Heavenly: Zion National Park

Long before its official designation as a National Park by President William Taft, Zion was a frequent home to Paiute Indians.

The first homesteader to hang his hat at Zion was Isaac Behunin in 1861. While life was difficult for the pioneer, Behunin was still appreciative of the beauty of his surroundings: “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church—this is Zion.”

When explorer John Wesley Powell visited in 1872, he used the Paiute word Mukuntuweap, which means “straight canyon.”

At just under 230 square miles, Zion is relatively small by national park standards and the park’s most memorable features are found in easily accessible Zion Canyon. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At just under 230 square miles, Zion is relatively small by national park standards and the park’s most memorable features are found in easily accessible Zion Canyon. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park was established as Mukuntuweap National Monument by President William Taft on July 31, 1909 and elevated to a national park by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919.

Zion National Park is known for its majestic towering rock mountains which rise to awe-inspiring heights. Zion is a lush green oasis, surrounded by startling sentinels of stone. With sheer, milky-white cliffs and pristine waterfalls, Zion is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

A trip to Zion can be enjoyed in a few hours, a few days, or over a lifetime.

There are formations like the Watchman, which towers 2,600 feet above the road, and others with dramatic names such as the West Temple, