The South Guardian Angel is one of the most distinct and compelling peaks in Zion National Park's Kolob Terrace section. Unlike the other peaks in the area, the South Guardian Angel is REMOTE. Located on the isolated plateau between the Left Fork of North Creek (aka. "the Subway") and the Right Fork of North Creek, any hike to the top of SGA involves the strenuous task of descending into the Left Fork and climbing out the other side onto the isolated plateau. While the scenery is spectacular, the length and difficulty of this hike along with the climbing obstacles and navigational challenges keep this from being a popular route.
The route described here descends into the Subway via a system of ridges just to the east of the North Guardian Angel. While this route is more strenuous and obtuse than the standard Subway approach via Russell Gulch, it is much more direct and it avoids any swimming or climbing back up rappel spots. (My hat is off to whoever first pioneered this route!) And as this route has you in the Subway for only a brief moment, you do NOT need a Left Fork/Subway permit.
WARNING: This is a long, strenuous, and committing hike that involves hiking and Class 2/3/4 scrambling in steep and remote territory. Navigation skills and aides are also essential. This route is not recommended for casual hikers with no wilderness or climbing experience.
|Rating:||Strenuous remote day hike and rock-scrambling.|
|Access:||Wildcat Canyon Trailhead (15.5 miles up the Kolob Terrace Road from the town of Virgin)|
|Time Required:||10-14 hours.|
|Length:||15 miles round-trip.|
|Elevation Change:||1400-ft steep descent from the Northgate Peaks Trail into the Subway; 1550-ft ascent to the top of South Guardian Angel.|
|Technical Challenges:||Numerous downclimbing/scrambling/climbing obstacles, route finding in steep and remote territory, one possible 35-ft rappel.|
|Seasons:||Spring through fall, although summer can be very hot.|
The hike to the South Guardian Angel can take between 10-14 hours. Start as early as you can to give yourself as much time as possible and allow for the possibility of aborting if you have difficulty with the descent into the Subway.
The first leg of this route is the easiest part: trail hike to the end of the Northgate Peaks Trail. From the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead, take the trail for about a mile until the junction with the Wildcat Canyon Trail/Connector Trail. Turn left (east) onto the Wildcat Canyon Trail and a few minutes later you will reach the junction with the Northgate Peaks Trail. Take the spur trail south and a mile later you will be at the viewpoint at the end of the trail. (This easy-to-follow collection of trails is mostly level and should take about an hour.) From the Northgate Peaks Trail viewpoint, take a moment to orient yourself. The North Guardian Angel is the impressive peak in the distance framed by the East Northgate Peak on the left and the taller West Northgate Peak on the right. (The South Guardian Angel is tucked out of sight.) Just to the left of the lower fin formation of the East Northgate Peak, look for a little pink sandstone bump not too far in the distance. That is where you want to go to start the descent down into the Left Fork.
From the viewpoint, hike down a faint trail of use into the small valley under the East Northgate Peak and the head southwest down the wash to make your way around the peak. At a convenient spot, hop out of the wash and head crosscountry towards the pink bump just east of the North Guardian Angel. (A bit of bushwhacking is involved, but you should be able to find a line that is fairly unobstructed.) Once close to the base of the pink bump, look for the channel between the two smaller bumps and hike through. Now the route finding gets more intense.
Hike SSE along the top of what is now a large ridge heading down towards the Subway, staying slightly to the left (E). A large valley on the right (W) now separates you from the base of the North Guardian Angel and cairns will soon start showing the way. The going is fairly easy as the ridge is mostly pure slickrock and you will see the South Guardian Angel standing majestically in the distance. Roughly 1/4 of a mile from the pink bump, the cairned route makes a left turn to traverse around a small rib, then it descends into a small sandy gully. Cross over the gully and hike on the shelves of the east side which will put you on top of a second smaller ridgeline. (Cairns should confirm the way.)
Continue your descent by hiking SSE down the top of this smaller ridgeline; some scrambling is involved as the terrain is starting to get more vertical. After only .2 miles on this smaller ridgeline, the cairned route will leave the top of the ridge and zigzag down several steep shelves down to a shoulder underneath the east side of the ridge. (If you miss the descent point, you will get shelved at which point you can peek over the edge to get your bearings and backtrack roughly 100 feet to find a drop-in point.)
