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Everything you need to know before hiking Angels Landing

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Angels Landing is one of the world's most renowned hikes, and justifiably so. The expansive views of Zion Canyon's 270 million-year-old rock layers will time-travel you back to the Triassic period when this section of the Colorado Plateau was just a flat basin at sea level. Anyone in average physical condition can make this heavenward trek, but its steep switchbacks and sheer drop-offs can be mentally challenging — especially for those with a debilitating fear of heights.

Angels Landing’s mystical reputation draws in tens of thousands of hikers every year, many of whom underestimate its difficulty and danger. Several people have tragically fallen to their deaths over the years, and the worst part is that those casualties are almost always preventable. Here is everything you need to know in order to safely complete the most heavenly hike in the world.

The hike

Start location: The Grotto Trailhead

Difficulty: Strenuous

Distance: 5 miles (round trip)

Estimated time of completion: 4-5 hours

Elevation change: 1,488 feet

The trailhead is at the bridge across the road of the Grotto Picnic Area, in Zion Canyon. The first part of the hike follows the West Rim Trail, which is clearly identified by a sign. The trail is broad and well maintained. The first section is fairly level as it follows the river and then crosses the canyon bottom. Switchbacks allow the trail to climb the canyon wall, up to Refrigerator Canyon. That canyon is pleasantly cool, scenic, and walking is easy.

The trail then climbs another series of switchbacks named Walter's Wiggles. These 21 switchbacks are very tight and you gain elevation rapidly, but this section is short and not too oppressive.

The Wiggles put you on top of the ridge, at Scout Lookout, where views are amazing. Restrooms are available here, but no drinking water. From Scout Lookout, gaze at the ridge to the south and you'll get a good idea of the difficulty of the rest of the hike.

For the final half-mile, the trail follows the ridge across a saddle and up the hogs back. This is where things get steep, where you are grateful for the chains. From Scout Lookout, you cross the Saddle and then climb the ridiculously steep and narrow Hogsback, using the chains that are bolted into the stone to keep from sliding over the edge of the cliff. Once you've conquered the Hogsback, you are ready to mount the Landing. Hardy trees have made their homes clinging to the steep slopes of the Landing, offering shelter to birds, foraging chipmunks, and exhausted hikers.

Who shouldn’t hike Angels Landing

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There are activities that we think we can — and should — attempt, despite all evidence to the contrary. Some of us are meant to sing the national anthem at baseball games, and others should listen quietly from the stands. In other words, know your own limits.

Be prepared for a very strenuous hike with potentially changing weather conditions. It’s important not to attempt this climb if you aren’t in good physical shape. It is not appropriate for young children and is too dangerous to try with a child in a backpack. If you have a fear of heights, do not attempt a trail literally called Angels Landing. Yes, it’s close to heaven, but it’s not going to feel that way if you get nauseated every time you look down at the teeny tiny cars on the valley floor. If you become frozen with fear on the trail you’ll be a danger to yourself and everyone around you.

How to safely hike Angels Landing

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Yes, the hike is spectacular. But we have no interest in free-falling 1,000 feet off a cliff to the valley floor. You probably don’t either. Which leaves us asking ourselves: exactly how treacherous is this trail?

The truth is that Angels Landing is one of the most dangerous hikes in the country. People do fall off the edge of this very, very tall chunk of rock — there are no guardrails, after all. The trail involves traversing a knife-edge ridge with steep drop-offs on both sides. At its narrowest, the trail is only a couple of feet wide, and the sheer drop-offs mean you’ll want to hold tightly to the chain that’s bolted into the ground.

Caveats aside, if you are an adult in decent physical shape who has no trouble skydiving, you can manage this climb. We strongly recommend you heed the following tips for safely hiking Angels Landing.

Be patient

Wait your turn so that everyone can climb the chained section safely. Remember elementary school, where you lined up for recess, lunchtime and your turn on the swings? Channel those memories.

Keep all your belongings securely fastened to you

This includes cameras, water bottles, and your backpack. (Leave your boombox at home.) You don’t want your stuff hitting other hikers or throwing you off balance, and you’ll need both hands free to help you climb.

Wear appropriate footwear

Chucks are not going to do it. Sturdy hiking shoes or boots with excellent soles are important here.

Stay on the trail

Read the posted signs and abide by them. They’re there for a reason — those National Park rangers aren’t kidding around.

Watch the weather

Don’t attempt the hike if it’s icy or snowy. Be wary if there’s any rain or strong winds in the forecast, too.

Pack plenty of water

The trail is exposed, and on a clear day can get very hot.

No drinking and hiking

Obviously, do not attempt this hike if you are under the influence of alcohol or any other mind-altering (or balance-altering) substances. This is not the place to do celebratory shots at the top.

And the obvious...

I can’t believe we have to say this, but while at the top of Angels Landing, stay away from the edge. Be careful while taking photos or selfies; one little trip and you’re a goner.

Looking for a safer alternative? Try Observation Point

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If you decide that Angels Landing isn’t for you, consider Observation Point instead. The hike to Observation Point is strenuous (8 miles, 4 to 6 hours round trip with 2,000 feet of elevation gain), so don’t feel like you’re taking the easy way out.

However, it is decidedly less death-defying and less crowded than Angels Landing. Plus, the views of the canyon from Observation Point are sensational. You will be looking down on Angels Landing when you reach Observation Point, so go ahead and brag that you came, you saw, and you conquered.

We thank Suzi Iverson for contributing to this article. She is the co-founder of the site Travel With Monsters, where she writes about how and where to travel with kids. A lot of the content on there can help grownups too. Follow Travel With Monsters on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.