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Zion National Park

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Picture of Zion Canyon View from the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion Canyon Picture of Bridge Mountain in the early morning Photograph of Bridge Mountain

24 kilometers long and as much as 800 meters deep, Zion Canyon is Zion National Park’s main touristic and geological attraction. Although you can glimpse much of the canyon from the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, this is not a “drive-through” park. (To prevent the popular Scenic Drive from becoming clotted with traffic, the road is closed to private vehicles between April and October. The Park Service provides frequent free shuttle buses that serve eight stops along the Scenic Drive and continue to Springdale, the “gateway” town just south of the park.)

The best way to experience Zion Canyon is on the 18 trails that provide changing views of the canyon floor, the Virgin River that flows through the canyon, and the towering red Navajo sandstone walls. There are trails appropriate for all levels of fitness, including two that are accessible to wheelchair users.

When President William Howard Taft created a national monument to protect the canyon in 1909 it was called Mukuntuweap, the local Paiute Indian name for the canyon (it means “straight canyon”). The first director of the new National Park Service probably wasn’t the only one who found that name too difficult to pronounce. He changed the monument’s name to Zion, the name given to the canyon by the Mormons who discovered it. The monument became a national park in 1919.

Photo of the Great White Throne rock formation Picture of the Court of the Patriarchs rock formation Picture of the Watchman rock formation Picture of the Beehives rock formation

People have lived in what is now Zion National Park for at least 8,000 years. Known prehistoric cultures include the Anasazi (the likely ancestors of today’s Pueblo tribes) and the Fremont. The Paiutes were the dominant group when Europeans arrived. A Spanish colonial expedition headed by Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante put the region on the map in 1776. The two Franciscan priests were looking for a route from Santa Fe, New Mexico to California. Jedediah Smith, the fur trapper, mountain man, and explorer best known as the first American to travel the California coast to Oregon, visited the area in 1825 and 1827. But Mormon pioneers officially “discovered” Zion Canyon around 1858.

The Mormons who settled there found it a sanctuary from religious persecution, as well as a refuge from the unfriendly Paiute Indians who avoided the canyon because of ancient superstitions about it. The Mormons saw the canyon’s rock formations and surrounding mountains as “natural temples of God.” Isaac Behunin, the first Mormon farmer to settle in the canyon, named it Zion. That’s appropriate for a place of sanctuary, as it’s a shorter name for Jerusalem, the biblical “city of peace.”

The names of Zion’s “natural temples” are a kind of Rorschach test in stone, reflecting the Mormons’ religious mindset. Here are four of them, clockwise from upper left: The Great White Throne, a symbol of Zion; one of three formations in the Court of the Patriarchs; The Beehives (a beehive symbolizes the Mormon ideal of a harmonious, industrious society); and The Watchman.

Picture of the Virgin River at the Zion National Park visitor center Picture of the Gateway to the Narrows Trail in Zion Canyon Photograph of jumbled rocks on the walls of Zion Canyon View from the Zion Canyon Overlook Trail

If you look at the peaceful Virgin River during the dry visiting seasons of summer and autumn, you might be left wondering how such a small and tranquil stream could have carved through 800 meters of rock to create Zion Canyon.

The river flows surprisingly fast, and carries many small rock grains. It acts like a liquid version of a belt sander that, given millions of years, can easily erode solid rock into a deep canyon. The erosive process gets a boost during the rainy winter, when the swollen river can rise enough to move large boulders along its banks.

With Mormons giving religiously-oriented names to so many places and features in Utah, you might think they named the Virgin River. But there are two competing stories of how the river got its name, both of which predate the arrival of the Mormons.

One story is that Domínguez and Escalante named it La Virgen for the Virgin Mary, according to the customary Spanish practice of naming geographical features after Catholic saints. The other is that Jedediah Smith, who followed the river to its confluence with the Colorado, named it for Thomas Virgin, a member of his 1827 expedition who was captured and wounded by Indians.

Of course, there’s more to Zion National Park than the canyon. State Route 9, the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway that leads from the park’s east entrance to the Scenic Drive, provides views overlooking Zion Canyon (the first picture on this page). It also passes another canyon that exposes jumbled sedimentary rocks from an ancient ocean floor, in which ancient bristlecone pines have taken root.

Picture of a canyon in Zion Park Photo of a bristlecone pine in Zion Park Picture of tree and rock in Zion Park

Other parks in southern Utah:

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