Are permits taking the peril out of ‘The most dangerous hike in America’?

No deaths on Zion’s most popular trail so far this year, but fewer crowds doesn’t necessarily mean less risk.

(Caitlin Ceci | NPS) A hiker pics its way over a narrow section near the top of the Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park. A new permit system has cut down on the number of hikers who attempt the final stretch of the park's most popular hike, but it hasn't necessarily made it safer.

He had to apply twice, but Jorge di Giorgio eventually got his heart-stopping experience.

The Los Angeles-based financial advisor for J.P. Morgan became exhilatered by the idea of hiking to Angels Landing at Zion National Park after seeing an Instagram reel. Though less than five miles roundtrip, the trail gains 1,500 feet of elevation, revealing some of the most exquisite views in the park. Cliffs streaked red with iron oxide pop against the dark green firs and the iridescent purple and blue mountains in the distance. Far below, the pea-green Virgin River snakes through smoky shadows cast by the canyons.

The main attraction, though, is the narrow final half mile of the trail, which is little more than a foot wide in spots with an elevated chain serving as the only barrier between hikers and a fall along sheer rock walls to the canyon floor. It has been featured on many lists of the most dangerous trails in the country, if not the world.

At 53, di Giorgio thought hiking to Angels Landing would provide a challenging experience and make him feel more alive. Even with reduced crowds thanks to a new permitting system — one that has mostly been lauded — it also brought him uncomfortably close to danger.

“I could have killed somebody,” he said, “easily.”

How dangerous is the Angels Landing hike?

People have died after falling from the trail. Since the early 1900s, it is believed more than 15 people have died while hiking the Angels Landing trail. That includes five deaths in the past five years, two of which occurred in 2021.

That alone didn’t prompt park officials to implement the permit system, however.

The number of people wanting to test their mettle on the vertigo-inducing trail in recent years, (thanks to a combination of factors, including the pandemic pushing more people outside and social media influencers flaming the trail’s risky reputation), made the experience less-than-enjoyable. On the worst days, the line of hikers stretching down from Scout Lookout, the last stop before the chain section starts, rivals that of Disneyland’s Splash Mountain on a Saturday in summer.

The National Parks Service estimates that in 2017, before the COVID-19 outbreak created a new surge of hikers, the Angels Landing trail would see about 1,200 people on peak days. But since park officials began issuing permits in January, only about half as many now officially have access to the trail each day.

Zion spokesperson Jonathan Shafer said “several hundred” permits are being issued through each seasonal lottery, which is held more than a month in advance (the lottery for a permit to hike it between September and November, for example, closed July 20). Another “several hundred” are distributed via a day-before lottery, he said. The permits are only for the chain section of the trail. The hike to Scout Lookout can be done without a permit.

“Our goal with this program was to reduce crowding, reduce congestion, especially on the half-mile section of trail with chains [located] between Scout Lookout and Angels Landing,” Shafer said. “And this permit program has helped us accomplish that.”

So far, the permit program has received a mostly positive reception. Some, however, said they wish Zion officials would put even greater restrictions on the number of hikers or do a better job of weeding out people without permits.

“I’m used to hiking and doing these sorts of things, and I can’t see how it can handle more traffic than what it’s permitted for,” di Giorgio said. “Because there [are] some spots where you have to wait for somebody to come down before you can go [up]. And they’ve got their six people. And then you’ve got people behind you backing up. You kind of have to shimmy around sometimes or be in really awkward positions, and there’s danger everywhere.

“So, I appreciated the fact that it was controlled.”

How to apply for an Angels Landing permit

The first chance for would-be hikers to apply for a permit is during the seasonal lottery. The lottery window opens a few months before the “season” and stays open for 20 days. In January, for example, park officials opened the lottery window for hiking in April and May. On Oct. 1, it will begin its fourth Angels Landing lottery, with permits issued for dates in December through February. Permits will be required all year long.

