Sat, Oct 22, 2011
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I awoke around 5:30a after a delicious sleep of more than 10hrs, having more than compensated for the lack of sleep the previous night. I was parked off a dirt road leading to the Oak Grove CG in the Dixie National Forest in Southern Utah, prepared for a hike to Signal Peak. As the highpoint of Washington County, the peak lies at the southern edge of the Pine Valley Mountains, rising to more than 10,300ft with a prominence exceeding 4,500ft. It is not a difficult hike, about 11 miles roundtrip with a gain of some 4,000ft, mostly on trail. My plan was to do the hike in the early morning, drive back to Zion to hike Angels Landing, then drive to Navajo Mtn, assuming I could find a road atlas somewhere along the way. I might have to detour down to St. George to get the atlas, but I wasn't going to worry about that at the moment.
It was sufficiently light out at 6a (all times here are PDT - I didn't bother to reset my clocks for Mountain Time) to start without a headlamp, hiking up the last mile of road to the Oak Grove campground. A gate across the road had stopped me from driving the remaining distance, but it was of only minor consequence. At the campground there is a nice TH kiosk showing trail distances and even a nice map of the area for those like me that had come mostly unprepared. It looked like about three miles to the crest of the range, then several more miles to the summit further south.
The hike was generally pleasant in the early morning hour. It was going to warm to the high 70's, so I appreciated the chilly air. A predawn sky to the east outlined the rugged summits of Zion as I followed the trail up through stands of oak and pine interspersed with brushy slopes. Sunrise came around 6:50a, but the trail nicely contoured around to a shaded slope where much of the steeper climbing takes place. There are some cliffs and rock features on the east side of the range, but for the most part it is a much gentler terrain compared to the sandstone features of Zion and other parts of Southern Utah.
It was nearly 8a when I reached the saddle where the trail crosses over the crest of the range. A short distance down the other side I found snow covering most of the ground, anywhere from three to six inches deep. Others had plied the trail since it had fallen several weeks earlier, making it fairly easy to follow. The snow was well-consolidated with good footing for most of it. Some places that had received more sun and were steeper were icier and more slippery, but did not prove to be of much hindrance. Since the trail bypasses the summit to the west, it was necessary to leave the trail after about a mile and half. Now fully in pine forest, it was easy to mistake nearby Pt. 10,320ft+ for the summit. Standing atop this lower point, my GPS showed I was almost a quarter mile off, so I went down through the trees and then up towards the higher point. There was a register located amongst a cairn in the middle of what appears to be the highest area, though this was not the primary location. An entry in this register along with more ducks heading off to the southwest indicated the area with the primary register about 50 yards to the southwest. There was at least some semblance of a view found there. At this second location there was both a red can register and an ammo box geocache, the latter filled with a number of silly items like a pocket thermometer and local bird guide. To my surprise there was not one, but two Utah road maps as well. How lucky was that? It would certainly save me time hunting for one back in town.
My return route was very much the same, avoiding a few places where I wandered through the snow in the slightly wrong direction. Back at the saddle along the crest by 9:40a, I jogged the easier portions of the downhill side back to the campground. I met several parties on their way up the trail, both on dayhikes, one of them heading to Signal Mtn. The peak appeared to be moderately popular judging by the register entries. Back at the cars by 10:40a. I spent the next hour and a half driving back to Zion NP where I'd spent most of the previous day. I stopped in La Verkin for a sandwhich at a local market, then east into the park and the Visitor Center.
If I was hoping to avoid crowds, hiking Angels Landing on a Saturday was not the way to do it. I had hoped that like Yosemite the crowds would thin out in October, and perhaps they had, but to my liking there were far too many people and the place felt more like Disneyland than Wilderness. I didn't mind having to use the shuttle bus to access Zion Canyon as they are very convenient and run almost continuously. The huge attraction of Zion Canyon was evident almost immediately as I got my first views of The Watchman, Bridge Mtn, Twin Brothers, East Temple, Mountain of the Sun, Altar of Sacrifice, the Three Patriarchs and other famous formations that tower high on either side of the canyon. The park appears to be kept as tidy as Disneyland, too, the Visitor Center, museum and Zion Lodge areas all neat and clean, well-signed in, and heavily trafficked.
Angels Landing is described as the most popular hike in the park, akin to Half Dome in Yosemite Valley or Mt. Whitney. The distance is just over five miles round trip, but like Half Dome it has more technical sections that give rise to its immense popularity. The Park Sevice has installed chains at various points along the exposed sections to help folks keep from killing themselves, probably a good idea even if in my elistist thinking I find it cheapens the experience. The summit's name comes from the belief by early visitors that the top was inaccessible and could only be reached by Angels from above. And just like Half Dome, such a declaration became a challenge to others who eventually managed to construct a clever trail up the sheer walls and along to the summit.
