History of Zion National Park

(Updated: January 5th, 2022)

Many travelers find Zion National Park a big surprise. Heading north from the Grand Canyon, or south from Bryce Canyon, they rather expect to find it an anticlimax. Instead, they find Zion Canyon a giant to match its famous neighbors.

Zion’s color is red – red in let’s say thirty-five varieties. Driving east from Hurricane, Utah, you see red, crimson red, when you approach the park’s south entrance and sight the great shoulder of West Temple on your left. You see red, vermilion red, when you thread your way up the shadowy canyon floor to glimpse Angels Landing jutting 2,000 feet straight above you. And you see red, a kind of white red near West Rim Trail, and look across the plunging gorge at the towering dome called the Great White Throne. Finally you realize that the rocks take their various tints from sunlight and shifting shadows, and the red of Zion seems like every color you ever saw.

The redo of Zion is sandstone, stained by iron and manganese oxides carried in solution by water, and deposited during the slow filtering of millions of years when this part of the Southwest lay beneath ancient seas. In the three-part geological history of the Southwest, Zion Canyon belongs in the middle, right between ancient history as told in the Grand Canyon and modern history as shown in Bryce Canyon. Start reading this wonderful history in stone at the bottom of mile-deep Grand Canyon, climb upwards with the ages, past a billion years of time, and as you step onto the rim you will find it cut off suddenly at your feet, a story broken off with 150,000,000 years left to tell. The sandstone and shale that once lay above that level have been planed right away from the Grand Canyon landscape. To find them, you need to travel north to Zion. As the crow flies, it is only 60 miles, but by car it is a 230 mile swing from the Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. There are missing pages, and since these particular rock pages are so soft and porous, they are carved and shaped into all sorts of fantastic forms.

This is how it happened. About 13 million years ago, when the Zion country was low and level, the entire Southwest began slowly to rear up. It is actually still rearing up. In the vast uplift, the land mass broke into great blocks, cracking along lines in the rock called faults. The uplift turned the lazy Virgin River, running through Zion park, into a racing torrent. With its tributaries, the Virgin’s swift waters cut deep along the fault lines, grinding up and carrying away huge quantities of rock. Finally a mile-deep layer that had once been desert dunes was laid bare- the Navajo sandstone you now see in Zion National Park.

Rain, frost and tree roots eat steadily at the soft rock. The river falls steeply, nine times as steeply as the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. And Zion’s sandstone happens to be even-textured, without sandwiched-in layers of different hardness. The rock weakens first at the bottom, causing big vertical slabs to fall. It is this oddity that makes Zion Canyon’s sheer walls, almost 2,500 feet straight up along the eight miles of road from the park gate to the road’s end at the little oasis called the Temple of Sinawava.

Of all Zion’s magnificent trials, the most popular is the footpath that starts at the road’s end at the Temple of Sinawava, and leads on for a mile to the Narrows. Here the canyon becomes a mere slit in the rocks and here, in the cool, green twilight, you can see the summer-blooming Zion Moonflower, who’s trumpet-shaped blossoms open fully only at dusk. Or, taking your lunch, you can push off from the parking lot at Weeping Rock for an all-day hike or horseback trip up the East Rim Trail, where you may see a bobcat if you’re lucky. A more strenuous trail, starting at the Grotto campground, follows a track chipped out of the vertical wall of the Canyon’s West Rim and leads past Great West Canyon toward the magnificent back country added to the park when Zion National Park was going to it in 1956.

Zion has two large campgrounds in the canyon and the Zion Lodge, which is famous as a spot for viewing Zion Canyon by moonlight. Sunrise and sunset are also daily dramas in Zion’s deep, narrow, vertically walled chasm: dusk falls fast when the sun disappears over the sheer palisade of the 6,723 foot high Mountain of the Sun.

Even if you enter and leave the canyon by the park’s south gate, you should make a special effort to take the 11 mile drive along the highway leading from the canyon to the park’s east entrance. This road, known as Zion-Mt Carmel Highway, belongs with Yosemite’s Tioga Pass and Glacier’s Logan Pass among the great mountain roads of the United States. From the Virgin River bridge it climbs in six sharp switchbacks to a mile-long tunnel through the Zion Canyon wall. The tunnel has six openings, all of which reveal dazzling views, one disclosing the sandstone rainbow of Zion’s Great Arch. Incidentally, when the tunnel was dug these galleries were opened first and the debris thrown in the creek-bed below. It is a measure of water’s swift work that within months a few cloudbursts had washed most of the debris away down stream and right out of the park. Beyond the tunnel. the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway leads past one example of oddly faulted and bizarrely eroded sandstone after another. The most spectaculars is Checkerboard Mesa, a 6,670 foot-high mountain whose sandstone is cut horizontally by the lines of ancient desert windrows and vertically along cracks created by later uplifts.

Of all of our National Parks, Zion is one of the most closely associated with Mormon history. It was first visited by the fur trapper Jedediah Smith, who named the Virgin River after one of his comrades in the early 19th century. Mormons migrated south from Salt Lake City and settled the surrounding communities, usually after being called to serve by their church leaders. As diligent as they were devout, they soon began irrigating and tilling lands along the Virgin River. It was the Mormons, stirred by the valley’s “towering temples of stone,” who first called the place Zion, which means “the heavenly city of God.” St. George, Orderville and Springdale are some of the historic Mormon settlements to look for along your road to Zion.

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