Zion National Park is one of our favorite places in the USA. Ancestral Puebloans inhabited the area from 500-1200 A.D, followed by the Paiute, who were still in residence in 1858 when Mormon missionaries arrived. The Paiute called the area Mukuntuweap which means “straight canyon” in Southern Pauite.
Zion National Park is located on the western edge of the Colorado Plateau which stretches from Nevada’s Great Basin Desert to the western slope of the Rocky Mountains.
Vertical walls rise to nearly 4,000 feet above the Virgin River. The differences in elevation create a variety of habitats ranging from desert to alpine. Swampy areas along the river support aquatic life and often feature watercress.
The Mormon settlers who arrived in the canyonlands around 1850 called the place ‘Zion,’ a name meaning ‘sanctuary.’
Many of the spectacular sights maintain the names given by visitors, including Angel’s Landing, the Great White Throne and the Temple of Sinawava.
Next to Yosemite, Zion National Park is the most popular national park for rock climbing in the United States.
About 25 million years ago the Colorado Plateau began to rise thousands of feet out of the sea. The mountains attracted more rain which ran into the rivers and streams which in turn wore down the soft sedimentary rocks. Zion’s sandstone cliffs are said to be the highest in the world.
The main force responsible for sculpting Zion Canyon is the Virgen River which was formed 10-12 million years ago. Summer thundershowers and spring rains continue to carve the canyon today.
The cliffs are colored red from iron oxide. The lack of iron oxide make the upper levels of the Cathedral Group white.
On the river flood plain are groves of box elder, velvet ash and Fremont cottonwood. Box elder are found along streams. Members of the maple family, their leaves turn yellow in the fall. Zion has the widest variety of plant life in Utah, about 800 species.
The park is home to 75 species of mammals, 270 species of birds, 32 reptile and amphibian species and eight species of fish.
The parks’ wildlife include mountain goats, wild turkeys, mule deer and mountain lions (cougars). Other predators include the bobcat, gray fox, golden eagle and the ringtail cat. Among the endemic species is the Zion snail is only found in the hanging gardens near the Virgen River.
Many of the hikes in Zion are backcountry adventures. The park has instituted a system of permits limiting the number of hikers to particular areas. Permits can be arranged as much as a month ahead of time.
Trails that lead to the Emerald Pools leave from the Zion Lodge. Horseback rides are also available from the lodge.
The trail that leads to Angel’s Landing leaves from the Grotto.
At least four different Indigenous groups lived in Zion before the arrival of the settlers. Puebloan Peoples settled here for nearly 2,000 years. Later the canyons were home to the Southern Paiutes.
Zion National Park was first protected in 1909 as Mukuntuweap National Monument which means ‘Straight Canyon’ in the Southern Paiute language.
Park managers incorporated the use of shuttle buses to carry visitors on a scenic loop during the busiest time of the year, from April to October. Shuttle service is available to most trailheads. Ranger programs interpret the natural world.
Nearby parks include Bryce Canyon (86 miles) and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (120 miles).
GETTING THERE — Zion is reached from access points on the west and eastern sides of the park. From the west, take Interstate I-15 and head east on Route 9. From the east, take Highway 89 and then Route 9 into the park. The park is 155 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
SHUTTLE — The free shuttle system provides service to Zion Canyon Scenic Drive from April to late October. The service began in 2000 to reduce traffic congestion.
PARK SUPPORT – The Zion Natural History Association was established in 1931 to aid the naturalist programs.