Zion National Park

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Zion National Park
IUCN Category II (National Park)
Zion National Park
US Locator Blank.svg
Location: Utah, United States
Nearest city: Springdale, Utah
Area: 146,598 acres
  (143,035.07 federal)

(230 mi² or 593.26 km²)
Established: July 31, 1909
Visitation: 2,586,665 (in 2005)
Governing body: National Park Service
Spectacular Zion scenery as seen from the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway

Zion National Park is a United States national park located in the southwestern part of the country, near Springdale, Utah. It is a part of the Southwest's "Grand Circle" of national parks, monuments, historical and recreational areas. This Grand Circle is located on the Colorado Plateau, so-named because it is a large uplifted area of land in the four-corners of the Southwest through which the Colorado River flows. The Colorado Plateau contains one of the world's greatest concentrations of natural and cultural features, due primarily to its geology, revealed by the Colorado and other rivers.[1]

A prominent feature in the 229-square-mile (593 square kilometer) park is Zion Canyon, 15 miles (24 kilometers) long and up to half a mile (800 meters) deep, cut through the reddish and tan-colored Navajo Sandstone by the North Fork of the Virgin River. Located at the junction of the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin, and Mojave Desert regions, this unique geography and variety of life zones allow for unusual plant and animal diversity.

The park contains a total of 289 bird species, 75 mammals (including 19 species of bat), 32 reptiles and numerous plant species inhabit the park's four life zones: desert, riparian, woodland, and coniferous forest.

Human habitation of the area began about eight thousand years ago with small family groups of Native Americans. The canyon was discovered by Mormons in 1858 and was settled by that same group in the early 1860s. Mukuntuweap National Monument was established in 1909 to protect the canyon, and by 1919 the monument was expanded to become Zion National Park (Zion is an ancient Hebrew word meaning a place of refuge or sanctuary). The Kolob section was proclaimed a separate Zion National Monument in 1937, but was incorporated into the park in 1956.

The geology of the Zion and Kolob canyons area includes nine geological formations that together represent 150 million years of mostly Mesozoic-aged sedimentation. At various periods in that time, warm, shallow seas, streams, ponds and lakes, vast deserts and dry near-shore environments covered the area. Uplift associated with the creation of the Colorado Plateaus lifted the region 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) starting 13 million years ago.


Zion National Park is located in southwestern Utah in Washington, Iron, and Kane counties. Geomorphically, it is located on the Markagunt and Kolob plateaus, at the intersection of three geographic provinces: The Colorado Plateaus, the Great Basin, and the Mojave Desert. The northern area of the park is known as the Kolob Canyons section.

The 8,726-foot (2,660 meters) summit of Horse Ranch Mountain is the highest point in the park; the lowest point is the 3,666 foot (1,117 meters) elevation of Coal Pits Wash, creating a relief of about 5,100 feet (1,500 meters).

Temple of Sinawava Waterfall

Streams in the area follow rectangular paths because they follow jointing planes in the rocks. The headwaters of the Virgin River are at about 9,000 feet (2,700 meters ) and the river empties into Lake Mead 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast after flowing 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) downward. This gives the Virgin a stream gradient that ranges from 50 to 80 feet per mile (0.9–1.5 percent)—one of the steepest stream gradients in North America.

The road into Zion Canyon is six miles long, ending at the Temple of Sinawava ("Sinawava" refers to the Coyote God of the Paiute Indians).[2] At the Temple, the canyon narrows and a foot-trail continues to the mouth of the Zion Narrows, a spectacular gorge with walls 40-100 feet (12-30 meters) wide and 1,000 feet (300 meters) tall.

Other areas of the park also offer outstanding scenery. On the east side of the park notable park features include Checkerboard Mesa and the East Temple and one of the more popular hikes, the Canyon Overlook Trail.

West of Zion Canyon, the Kolob Terrace area features The Subway, a famous slot canyon hike, and Lava Point, with a spectacular view of the entire area. The Kolob Canyons section, further west near Cedar City, Utah, features the world’s longest natural arch, Kolob Arch.