To apply, hikers must first create an account on Recreation.gov. They are then asked to rank their seven preferences for days or date ranges within the season as well as when they prefer to begin their hike from The Grotto. Hikers can request starting before 8 a.m., between 8-11 a.m. or after 11 a.m.

If the permit request is denied, or if someone wants to make a more spontaneous trip, another option exists. Zion conducts a day-before lottery that allows people to apply for a permit anytime between midnight and 3 p.m. the day before they are wanting to hike Angels Landing.

By 4 p.m., they will be alerted as to whether their application was successful.

Both application processes cost $6 and, if a permit is granted, there’s an additional charge of $3 per person for up to six people. An alternate permit holder can be designated when applying, but either that person or the applicant must be present during the hike to make the permit valid.

So, unless they are able to tag onto another group that had hikers drop out, those people placing “permit wanted” posts on hiking sites like All Trails are likely out of luck.

“The reason that we do that is we wanted to make our system accessible, flexible and fair,” Shafer said. “And allowing people to create a secondary market for that kind of undercuts what we were trying to accomplish.”

Shafer recommends permit holders take a hard copy or snap a screenshot of their permit, as internet reception can be sketchy in the park. Shafer said rangers will patrol the trail and stop hikers at various places and times of the day and night. And, he had a warning for anyone who attempts to hike the trail without a permit.

“Anyone who goes to Angels Landing without a permit may be cited by a law enforcement ranger,” he said, noting punishments will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Taking chances

Lack of advanced planning meant di Giorgio had to take his chances with the day-before lottery last April when he and his family made their annual trip to St. George. His first application was denied. On his second try, he got in.

“It was a big party that we can go,” he said.

(Jorge di Giorgio) Jorge di Giorgio of Los Angeles takes a selfie before hiking the spine of the Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park in April 2022. April was the first month the park required a permit for the hike, which is its most popular and one the country's most deadly. Five people died while hiking it in the last five years, though none have so far this year.

His crew included a friend, his brother-in-law and his niece — who had to turn around on her first attempt last year because, even though she had previously summited Mount Whitney, the dropoffs along the Angels Landing hike spooked her.

Di Giorgio’s first impression? “It was crowded,” he said. “It’s a huge tourist attraction.”

He noted some people didn’t appear prepared for the hike, wearing open-toed shoes or not toting any water. Others forgot their patience. That’s how di Giorgio had his near-death experience.

Di Giorgio had stopped to catch his breath while holding onto the chain on a narrow section of the trail with sheer drops on either side. Though 5-foot-7, he has broad shoulders and took up most of the path, he said. As he stood there, however, a man caught up to di Giorgio and, without announcing his presence, tried to pass him on the left by letting go of the chain and stepping around di Giorgio’s body. The move suspended the man for a brief moment over the cliff, and di Giorgio still shudders to think what would have happened if he had stepped backward at that moment rather than froze.

“If I had backed up while he was going across me, I would have just pushed him off,” he said. “Then he would have went down forever, and ever and ever. That’s how fast. … That’s how dangerous it can be.”

When asked if the hike is safer under the permit system, Shafer demurred.

“Your safety is your responsibility,” he said. “We want to empower people to make choices that will ensure that they have a happy, healthy visit.”

But, Shafer said park officials are collecting data and plan to use it to continue to make the hike a better overall experience. One change they have already made is moving the start times up an hour, from 9 a.m. to 8 a.m. for example, to allow more hikers to avoid being on the trail during the hottest parts of the day.

“This is a pilot program,” he said. “We’re going to continue optimizing it so that we can maximize the number of folks who can go up there while still achieving our desired conditions: reduce crowding, reduce congestion.”

Di Giorgio doesn’t know if he would hike Angels Landing again, if given the chance. But he wanted an experience and he said he got an unforgettable one.

“It was everything I expected and more,” he said. “And it made me feel really good about life and where I’m at right now.”