March 20, 2021 - 8:30 pm
Updated March 23, 2021 - 1:08 am
SALT LAKE CITY — Corbin McMillen liked hiking in Zion National Park and its most infamous trail – the summit to Angels Landing.
“I think he liked Angels Landing,” said Margie Barron, McMillen’s mother, “because it was … it gave him some adrenaline.”
Thirteen hikers have fallen and died from Angels Landing, or the trail to it, since 2000, according to records compiled by FOX 13. The tally includes two Utah men who have died in the last month.
Yet the trail remains open to anyone who passes through Zion’s gates. No permits or special instruction is required. Rangers do not routinely patrol the trail.
“If it’s not the most dangerous trail in America, it’s one of the top five,” said Travis Heggie, an associate professor at Bowling Green State University who studies deaths in the national park system. He also used to work in risk management for the National Park Service.
By hiking standards, the trail to Angels Landing isn’t that long or steep. Most hikers take a route that’s a 5-mile roundtrip with a 1,500-foot elevation gain. The highlight is the Angels Landing — an overlook with views of the park’s red rock pillars and the peaks and valleys of southwest Utah.
“Angels Landing is one of those ‘Bucket List’ hikes that folks want to do,” said Jeff Rose, a professor of outdoor recreation studies at the University of Utah.
About the last third of the trail has steep drops on the sides.
“You’re winding,” Heggie said. “You’re going back and forth. You’re zigzagging. You’re climbing over some difficult rock.”
FOX 13 obtained death investigation reports from the National Park Service and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and shared them with Heggie and Rose. They noticed some interesting trends.
The trail’s best-known stretch is a narrow section where the park service has installed a chain handrail. But that’s not where hikers are dying.
“Folks were falling either before the chained section or after the chained section,” Rose said, who noted some hikers fell from Angels Landing itself.
He said the data indicates hikers are getting too close to the edges. Rose pointed to an investigation report from 2010 where witnesses said a woman had been seated on the edge of the trail. She stood then fell over the edge, witnesses told rangers.
“Don’t get within 6 feet of the edge where you can fall and potentially lose life and limb,” Rose said.
Heggie noticed many of the people who fell where hiking alone or, like a 13-year-old girl from Colorado City, Arizona, who died in 2018, got separated from their group.
Heggie suggests people hike in groups of three or more and stay together.
“Don’t leave children alone on that trail,” Heggie said.
Most deaths are males
Of the thirteen people who have fallen to their deaths from Angels Landing since 2000, most were men, and most were visiting from outside Utah, including one man from Germany. Visitation to Zion National Park has doubled over the past 30 years, reaching almost 4.5 million people in 2019. This most-recent January and February set visit records.
One fatality report from 2017 noted the trail was averaging 641 visitors per day. Yet Rose and Heggie didn’t find evidence the crowding itself caused any falls. There were no reports of anyone being elbowed off the trail, for example.
Despite that, Heggie favors limiting access to the trail through a permitting system. Zion already has a permit and lottery system for the Subway, a watery canyon that requires rappelling.
“Because there’s way too many people getting on this (Angels Landing) trail,” Heggie said, “and there’s way too many inexperienced people getting on this trail.”
“The National Park Service,” Heggie added, “is liable for a lot of these incidents that happen on the park in light that they are aware of the risks.”
When asked why not close the Angels Landing trail altogether, Heggie replied: “I have no problem with that.”
Representatives of the National Park Service did not answer questions from FOX 13.
Rose wants to the trail to stay open. He sees a permitting system as an option that might have to be tried, though he warns doing so might increase traffic elsewhere in the park.
First, Rose wants the park service to increase the education of hikers pondering a trek to Angels Landing. The park service already warns on Zion’s website and in signage at the trailhead that the hike’s steep drops have killed people.
One thing Rose doesn’t want is more railings on the trail. He says that would detract from the natural setting.
“One of the reasons that we appreciate these spaces,” Rose said, “is because they allow a chance of contemplative leisure where we can think about bigger issues – bigger than ourselves or bigger than society and things like that.”
Barron would like rangers on the trail who can enforce safety rules and keep an eye on hikers. She wonders if such a ranger could have watched out for her son.
McMillen moved to southern Utah three years ago to help his father, who is in hospice care. Barron said on days when nursing aids would provide extra assistance, McMillen would use the opportunity to go hiking.
On Feb. 19, when the aids came to the house, Barron and McMillen exchanged an “I love you.” Barron also told her 42-year-old son to be careful.
Barron thinks McMillen had already reached Angels Landing and was on the return. She’s been told by park staff and sheriff’s investigators that her son had left the trail, perhaps to look around.
McMillen didn’t take his coat with him. His mother wonders if he developed hypothermia and got disoriented. No one saw McMillen fall.
Barron reported her son missing that night. A search began the next morning.
“They called and said we’ve located him and identified him,” Barron said.
“I started wailing, and said ‘Oh, my boy. My boy.’”
McMillen fell 1,200 feet.
After his memorial service, McMillen’s family gathered for a photo underneath the spot on the trail where he fell.
“I didn’t know until my son passed how many people have died at Angels Landing,” Barron said.
“My son was way too young to die.”
Recent park deaths (partial list)
2019: A Maine woman died in a high-elevation fall in November.
2018: The body of a 13-year-old girl was found in Zion’s Refrigerator Canyon in February.
2016: A climber fell to his death while climbing a popular route in March.
2015: A 50-year-old Utah man died in a canyoneering accident in October. A month earlier, six people died during a flash flood inside a narrow canyon. In July, Brian Artmann, 24, of Henderson, fell to his death while climbing Heaps Canyon.
2010: In July, Corey Buxton, a 17-year-old senior at Centennial High School, was found in a ravine. Months earlier, two “Las Vegas area hikers” died during an expedition inside the park.
— This article was distributed through The Associated Press’ member exchange program. The Las Vegas Review-Journal contributed to this report.