Zion Canyon as seen from the top of Angels Landing at sunset

Spring weather is unpredictable, with stormy, wet days being common, mixed with occasional warm, sunny weather. Precipitation is heaviest in March. Spring wildflowers bloom from April through June, peaking in May. Fall days are usually clear and mild; nights are often cool. Summer days are hot (95 °F]] to 110 °F; 35 °C to 43 °C), but overnight lows are usually comfortable (65 °F to 70 °F; 18 °C to 21 °C). Afternoon thunderstorms are common from mid-July through mid-September. Storms may produce waterfalls as well as flash floods. Autumn tree-color displays begin in September in the high country; inside Zion Canyon, autumn colors usually peak in late October. Winter in Zion Canyon is fairly mild. Winter storms bring rain or light snow to Zion Canyon and heavier snow to the higher elevations. Clear days may become quite warm, reaching 60 °F (16 °C); nights are often 20 °F to 40 °F (−7 °C to 4 °C). Winter storms can last several days and make roads icy. Zion roads are plowed, except the Kolob Terrace Road and the Kolob Canyons Road, which are closed when covered with snow. Winter driving conditions persist from November through March.

Human history

Archaeologists have divided the long span of Zion's human history into four cultural periods, each characterized by distinctive technological and social adaptations.

Archaic period

The first human use in the region dates to sixth millennium B.C.E. (eight thousand years ago) when family groups camped where they could hunt or collect plants and seeds. About two thousand years ago, some groups began growing maize and other crops, leading to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Later groups in this period built permanent villages known today as pueblos. Archaeologists refer to this as the Archaic period and it lasted until about 500 C.E. Baskets, cordage nets, and yucca fiber sandals have been found and dated to this period. The Archaic toolkits included flaked stone knives, drills, and stemmed dart points. The dart points were hafted to wooden shafts and propelled by throwing devices called atlatls.

By 300 C.E. some of the archaic groups developed into an early branch of seminomadic Anasazi, the Basketmakers. Basketmaker sites have grass- or stone-lined storage cists and shallow, partially underground dwellings called pithouses. They were hunters and gatherers who supplemented their diet with limited agriculture. Locally collected pine nuts were important for food and trade.

Protohistoric period

The Parrusits and several other Southern Paiute subtribes lived in the Virgin River Valley south of Zion Canyon for hundreds of years following the departure of the Anasazi and Fremont Indians around 1300 C.E. Tradition and archaeological evidence holds that they were a Numic-speaking cousin of the Virgin Anasazi. Parrusits seasonally migrated up and down the valley in search of wild seeds and nuts in what is called the Neo-Archaic period. Some farming and hunting supplemented their diet.

Evidence suggests the Parrusits had great reverence for the large monoliths and turbulent waters in Zion Canyon. They believed the monoliths were responsible for the streams and springs they depended upon by communicating with the rocks, animals, water, and plants that make their home there. Modern bands of Southern Paiute still visit sites within the park to perform rituals and collect plants.

Historic period

Early exploration

The historic period begins in the late eighteenth century, with the exploration and settlement of southern Utah by European-Americans. The first recorded visit by people of European descent to southwestern Utah was made by members of the Dominguez Escalante expedition. At the time of the American Revolutionary War, these Spanish padres undertook an adventurous journey in an attempt to find a viable overland route from the settlements at Santa Fe, New Mexico to those at Monterey, California.[3]

In 1826 trapper and trader Jedediah Smith led 16 men to explore the area in a quest to find a route to California. These and other explorations by traders from New Mexico blazed the Old Spanish Trail, which followed the Virgin River for a portion of its length. These early travelers diverged little from the most expedient and feasible routes and it is likely that neither Escalante nor Smith or any other trader of his time actually saw Zion Canyon.

Captain John C. Fremont wrote about his 1844 journeys in the region.

