Revisiting Zion National Park and Coming to Terms with Limitations

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Revisiting Zion National Park and Coming to Terms with Limitations

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”  

― Heraclitus

I’ve been returning to my favorite places for almost as long as I’ve been traveling. Like Heraclitus, I believe that we are always changing, as is the world. Our perspectives change as we grow and we experience and see the same places differently.

A short hike leads you to Canyon Overlook.

Revisiting Zion National Park

Recently I revisited southern Utah, one of my favorite places. This is probably my fourth or fifth time back and my first time visiting Zion National Park since a childhood family vacation. There are five National Parks in Southern Utah as well as other public lands and even unprotected land there is spectacular.

Back in the 90s, we got a taste of Zion on a whirlwind Southwest US trip. It’s a park that deserves more attention. In recent years, I have avoided Zion because of one concern: overcrowding. The park has been averaging over four million visitors each of the past few years. Officials eventually had to close the park road to private vehicles, switching instead to a system of shuttle buses. This was a much-welcomed change.

If I was going to return to Zion, I had to be strategic about it. October sees fewer visitors than the busiest summer months. The nights are chilly, but it’s a beautiful time to experience the park with fewer people and autumn colors. I set my sights on the Angel’s Landing Trail, something I had heard about years before. I knew it was challenging and included a knife-edge section but honestly hadn’t done too much research. It is a hugely popular trail, even in the shoulder season.

Angel’s Landing Trail and a Realization

Have I now, at 41 years old,  finally realized I have a fear of heights? Or am I just now admitting it to myself. This isn’t the first fear-inducing climb I’ve attempted (That would have been Torreys Peak via Kelso Ridge and Longs Peak, both in Colorado). I should note that I’m not a mountaineer or rock climber. I just enjoy hiking and I’ve gained a lot of hiking experience over my lifetime.

The first hour-plus of Angel’s Landing is actually via the West Rim Trail, a gradual incline with dozens of switchbacks. The trail is so popular they had to pave it over to help control erosion. West Rim ends at Scout Lookout, an eye-popping viewpoint over thousand-foot cliffs to the river valley below, as well out across to Angel’s Landing. For many people, the vista from Scout Lookout could very well be the most awe-inspiring natural view of their lifetime.

By the outrageous numbers of hikers sharing the narrow path ahead, I was already getting doubtful of a successful summiting of Angel’s Landing. I thought I’d give it a try and made it through the first two chained sections before rethinking the whole endeavor. There are chains to hold onto much of the way up the knife-edge but the thought of having to contend with all those people juggling for position made me uncomfortable. Two-way foot traffic on a narrow trail with minimal room for error is not my idea of a safe hike. 

I decided to stay put. Several people have died hiking this trail over the past couple of decades. Loose focus or grip and the potential to tumble more than a thousand feet to the canyon floor is imminent. 

Half-way up to Scout Lookout along the West Rim Trail (eventually leads to Angel’s Landing)

Coming to Terms with my Limitations

Maybe I’ve changed, like Heraclitus suggests. Or maybe I’ve been afraid of heights all along and was just able to overcome that fear in my younger years. In the moment there on the trail, I made the right decision and have no regrets. There are times to push yourself and overcome barriers and mental and physical obstacles, and there are other times to listen to your gut. I’d like to think it takes wisdom to know which path to choose.

To her credit, Juno was ready to continue hiking to the top of Angel’s Landing. I offered to wait while she completed the hike and returned but she opted to hike further up the West Rim Trail with me. I felt bad that she didn’t get to finish the climb. She had hiked Via Ferratas before and thought nothing of Angel’s Landing.

We continued further up the West Rim Trail to get an even higher perspective over Zion Canyon. Probably only 1% of the hiking traffic continues in that direction and I felt relieved and free to be among fewer people. 

Views along Route 9 in Zion National Park
The short hike to Canyon Overlook
Driving along Route 9 in Zion National Park, accessible to private automobiles.

Zion National Park is about 3 hours drive from Las Vegas, NV.

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Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno has been traveling the world and writing about it for the better part of 20 years. His articles and essays have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, and Transitions Abroad magazine. He blogs at Bohemian Traveler and edits the independent travel magazine He most recently set up a tour company offering authentic, small group tours at Unquote Travel. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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