landing hike is no Everest, a side-by-side comparison of how accessible each peak is can tell us a lot about why Angels Landing attracts so many visitors, and perhaps why the number of recorded deaths there is so high.
Climbing the world’s highest mountain requires jumping through a few sizable pre-emptive hoops. For starters, you’ll need a wad or two cash – current permit fees on the Nepali side are not much less than $20,000 and other expenses (guides, porters, oxygen, transportation) can set you back as much again. Secondly, you’ll need a very understanding boss and/or spouse – climbing Everest entails blocking around 60 days out of your schedule at a minimum. Thirdly, as of 2019, Everest aspirants are only granted a permit by the Nepalese authorities if they have already climbed at least one Nepalese peak of more than 21,235 feet (6,500 meters). You’ll also have to submit a certificate of health and fitness and be accompanied by a trained Nepalese guide.
And Angels Landing? Other than the park entrance fee and enough gas in the tank to see you to the top, nada.
While one of the principal beauties of hiking is its inclusiveness and lack of bureaucracy, it’s hard not to feel that a little more red tape might help to serve as a deterrent and make hikes like Angels Landing a whole lot safer. Thankfully, this is something that appears to be in the pipeline.
Blake McWillis of Utah’s Epic One Adventures guiding agency told us:
“The park has talked about introducing a permit system to limit the numbers. It was due to start in the summer of 2020, but when Covid hit, the trail was temporarily closed due to concerns about everyone being close together and touching the chains, so it was put aside. I imagine, however, that the park will follow through with this plan in the summer of 2021.”
But is accessibility alone causing the overcrowding?
The role of social media
McWillis told us that it’s hard to underestimate the role of social media and peer pressure in the trail’s surge in both popularity and deadliness.
“Social media has played a very big part in the increase of visitation to Zion in general. If you look at historical visitation numbers, even up to 2010, the park was getting under 3 million visitors per year. When Utah’s Mighty 5 Campaign began around 2012 we saw a definite increase in visitors to the parks. In addition to that, this is when social networks really exploded, and I think it was a combination of the two that really drove the numbers up and made Zion the fourth most visited national park in the entire national park system and increased traffic on trails like Angels Landing.
“You get a lot of people doing it who aren’t capable or might not ordinarily have chosen to do it, whether that’s because of peer pressure or because their group wants to do it and they don’t want to be left behind. With those that fall, it ultimately comes down to being careless and not paying attention. And I think hubris comes into it.”
This claim is backed up by a simple Google or Instagram search, where a quick perusal of the results will reveal no shortage of snaps featuring hikers performing handstands and yoga poses on the edge of the cliff, and at least a few thousand pairs of feet dangling in the ether some 1000 feet above the nearest landing spot.
Therein lies at least part of the problem.
The internet has a tendency to normalize the abnormal and extreme by dint of exposure, to defuse the (often healthy) fear surrounding the unknown by familiarizing us with it from a safe distance. While in some contexts this may be beneficial, in the case of derring-do and ventures into extreme terrain, it can border on criminal negligence.
Just as Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan helped to mint a brand-spanking-new batch of free-solo climbers around the globe, influencers and attention-seekers posing on the edge of perilous cliffs in a bid to bank a few ‘likes’ are – inadvertently, perhaps – providing the “inspo” for countless followers and fellow attention-seekers to do likewise, or at the very least venture into hazardous terrain without adequate experience, know-how, or caution. It’s also worth noting, of course, that there’s a big difference in terms of the required skillset for prospective El Cap and Angels Landing ascensionists: while on one of them you need to be an elite climber just to get off the ground, on the other you need only be bipedal.
As with any trail, what the weather’s up to can impact how safe Angels Landing is for hiking. The red Navajo Sandstone rock in Zion National Park is renowned for providing excellent friction, but the passage of millions of feet over the years has polished some sections of the trail to a slick and slippery shine, something that can make it particularly precarious following rainfall. The chains are also harder to grasp when wet.
However, as McWillis explains, conditions underfoot aren’t the only issue.
“If you’re doing it in the summer, you’re going to experience a lot of heat exposure, especially later in the day, so be sure to bring plenty of water, a sun hat, sunglasses, and something for your neck. That’s just as important because heatstroke is something the park deals with quite a bit.” Given that two of the main symptoms of heatstroke are dizziness and confusion, neither of which are conducive to safe travel on knife-blade ridges, we’re apt to agree.
All of the above is the bad news. The good news, as McWillis states, is that “of the many people who do the Angels Landing hike, it’s a very small percentage who have an accident.”
Because the park has not yet implemented a permit system, the exact figure of Angels Landing summiteers is unknown. Even if working with a moderate estimate of 150,000 summiteers per year, however, the death toll would stand well below the 0.0001% mark over the last decade. Not only are these very good odds for survival, they also make Angels Landing a far safer venture than the headlines would have it appear and far less deadly than other popular trails like the Mist Trail on Yosemite’s Half Dome, Colorado’s Longs Peak, or the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail, all of which have a similar Yosemite Decimal System rating.
How to hike the Angels Landing Trail safely
Planning a trip to Angels Landing? Here are a few tips to help you stay safe:
Don’t bring the kids: the exposure on the route can spook even the most cool-headed adults and many guiding agencies in the area will not take families with young kids (under 12)
Go early in the day: this will help you avoid the worst of the crowds and the afternoon heat
Avoid when icy: unless you have mountaineering experience and plan on using crampons or microspikes and an ice ax, attempting the route in icy conditions is not wise
Go in the shoulder season: the park is busiest from April to October, so March and early November are better times to visit for quieter trails
Have patience: attempting to skip the line at the bottlenecks will take you perilously close to the edge and place the chains out of reach
Skip the on-the-edge selfies: lives are more important than likes
Go home: if the trail ahead is looking crowded or you’re feeling tired, heat-stricken, or at all uneasy about taking on the spine, the safest course of action is to do an about-turn, return to the valley, and go enjoy one of the dozens of other outstanding trails the park has to offer
Kieran Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.
He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.
Kieran is the author of Climbing the Walls, an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors.
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