Mormon pioneers and the Powell expedition

The Crawford ranch was located near the mouth of Zion Canyon, in Springdale

In the 1850s, Mormon farmers from the Salt Lake City area became the first white people to settle the Virgin River region. In 1851 the Parowan and Cedar City areas were settled by Mormons who used the Kolob Canyons area for timber, and for grazing cattle, sheep, and horses. They prospected for mineral deposits, and diverted Kolob water to irrigate crops in the valley below. Mormon settlers named the area Kolob, which in Mormon scripture, refers to the star nearest the residence of God.

By 1858 they had expanded 30 miles south to the lower Virgin River. That year, a Southern Paiute guide led young Mormon missionary and interpreter Nephi Johnson into the upper Virgin River area and Zion Canyon. Johnson wrote a favorable report about the agricultural potential of the upper Virgin River basin, and returned later that year to found the town of Virgin. More settlers arrived in 1860 and 1861 and settled the towns of Rockville and Springdale. Catastrophic flooding by the river (especially in the Great Flood of 1861-1862), little arable land, and poor soils made agriculture in the upper Virgin River a risky venture.

In 1861 or 1862 Joseph Black made the arduous journey to Zion Canyon and was very impressed by its beauty. His stories about the Canyon were at first seen as exaggerated, prompting his neighbors to call the Canyon "Joseph's Glory."

The floor of Zion Canyon was settled in 1863 by Issac Behunin, who farmed corn, tobacco, and fruit trees. The Behunin family lived in Zion canyon near the site of today's Zion Lodge during the summer, and wintered in Springdale. Isaac Behunin is credited with naming Zion, a reference to a place of peace mentioned in the Bible. Two more families settled Zion canyon in the next couple of years, bringing with them cattle and other domesticated animals. The canyon floor was farmed until Zion became a Monument in 1909.

The Powell Geographic Expedition entered the area in 1869 after their first trip through the Grand Canyon. John Wesley Powell returned in September 1872 and descended the East Fork of the Virgin River (Parunaweap Canyon) to the town of Shunesberg. He may have made the climb up to Zion Canyon, and named it Mukuntuweap under the impression that that was the Paiute name. In the same year, Geologist Grove Karl Gilbert, working with the Wheeler Survey, descended the North Fork of the Virgin River from Navajo Lake to Zion Canyon, making the first recorded descent of "The Zion Narrows." It is likely that he named this remarkable section of canyon in the process.

Powell Survey photographers, Jack Hillers and James Fennemore, first visited the Zion Canyon and Kolob Plateau region in the spring of 1872. Hillers returned in April of 1873 to add more photographs to the "Virgin River Series" of photographs and stereographs. Hillers described wading the canyon for four days and nearly freezing to death to take his photographs. Geologist Clarence Dutton later mapped the region and artist William Holmes documented the scenery.

Current Era

Protection and tourism

From April through October, the scenic drive in Zion Canyon is closed to private vehicles, and visitors ride the frequent shuttle buses

Paintings of the canyon by Frederick S. Dellenbaugh were exhibited at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, followed by a glowing article in Scribner's Magazine the next year. That, along with previously created photographs, paintings, and reports, led to U.S. President William Howard Taft's proclamation creating Mukuntuweap National Monument on July 31, 1909. In 1917 the acting director of the newly created National Park Service visited the canyon and proposed changing its name to Zion from the locally unpopular Mukuntuweap. That occurred the following year. The United States Congress added more land and established Zion National Park on November 19, 1919. A separate Zion National Monument, the Kolob Canyons area, was proclaimed on January 22, 1937, and was incorporated into the park on July 11, 1956.

Travel to the area before it was a national park was rare due to its remote location, lack of accommodations, and the absence of real roads in southern Utah. Old wagon roads were upgraded to the first automobile roads starting about 1910, and the road into Zion Canyon was built in 1917, to as far as The Grotto.

