Backpacking West Rim Trail [Day 2] with Angels Landing & The Virgin River – Zion National Park

High on the West Rim, the winds came in waves all night long, pushing through the canyons and up and over the walls. I slept peacefully, but awoke to my first task of the day: gathering up yesterday’s sweaty clothes which were blown off branches and scattered about on cacti.

Cold, windy mornings in the southwest always make you want to linger longer in your sleeping bag, so that’s what we did. Waking just before dawn, I momentarily got out and peeled the rainfly half off to watch the sunrise from the warmth of my sleeping bag.

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West Rim Site 2 was a good one and close to Cabin Spring. The trail to the spring is well marked by a signpost, but it is a narrow path that runs directly along the canyon wall, so you may need to use caution, especially if you face windy conditions like we did.

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Unfortunately, the main spring pool was polluted with some soapy greasy water (springs aren’t for washing, ya’ll!). After finding a cleaner, but much smaller stream, we made some coffee and tea and packed for the morning walk back to the Grotto. When we hiked back down to West Rim trail from our site we exchanged “good mornings” with another group of backpackers. These guys were at West Rim Site 3 (which was a bit higher than us on the mesa) and told of wind so bad that they had to disassemble their tents in the night and climb down to find a more sheltered space. The wind was certainly rough, so my REI Quarterdome T3+ tent apparently did even better than I thought!

With the wind and elevation, our morning was quite cold and we saw no reason to linger. My only regret about staying on the West Rim is that our itinerary didn’t allow us the time to venture further. I would love come back to hike the 47 mile Trans-Zion Trek, which traverses the entire park and includes all of the West Rim Trail and the stunning overlooks we missed not tremendously far from our site. Instead of seeing those, the day’s route would have us backtrack the way we came on the West Rim Trail toward Zion Lodge with a pitstop to climb Angels Landing, hopefully getting up before the masses arrived.

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About to descend on the narrow trail cut into the wall. It was a bit dodgy with all the high winds!

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As the day warmed and we continued to drop elevation, the spring day became a brilliant blue with rather comfortable temperatures, hot even. At this point, I was certain we would have to get in the Virgin River at the bottom and raft on our completely unfaithful Big Agnes sleeping pads that literally let us down every night. For bringing a nightly cycle of cold and re-inflation sadness, I decided the best way to retire the pads was to use them to shred the gnar and raft down the Virgin River. But first, Angels Landing:

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Approaching Angels Landing, you truly get a sense of how narrow it is; at times the trail is no more than 3 feet wide. Rising up 1200 feet from the canyon floor, this narrow spine is a thrilling 1.1 mile round trip scramble ascending to incredible views of Zion Canyon from the center of it all.

We arrived at Angels Landing near 11 am, along with everyone else and what seemed like just about every University of Colorado student on spring break at the park. With the crowds, I was a little concerned about dropping my pack in some brush to make the climb, but ultimately decided it would be worth the risk.

Angels Landing is not for the faint of heart, as there are bolted chains to follow and many sections are on the edge of sheer drops. It is definitely not an impossible trail or even unsafe if you are mildly balanced. If anything, the most challenging part is navigating the crowds. Occasionally there are some Mount Everest bottlenecking hold ups and passing people taking things a bit more cautiously (read: slower) takes patience and communication. If you’re nervous at all about the climb, you might feel more confident when you look around at the half-clueless tourists who have successfully ascended & descended and realize if they can do it and not fall to their death, so can you.

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The unobstructed views of the center of Zion Canyon are incredible at the top!

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A look at the spine of Angels Landing, dropping steeply to the right & left. Also notice the shadow featuring my newest GoPro mount – the “GoPro stick in the back of your sports bra” technique (hands free!).

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Heading down the trail, following the established chain route (Cathedral Mountain on the left).

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From Angels Landing, the last 2 miles to Zion Lodge was easy downhill. Naturally, the first order of business was a solid lunch at Zion Lodge with some burgers & fries. Zion Lodge’s cafeteria offers your standard park fare – pizza, burgers, chicken sandwiches, salads, etc. All are reasonably priced and the burger and fries were seriously delicious. The Lodge itself sits beside the Virgin River with a fantastic, large lawn and outside seating. We decided to forgo tables and lounged in the grass for a blissful picnic lunch.
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Then, the time came to raft the Virgin River. This idea was initially planted in my mind after reading my National Geographic Trails Illustrated Zion National Park map. A trusted and frequently updated map, I took the information seriously, especially the part where it said you could tube or raft the Virgin River. The thought of getting in a river on a sunny afternoon after 4 unshowered days on the trail made my heart swell with joy and adventure. It was going to be absurd, but we were going to do it!

Heading back toward the trailhead across from Zion Lodge, we left our packs on the rocks and waded into the water with our sleeping pads. A small crowd gathered on the bridge.
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The water was very cold and we screamed like small girls at rapids that honestly were not that big. Hilarity ensued and it was absolute blast, the perfect end to our 30 miles in the wilderness over the last few days! If you haven’t seen my GoPro video of this trip, there’s a long segment from our rafting adventure! Here’s a few screenshots from the footage:

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Total disaster!

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But just as we were posing for pictures with our pads near the bridge, a park ranger appeared to inform us that we were not allowed to raft the river. Turns out the only kind of tubing or rafting allowed is with registered groups or outfitters. But we’d already gotten in our fun (and bathing) at that point, so all was well! Oh, and my pads weren’t destroyed at all by the rocks. Props to Big Agnes on making a reasonably lightweight but durable pad, but boo for valve failures.

Since our fun was officially declared over by the ranger, we boarded a bus back to the Visitor Center, after a pit stop to photograph the Court of The Patriarchs.

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Thank you, Zion. You were incredible and I’ll be back!

Trail Tips:

  1. During peak season, get to Angels Landing at first light for smaller crowds. We did not do this because of the timing of our backpacking route, but heard that early morning was the best time. You’ll likely have to hike some of West Rim Trail in the dark, but the trail will be non-technical and easy to follow up to the Angel’s Landing trailhead.
  2. Prepare for temperature changes when hiking the West Rim Trail in spring. Whether day hiking or backpacking, we saw drastic temperature changes in a single day just due to wind chill, elevation, and shade vs. sunshine. As always, packing good base layers (merino wool is my favorite) and a lightweight insulating mid-layer (I use ArcTeryx’s Atom Jacket) helps make the transition easier.
  3. Despite what you read, only raft or tube the Zion River with registered groups or outfitters. Turns out you cannot just ride whatever inflatable object you have on the river… (makes sense).
  4. Eat lunch and relax at Zion Lodge. Even if you aren’t staying there, take some time to chill out at Zion Lodge, whether inside or on their finely manicured lawn. Cheap eats, nice open space, and – as in pretty much all of Zion – great views! If you’re backpacking the Trans-Zion Trek, I would go a mile out of my way to stop here in between hobo food on the trail.

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