By the time I had gotten off the shuttle at the Grotto exit, I had perused Courtney's guidebook to know exactly where to find the Angels Landing TH and wasted no time going there. Another hiker from the same bus was ahead of me, even more efficient in finding his way with a purpose, and I followed him across the bridge and the Virgin River. The trail is relatively flat for almost a mile as it makes its way along the north side of the river and around a bend where one gets a fine view of Angels Landing and the steep switchbacks leading up from the canyon. Many dozens of tiny figures could be seen in colorful clothing standing out against the brown sandstone background, making their way up the switchbacks. The trail is undoubtedly an engineering marvel, carved out of the rock walls that it ascends. The stonework that went into the construction is highly aesthetic, not merely functional. Once up the initial 500ft one enters Refrigerator Canyon, a half mile-long, mostly flat stretch through a narrow channel carved by water between two towering walls on either side. The name comes from the chilly temperatures often found here, where little sunlight penetrates. It has a surprisingly lush feel amidst the desert surroundings. At the end of this begins the second steep set of switchbacks leading up towards the upper rim, an intricately constructed set of sharp turns known as "Walters Wiggle." It is here that many parties begin to tire, seeking shade in the corners and probably wishing they had brought more water along. There are people everywhere along the trail now, many up ahead, many behind, many resting to gain strength.
Above the Wiggle the trail leads to Scout Lookout where a sign reiterates the dangers of continuing on for the more exposed portions of the climb. Perhaps a quarter to a third choose to stop here, sunning themselves on the rocks, taking in the views to the canyon below, perhaps waiting for friends and loved ones who continued on. The first of a number of steel chains fastened to the rock for handholds is found just past Scout Lookout. In many places it is possible to bypass the chains and the inevitable traffic jams that queue up along them. I climbed up to an intermediate highpoint above Scout Lookout for a better view of the summit fin and the knife-edged section leading to it. This next section is the narrowest and where progress is slowest as there are fewer options to bypass the chains. I've heard Angels Landing described as a class 3 climb, but I don't see how this can be. There are steps cut into the sandstone wherever the rock might be considered class 3, essentially making a class 1 climb out of it. Still, it is an impressive route with stunning views - if one can ignore the other thousand folks sharing the experience with you.
I reached the summit in just under an hour. There were many people basking along the ridgeline here, snacking, sunning, and resting. A gentleman my age was atop the very highest point in the middle of the ridge. As I passed by I heard a scratching noise and looked up to ask, "You're not carving in the rock are you?"
He paused ever so briefly before replying in a low, child-like voice, "Everybody else does it."
I looked him in the eye and remonstrated, "Come on..." in the same voice I'd use when my teenager disappoints me. That seemed to do the trick because he left his work unfinished, climbing down and returning to his daughter who had been photographing him. I later climbed up to touch the highpoint and see for myself. Yes, there were other names scratched there, but hardly everybody's. He'd left half a heart newly scratched in the summit stone. Nice.
Aside from that distraction, the views from the summit are indeed outstanding. Once can see far upcanyon to the northeast and downcanyon to the west. In the other directions rise 3,000-4,000 foot sandstone walls in shades of white, orange, red and brown. It certainly justifies the crowds and the summit's popularity. The return took about 45 minutes, jogging the switchbacks and the other downhill portions of the trail. I returned to the visitor center around 3p, making my whole stay in Zion Canyon barely two and a half hours. It would be a shame if that was all the time I ever spent here, but honestly that was about all I could manage given the crowds. I would very much like to come back and spend some days here, perhaps in midweek during the off-season.
Back in the van, I drove through the park, passing by the Great Arch and taking the Zion Tunnel eastward through that portion of the park. I spent the next five hours driving across Southern Utah and Northern Arizona (and eventually back into Utah) on my way to Navajo Mtn. It would be my last DPS peak, the furthest from home, and with a road going to the summit, also one of the easiest. I stopped at the McDonalds in Kanab for wireless access, though the only electrical outlet I found was outside the building, so I was looking rather dirtbaggish sitting on the ground just outside the door with my laptop. I grabbed a sandwich from Subway before leaving town 45 minutes later. I found the paved roads across Arizona's SR98 and then north on Navajo Mtn Rd to be in excellent condition. The dirt road turnoff was a bit tricky to spot in the dark, but it is nicely painted on a truck tire if you're looking for it. I only managed to drive the van about a mile up this road before I became afraid for the van's low-clearance underbelly. I managed to find a suitable place to park off the road to spend the night, tired from the long day. I'd avoided caffeination during the drive so'd have little trouble getting to sleep. Worked nicely, too...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Signal Peak - Angels Landing
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