By the summer of 1917, touring cars could reach Zion Canyon, and the Wylie Camp was established—a tent camp providing the first visitor lodging in Zion Canyon. The Utah Parks Company, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad, acquired the Wylie Camp in 1923, and offered ten-day rail/bus tours to Zion, Bryce, Kaibab, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The Zion Lodge complex was built in 1925 at the site of the Wylie tent camp. Architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood designed Zion Lodge in the "Rustic Style" and the Utah Parks Company funded the construction. In 1968 the main lodge building was destroyed by fire but was quickly rebuilt. The detached Western Cabins survived and were added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Tour buses at Zion Lodge in 1929. Tourism greatly increased after paved all-weather highways were built to Zion

Work on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, started in 1927 to provide reliable access between Springdale and the east side of the park. The road opened in 1930 and park visitation and travel in the area greatly increased. The most famous feature of the highway is the 1.1-mile (1.8-km) Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, which has six large windows cut through the massive sandstone cliff. On the south side of the tunnel, switchbacks take motorists from the tunnel to the floor of Zion Canyon. On the east side the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway terminates at Mt. Carmel Junction and Highway 89, allowing visitors to travel by car to other national parks, including Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon.

In 1896 local rancher John Winder improved the Native American footpath up Echo Canyon so he could travel on horseback up to the East Rim, and hence to Long Valley. This trail was improved again about 1925 and became the East Rim Trail. Other trails were built in 1925 including the West Rim Trail and the Lady Mountain Trail. The auto road was extended to the Temple of Sinawava, and a trail built from there was one mile to the start of the Narrows. The next year saw construction of the Angels Landing Trail, and two suspension bridges were built over the Virgin River. The Hidden Canyon trail was built in 1928. The West Rim and East Rim Trail were built for horseback riding visitors, and were blasted out of the sandstone in many places.

The original ranger cabin was built at The Grotto in the 1920s. A real visitor center was first built in the 1950s, facing the Temples and Towers of the Virgin. Park facilities were redesigned in 2000, with the visitor center converted to a human-history museum and visitor center functions moved to a new solar powered facility adjacent to the south entrance.

Zion Canyon Scenic Drive provides access to Zion Canyon. Traffic congestion in the narrow canyon was recognized as a major problem in the 1990s and a public transportation system using propane-powered shuttle buses was instituted in the year 2000. From April through October, the scenic drive in Zion Canyon is closed to private vehicles, and visitors ride the frequent shuttle buses. The new plan restored natural quiet to the canyon.

On April 12, 1995, heavy rains triggered a landslide that blocked the Virgin River in Zion Canyon. Over a period of two hours, the river carved away 590 feet (190 m) of the only exit road from the canyon, trapping 450 guests and employees in the Zion Lodge. A one-lane temporary road was constructed within 24 hours to allow evacuation of the lodge. A more stable, albeit temporary, road was completed on May 25, 1995, to allow summer visitors to access the park. This road was replaced with a permanent road during the first half of 1996. The five-mile Kolob Canyons Road was built in the mid-1960s to provide a scenic drive and access to the Kolob Canyons section of the park.


The nine known exposed formations visible in Zion National Park are part of a super-sequence of rock units called the Grand Staircase; they represent about 150 million years of mostly Mesozoic-aged sedimentation in that part of North America. The formations exposed in the Zion area were deposited as sediment in very different environments:

  • The warm, shallow (sometimes advancing or retreating) sea of the Kaibab and Moenkopi formations;
  • Streams, ponds, and lakes of the Chinle, Moenave, and Kayenta formations;
  • The vast desert of the Navajo and Temple Cap formations; and
  • The dry near-shore environment of the Carmel Formation.

Uplift affected the entire region, known as the Colorado Plateaus, by slowly raising these formations more than 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) higher than where they were deposited. This steepened the stream gradient of the ancestral Virgin and other rivers on the plateau.

The fast-moving streams took advantage of uplift-created joints in the rocks to remove all Cenozoic-aged formations and cut gorges into the plateaus. Zion Canyon was cut by the North Fork of the Virgin River in this way. During the later part of this process, lava flows and volcanic cones covered parts of the area.

High water volume in wet seasons does most of the downcutting in the main canyon and carries much of the three million tons of rock and sediment that the Virgin River transports yearly. The Virgin cuts away its canyon faster than its tributaries can cut away their own streambeds, so tributaries end in waterfalls from hanging valleys where they meet the Virgin. The valley between the peaks of the Twin Brothers is a notable example of a hanging valley in the canyon.