Now the route starts to get spicy. Continue roughly SSE on the dirty shoulder staying parallel and close to the increasingly tall vertical walls on your right. (You do not want to descend into the deep gully below to the east.) You are now actually in the crack of a long fissure that you will follow all the way down into the Subway. This section is much steeper with a fair amount of scrambling that could be intimidating to some. At times you will have exposure on your left and other times, you will be in a narrow chute with walls on both sides. (Several shelves along the way are good vantage points to look down into the Left Fork.) As you near the bottom of the Subway, the chute turns sandy with a lot of loose rock and vegetation. (The trail of use leads to a scetchy traverse past a small but steep rock outcropping. Back up and head high over the top of the rock for a safer way past.) Once at the bottom of the chute, hike in the sand along the base of the ridge and soon enough, you'll be standing in the Subway proper! This section of the Left Fork is the perfect spot to take a quick break and pump water if you need. In normal conditions, the water here is crystal clear and you will be able to cross the stream without getting your feet wet.
Almost directly across from where you entered the Subway is the steep gully that leads up and out the other side of the Subway; now it's time to do some work! Look for the jughandle arch formation on the right wall of the gully and hike up the right side. In the main gully is a 30-foot wall that is roughly a 5.6 climb. Alternatively, if you stick to the right wall, you can do an easier and safer class 3-4 scramble up the sandstone outcroppings. The climb may be intimidating, but there are plenty of good handholds and footholds. Once at the top of this obstacle, you will see a tree above the 30-foot wall that probably has webbing around it. On your return hike, you may prefer to rappel down the main wall rather than downclimbing the outcropping.
Continue hiking up the steep gully which is littered with boulders, logs, and loose sand. After you scramble over a chockstone boulder, it's time to leave the gully. Look to the left for a ramp and a faint trail of use that heads east out of the gully. Follow the faint trail as it zigzags up the steep hill and soon enough you will see impressive views to the north. (Try to locate the fault line that was your descent route into the Subway.) Soon enough, you will reach the top-out point that signals your exit out of the gully. Whew! Mark this as a waypoint on your GPS to aid in finding the drop-in point for your return hike.
Now it's time for a break from scrambling to do some cross-country hiking. From the top-out point, hike down the pleasant little valley to join up with the sandy drywash and head up the wash. After heading east in the wash for less than one tenth of a mile, be sure to follow the main fork of the wash as it turns south. The going will be fairly easy although there may be some mild bushwhacking as you alternate between hiking in the wash and hiking along the sides. After 3/4 of a mile, you will reach the head of the wash and the territory turns to slickrock. Hike/scramble up the sandstone slabs heading SW. Near the top of the slabs, the slickrock forms a wall that blocks hikers, but several cairns will lead you to the "notch pass"--a little spot where cuts in the rock allow you to scramble 7 feet up over the wall. (Some may want to remove their packs for this.) Once above this obstacle, you will see the South Guardian Angel peering out from behind the slickrock waves. Continue heading due west, circumnavigating three gullies that descend to the south. Soon enough, you will be standing at the base of SGA.
Despite how imposing the South Guardian Angel looks from far away, the hike to the top actually isn't very technically difficult, although it will make your legs burn. Hike right up the eastern shoulder taking advantage of any lines or shelves that are helpful. You may need to use your hands in a few spots, but it's mostly straightforward uphill slickrock hiking. Soon enough you will be standing on top of the summit 600 feet above the base. Continue west along the rim to tag the actual highpoint of the peak. Note that there is one crux section just before the highpoint--a short section of steep exposed slickrock that slides several hundred feet down to the south. Look around carefully and you will find a few spots where you can safely plant your feet to make it across safely. The views from the summit, especially the shelf just SW of the highpoint, are phenomenal.
It would be easy to simply say "return the way you came," but a few notes for your exit hike. It's all too easy to get disoriented in the vast sea of slickrock formations, so a GPS is extremely useful for confirming that you are retracing your steps; it's also useful for locating the drop-in point heading back down into the Subway as visually identifying the drop-in point can be difficult. Back in the southern gully, when you get to the top of the scrambling/climbing spot, most people will feel safer rappelling off of the tree at the top of the wall rather than downclimbing the sandstone outcroppings. It is roughly a 35-ft rappel with a slightly awkward undercut.
When you begin your return up the north side, the scrambling back up the steep and sandy fissure is very strenuous and can be frustrating. But remember that as you make your way up the fissure and the ridgelines, things will get progressively easier and less vertical. Soon enough, you will be back at the pink bump hiking cross-country back to the Northgate Peaks Trail. To hike from the Northgate Peaks Trail viewpoint to the Wildcat Trailhead, it will take roughly one hour and it will feel a lot longer than you think it should be. When you make it back to the trailhead, give yourself a thumbs up!
|South Guardian Angel Map.
Note: While viewing the map, click on the map to return to this page.
This hike is an intense and incredible backcountry route, but as with all great things in Zion, you pay for it in sweat, pain, and a little bit of blood. Each time I have done this route, I have come out exhausted and beaten, but a few days later after I have recovered, I reflect on how magical the experience was, highlighted by the stunning views from the summit of SGA.