Lottery system in the works for hiking Zion’s Angels Landing

More than 300,000 a year make the half-mile trek along a treacherous cliff.

(Nikki Boliaux | The New York Times) Hikers cling to chains along the trail leading to Angels Landing in Zion National Park where the number of visitors has surged, Nov. 23, 2020. The National Park Service is now proposing a lottery system to regulate the number of people on the half-mile trail which was used by 300,000 hikers in 2019.

One of Utah’s most popular hiking destinations — Angels Landing — may soon be subject to a lottery-based permit system to limit the number of people hiking the dangerously exposed half-mile trail in Zion National Park.

More than 300,000 park visitors a year make the harrowing trek along the trail. On one side is a chain bolted into the sandstone. On the other are views to die for, and a breath-taking 1,500-foot drop to the floor of Zion Canyon.

The trail has become so crowded that many visitors don’t feel safe hiking it, according to Susan McPartland, Zion’s visitor use manager.

To remedy the situation, the park has developed a plan to limit the number hiking from Scout Lookout to the top of Angels Landing, the massive redrock fin jutting above the Virgin River in the middle of the canyon that many consider to be the most beautiful rock formation on earth.

On rare occasions, visitors fall to their deaths from Angels Landing, but it not clear whether any of those fatalities were a result of trail crowding. Since 2000, 13 people have died on the hike, including two in March.

Many people visit Angels Landing come unprepared for such a dangerous hike, where proper footwear and free hands are critical, according to Jeff Rose, a University of Utah professor who studies outdoor recreation and parks.

“Few destinations have this combination of high exposure [to falls] and global appeal,” said Rose, who has studied the fatalities associated with falls from Angels Landing. “There are six to 10 spots where a misstep can result in loss of life or limb.”

A permit system would help ensure visitors come ready to have a safe, enjoyable experience, he said.

The National Park Service is inviting public feedback through Sept. 12 on the plan, which also calls for a $6 application fee for would-be hikers as well as a $20-per-night fee at Zion’s remote Lava Point Campground.

“A more formalized system on Angels Landing would provide an equitable process that prioritizes visitor safety along the chain section of Angel Landing while ensuring park resources are protected and desired visitor experiences are available,” park officials wrote in an announcement posted Friday. “The system would be closely monitored and adjusted to allow park managers to learn and improve the application of the day-use permit lottery system.”

Visitors looking to hike Angels Landing would use recreation.gov to apply for a chance to use the trail and pay the proposed fees. Those who secure a hiking permit through the lottery would then pay a $3 per person fee. Each application is good for groups of up to six people.

The first lottery opening would take place in January for permits to hike from March through May. Additional opportunities to obtain an Angels Landing permit would be available the day before the desired hike date. The permits would be connected to the email of one person from each group. Proof of identification would be required to access the permitted portion of the trail.

The proposed permit system would not affect those hiking the West Rim Trail to Scout Lookout and beyond. Angels Landing is a 5-mile round-trip hike from the Grotto Trailhead; only the half-mile from Scout Lookout that would require the permit.

The park’s proposal is a reflection of the growing popularity of national parks, especially Utah’s “Mighty 5.” None of the five is mightier than Zion, which draws more than 4 million annual visitors, mostly to the narrow 7-mile canyon served by an overworked shuttle system. Visitation is up at least 60% from 2010 and shows no sign of slowing down.

Permit systems are already in place for some of the park’s epic canyon treks, such as the Subway, Mystery Canyon and the Narrows. In recent years, the park has toyed with the idea of implementing a reservation system for visiting Zion Canyon, similar to what Arches National Park has proposed, but such ideas have drawn strong political pushback.

Meanwhile at Bryce Canyon National Park, officials are accepting public comment through Sept. 6 on their proposal to increase backcountry permit fees. Backcountry overnight use has increased by 36% since 2011, prompting the park’s proposal to increase the permit fee from $5 to $15, and charge $7 per person per day.

A primitive six-site campground, Lava Point has long been a quiet spot, located 25 miles up the Kolob Terraces Road from Virgin, available on a first-come-first-serve basis and at no charge. Water is not available there, but the campground does feature fire rings, vault toilets, picnic tables and trash cans. The $20 per-night fee is to address costs associated with servicing this remote location.