Kolob Canyons are a set of finger canyons cut into the Kolob Plateau
The Three Patriarchs in Zion Canyon are made of Navajo Sandstone

Rock Layer Appearance Where To See Deposition Rock Type Photo
Dakota Formation Cliffs Top of Horse Ranch Mountain Streams Conglomerate and sandstone Dakota Sandstone
Carmel Formation Cliffs Mount Carmel Junction Shallow sea and coastal desert Limestone, sandstone and gypsum Carmel Formation
Temple Cap Formation Cliffs Top of West Temple Desert Sandstone Temple Cap Formation atop Navajo Sandstone
Navajo Sandstone Steep cliffs 1,600 to 2,200 ft (490 to 670 m) thick

Red lower layers are colored by iron oxides

Tall cliffs of Zion Canyon; highest exposure is West Temple. Cross-bedding shows well at Checkerboard Mesa Desert sand dunes covered 150,000 sq. miles (390,000 sq. km); shifting winds during deposition created cross-bedding Sandstone Navajo Sandstone showing its two tones
Kayenta Formation Rocky slopes Throughout canyon Streams Siltstone and sandstone Kayenta Formation
Moenave Formation Slopes and ledges Lower red cliffs seen from Zion Human History Museum Streams and ponds Siltstone and sandstone Moenave Formation
Chinle Formation Purpleish slopes Above Rockville Streams Shale, loose clay and conglomerate Chinle Formation
Moenkopi Formation Chocolate cliffs with white bands Rocky slopes from Virgin to Rockville Shallow sea Shale, siltstone, sandstone, mudstone, and limestone Moenkopi Formation
Kaibab Formation Cliffs Hurricane Cliffs along Interstate 15 near Kolob Canyons Shallow sea Limestone Hurricane Cliffs/Kaibab Fm.


Taylor Creek with Horse Ranch Mountain in background. Desert, riparian, woodland and coniferous forest habitat can be seen in this photo

The Great Basin, Mojave Desert, and Colorado Plateau converge at Zion and the Kolob canyons. This, along with the varied topography of canyon-mesa country, differing soil types, and uneven water availability, provides diverse habitat for the equally diverse mix of plants and animals that live in the area. In 1999 biologists counted 289 bird species in the park. Seventy-five mammal and 32 reptile and amphibian species are also found. These organisms make their home in one or more of four life zones found in the Park:

Sacred datura grows on the canyon floor and blooms at night

Desert conditions persist on canyon bottoms and rocky ledges away from perennial streams. Sagebrush, prickly pear cactus, and rabbitbrush, along with sacred datura and Indian paintbrush are common. Utah penstemon and golden aster can also be found. Milkvetch and Prince's Plume are found in pockets of selenium-rich soils. Common daytime animals include rock squirrels, Pinyon jays and Whiptail and common collared lizards. Desert cottontails, jackrabbits, and Merriam's kangaroo rats come out at night. Cougars, coyotes, gray foxes, and ringtails are the top predators.

Cooler conditions persist at mid-elevation slopes between 3,900 and 5,500 feet (1,190 to 1,680 meters). Stunted forests of pinyon pine and Juniper coexist here with manzanita shrubs, cliffrose, serviceberry, scrub oak, and yucca.

Stands of Ponderosa pine, Gambel oak, manzanita and aspen populate the mesas and cliffs above 6,000 feet (1,830 meters).

Mule deer graze throughout the area and are the most-often seen megafauna

Golden eagles, Red-tailed hawks, Peregrine falcons, and White-throated Swifts can be seen in the area. California condors and Bighorn sheep were introduced in the 1990s. Nineteen species of bat also live in the area.

Boxelder, Fremont cottonwood, maple, and willow dominate riparian plant communities. Animals such as the Bank beaver, flannel-mouth suckers, gnatcatchers, dippers, canyon wrens, the virgin spinedace, and water striders all make their homes in the riparian zones. Mule deer graze on vegetation throughout the park.


