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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
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
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.
Other parks in southern Utah: