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River Walk
Scouts Landing
Heidi Centrella hikes river
Shannon Cornman Heidi Centrella Pam Grady
River Walk
The climb down from angels landing
top of Angels Landing
Walking up to Angels Landing


Zion National Park offers breathtaking vistas, challenging hikes – but it’s not for the faint of heart

By Heidi Rambo Centrella and Pam Grady

Photos by Shannon Cornman

Halfway up the 21 steep switchbacks that led to Angel’s Landing at Zion National Park, I did the one thing I promised myself I wouldn’t do.

I looked over the edge. 

My bravery spiraled to an untimely metaphorical death, as my mind imagined what would happen if I slipped on a pebble and dropped off the edge.

Facing fear is what this trip was supposed to be about. So far, I was failing miserably.

This year’s annual girl trip landed three of us in Utah’s Zion National Park. The hike through the Narrows and the climb up Angel’s Landing were on Pamela’s bucket list, and it was her turn to pick the location.

Her goal was to face her fear of heights, and for the most part, she did.

I, on the other hand, was not fairing as well. 

It would take nothing more than a mild wind gust or a slip on the sandy path under my feel to send me over the edge. I realized this a couple thousand feet up the stunning rock formation; problem was, we had a few thousand more to go.  

It wasn’t so much my fear of heights that kicked in as my fear or falling. Well, not even really falling so much as plummeting to my death. I didn’t want my last thought to be, “I could be enjoying a nice Shiraz in Springdale right now. This isn’t on MY bucket list.”

I froze. 

A sign at the entrance of the path known as Walter’s Wiggles (which leads to Scout’s Lookout, then on to Angel’s Landing) warned of the potential danger ahead. The sandy trail, approximately three feet wide – I still say it was more like three inches – snaked back and forth on the edge of the rock.

This wasn’t so bad. 

With the encouragement from my two friends, and a new friend who was clinging to the inside of the rock just as firmly, I continued to put one foot in front of the other, looking down at my feet, not caring one iota about the scenery. Said scenery, by the way, is just as beautiful from the ground as it is when viewed 6,000 feet up clinging to the side of a cliff. It’s just a difference of perspective, I suppose.

And this is where I stopped, determined to turn around and wait for the girls at the bottom.

Enter Carolyn from New Jersey.

“Once you get around this corner, you’ll be fine,” Carolyn said, as she made her way back down the switchbacks with her husband at her side. “You can do this. Just keep one hand on the wall, look down, and count your steps. Look to the wall if you start to feel uneasy, and if you get really scared, get down, close to the ground.”

This was Carolyn’s sixth attempt to conquer Angel’s Landing, to no avail.

Pamela and I started counting steps, while Shannon stood on the edge of the cliff taking in all its beauty and photographs of our surroundings, which only heightened my anxiety. When you have a fear of heights, seeing others standing on the edge looking over puts the “irrational” in irrational fear. I had to keep telling myself that as long as I moved with care, looked at my feet and kept that one hand on the wall, chances are I would not meet my maker on this trip.

However, not everyone who ascends this spire is so concerned about safety or worried about whether tomorrow never comes. A pack of 20-something boys raced by us trying to beat one another to the top. Their speed created that very wind gust that could have sent me flying off the edge – or so I feared.

I have to admit, the view of Zion Canyon is worth the steep, 2.4-mile trail, which was carved in 1926 into the solid rock to the top of Angel’s Landing. 

“I’m not afraid of heights, and I have checked the box, and I will never do this again,” said an elderly man named John, who had seen the panic in my eyes. “You can make it to Scout’s Lookout, but if you’re afraid, do not press on to Angel’s Landing.”

Scout’s Lookout, thankfully, is a point of return just prior to that last treacherous half mile. Hikers typically enjoy lunch and views from Scout’s Lookout – the end of the trek for many – before pressing on.

Feeling quite proud of myself for making it this far, I stood atop the broad lookout – away from the edge, where others sat dangling their feet over the drop. 

The trees, the formations, the deep, cloudless blue sky – it was breathtaking. In my estimation, I did it! 
Pamela called for me to step down and have a seat with her.

“Do you know where you were standing?” she asked. 

“Yeah, right there,” I said pointing to the seemingly safe spot on the rock.

“You were closer to edge than you’ve been on the entire trail,” she said. “Don’t look around the corner. Just walk this way.”

For the truly brave, the last leg to the top of Angel’s Landing is equipped with chains along most of the route to help prevent slipping off the narrow ridges, which at some points are no more than a foot wide, complete with knife-sharp drops to the canyon below on both sides.

To date, six people have plummeted to their deaths while attempting to bag the peak.

For those who prefer to stay closer to terra firma, Zion’s Narrows feature a 16-mile jaunt along and through the Virgin River. Though it lacks the thrill or fear factor of heights, the path promises its own brand of danger, but views that are worth the risk – for some. 

The majestic beauty of the Narrows is an experience not to be missed at Zion, and even better, no deaths have been attributed to hiking it. A one-mile trail leads to the entrance of the rushing Virgin River.

Over the millennia, the chilly, crystalline water carved its own backdrop – perfectly sculpted rock walls featuring swirling patterns evoking days gone by when it, too, lay submerged under the torrent.

Here, the fun part of my adventure begins. 

Many brave hikers waded through the icy temperatures wearing shorts and sandals. Unless you enjoy the numbing sensation of raging, 30-something degree water (depending on the time of year), which at some points is chest high, this tactic leaves your limbs and core red and frosty. 

Dress in layers. Water-wicking tops, dry pants, neoprene socks, a portable water backpack and a water stick to help with balance are essentials. Sunscreen and snacks are a must. 

According to the National Park Service, the gorge is 16 miles long, up to 2,000 feet deep, and at times a mere 20- to 30-feet wide.

“The Narrows, with its soaring walls, sandstone grottos, natural springs and hanging gardens can be an unforgettable wilderness experience,” the National Park Service website states. “However, it is not a hike to be underestimated.”

This is because approximately 60 percent of the hike in the Virgin River involves wading, walking – and sometimes swimming. There is no trail, and the current is swift with slippery rocks underfoot. During heavy rains, areas of the Narrows will flood, which can be dangerous in certain spots where there are no large boulders to climb and wait it out. Thankfully the day was sunny for us, so I didn’t have to try my hand at boulder climbing.

After two solid days of hiking, my legs burned and I had alligator skin from the dry air, but delicious food and fine wine with my friends in Springdale helped ease both body and mind. Known as the gateway to Zion, Springdale includes locally owned shops and eateries that line the small community’s main thoroughfare.

For us girl trippers, this return to civilization provided much-needed bonding time. 

Whether you set up base camp in a tent or treat yourself to the luxury of a quaint hotel or bed and breakfast in the nearby town, there is much to see and do in Zion. Nearly 3 million visitors travel to Springdale each year, seeking adventure, exploration or just relaxation – all with stunning views. 

While I opted out of that last half-mile climb to the top of Angel’s Landing, I can say that, at the end of the day, I somewhat faced my fears, put one foot in front of the other, and had the experience of a lifetime. Truth be told, I may have faced my fear, but I certainly did not conquer it. I still imagine the “what ifs,” even as I sit safely at my desk recalling the adventure.

I don’t know if I’ll ever return to Zion, or fully conquer my fear of heights, but the park yields many spectacular points of interest worthy of a bucket list. And if I do return, I now know climbing into the sky means watching your feet and holding the wall. After all, If you’re going to go up, you have to look down.

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