Zion National Park is Utah's oldest national park, and with nearly three million visitors per year; it is also Utah's most heavily used park. More than 150 miles (240 kilometers) of maintained trails provide access to the roadless interior of Zion. Seven popular trails with round-trip times of half an hour (Weeping Rock) to four hours (Angels Landing) are found in Zion Canyon. Two popular trails, Taylor Creek (four hours roundtrip) and Kolob Arch (nine hours roundtrip) are in the Kolob Canyons section of the park (near Cedar City).

The Virgin River has gnawed through native sandstone creating incredible scenery found in Zion Canyon, which also features soaring towers and monoliths and is known for its incredible slot canyons, including The Narrows, which attract canyoneers from around the world.

The river itself serves as a natural corridor for exploring the park. There are several easy, self-guiding trails along the river, along with more challenging hikes where the river and its tributaries cut through narrow canyons. Hiking up into The Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava is a popular summertime diversion, with the rushing water of the stream serving as its trail. The Riverside Walk (Gateway to the Narrows) is suitable for all, while Angels Landing and the Zion Narrows offer more adventurous or strenuous hikes. With canyon walls that are hundreds of feet high and at times only an arm's-stretch-apart, the Narrows provide an exciting hike, but can be dangerous.

As a natural drainage for the area, the Virgin River carries flash floods during summer thunderstorms. Floods can roar down canyons in seconds, washing away or stranding hikers.

Zion is a center for rock climbing, with short walls like Touchstone, Moonlight Buttress, Spaceshot and Prodigal Son being very popular. There are many short free climbs, and a large number of hard, long aid climbs.

Zion is the country's most concentrated center for canyoneering. Popular routes like Pine Creek and Mystery Canyon were first descended in the 1950s and 1960s, with the last of the big drainages (Heaps) descended in 1982. Zion has a concentration of about 50 technical canyons, characterized by downclimbing and rappels in beautiful sandstone canyons. The most difficult canyons have long sections of entrenched narrows, with keeper potholes that require technical gear and specialized techniques to escape.

Lodging in the park is available at Zion Lodge, located halfway through Zion Canyon, and is open year-round. Three campgrounds are available; South and Watchman at the far south side of the park, and a primitive site at Lava Point in the middle of the park off Kolob Terrace Road. Camping in the backcountry requires permits.

Guided horseback riding trips, nature walks, and evening programs are available from late March to early November. The Junior Ranger Program for ages six to 12 is active from Memorial Day to Labor Day at the Zion Nature Center. Zion Canyon IMAX in nearby Springdale shows documentaries about the natural history of Zion Canyon and the American Southwest.

Adjacent to the park on the south, is the town of Springdale, Utah, which offers services such as lodging, food, and entertainment. There is also lodging, food and entertainment offered on the east side of the park along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and in Mount Carmel Junction, Utah.[4]


  1. Zion National Park. Desert USA. Retrieved February 24, 2007.
  2. Alexander, Charles P. "Records and Descriptions of North American Crane-Flies (Diptera). Part VII. The Tipuloidea of Utah." American Midland Naturalist 39 (1) (Jan. 1948): 1-82.
  3. Uhler, John William. Zion National Park Information: History. Zion National Park Information Guide.
  4. Utah National Parks. Utah.com. Retrieved February 24, 2007.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Harris, Ann G., Esther Tuttle and D. Sherwood. ''Geology of National Parks. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1990. ISBN 0840346190
  • Leach, Nicky. Zion National Park: Sanctuary in the Desert. Mariposa, CA: Sierra Press, 2000. ISBN 1580710204
  • Schneider, Stuart. Kolob Canyons Road Guide. Springdale, UT: Zion Natural History Association, 2001. ISBN 0915630281
  • Tufts, Lorraine Salem. Secrets in The Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks: Third Edition. North Palm Beach, FL: National Photographic Collections, 1998. ISBN 0962025534
  • Woodbury, Angus M. A History of Southern Utah and Its National Parks. Salt Lake City, UT: Utah State Historical Society, 1950.

External links

All links retrieved June 13, 2023.


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