In early February 2020 – literally hours before what would turn out to be my last international flight for more than two years – I fulfilled a bucket list dream by conquering one of the most iconic, and scariest, hikes in the world – Angels Landing in Zion National Park, Utah.
With limited time to dilly-dally, I had powered up the paved West Rim Trail, calves burning and heart pounding as I tackled the 21 dizzying switchbacks known as Walter's Wiggles before pausing momentarily at Scout Lookout, the rest-point before the final ascent along the jagged knife blade jutting 426 metres above the main canyon floor.
Exhausted, but determined not to give up – and ignoring the almost comical warning signs showing a hapless hiker plummeting to a messy death – I joined the throng snaking their way up the icy 800-metre ridge, clinging with white knuckles to the thick chain bolted into the sandstone that offers the only lifeline between increasing trepidation and certain oblivion.
Even in the off-peak of winter, it was a literal highway of strangers, head to bum, hand over fist, encouraging and supporting me every tentative step; and at the time, I thought nothing of the number of grubby hands similarly gripping the metal rope for dear life. Just. Hold. On.
I made it, celebrating the incredible 360-degree views with a selfie and jubilant high-fives before inching my way back to safety and my flight home.
But just over a month later, something else made it to the perilous peak of Angels Landing – our dear friend COVID-19. On March 24, 2020, as the world reeled from the sudden spread of the deadly virus, the trail from Scout Lookout to Angels Landing was slammed shut, with the chains deemed a transmission risk. It would not be accessible again for six months.
Then, as the crowds returned with a vengeance to USA's National Parks seeking space and fresh air, one thing became apparent – many of America's most beautiful landscapes, including Zion, were being loved to death, with overcrowding an issue that could no longer be ignored.
The pandemic had provided pause for the US National Parks Service (NPS) to reconsider the sustainability of their most beloved treasures. Zion, for instance, draws more than 4.5 million visitors a year, with visitation up at least 60 per cent since 2010. More than 300,000 of these – around 1000 a day - tackle Angels Landing, with the trail so congested at times that hikers fear for their safety.
To remedy this, as of April 1st 2022, NPS are piloting a permit program to those who wish to climb from Scouts Lookout to Angels Landing, with a restricted number of tickets in designated timeslots available via an online lottery system.
"Angels Landing is one of the most iconic destinations in Zion National Park and issuing permits will make going there fair for everyone," NPS superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said in a statement. "The system we've put in place will reduce crowding on the trail, address safety concerns and make it easy for visitors to plan ahead."
There will no longer be room for a spontaneous ascent like mine. Instead, interested travellers will need to go to recreation.gov and pay a non-refundable $US6 ($A8.20) fee to enter the lottery, with two timeframes on offer: seasonal and last-minute. For the seasonal lottery – run four times a year - you can pick seven ranked days and times you wish to hike, with each permit covering up to six people; alternatively, you can also apply for a permit the day before you plan to hike, with a three-hour window to register between 12pm and 3pm.
The lucky visitors who win will then need to pay $US3 per person, with fees supporting park rangers who will handle the crowd flow and permit checks.
The seasonal lottery for Spring hikes between April 1 and May 31 has already closed, with tickets issued; the Summer seasonal lottery, for hikes between June 1 and August 31, will open between April 1 and April 20.
While it hasn't been revealed how many daily permits are being issued during the pilot program, the park will be monitoring how hikers affect the trail and each other's experiences to decide how many permits to issue in the future. Adjustments to the number of permits is expected based on how the pilot program pans out.
The Angels Landing lottery system follows on from other successful timed ticketing programs at other natural attractions in the US. For instance, only 64 people a day can access The Wave in Arizona by applying for a lottery either four months in advance, or in person at the Kanab Visitor Centre in Utah the day before, with the difficulty of winning a place only adding to the incredible landmark's mystique.
So while only the most blessed of angels may soon be able to access Angels Landing, you have to be in it to win it – and this lottery is certainly worth the effort.
The writer travelled to Zion National Park as a guest of Visit Utah.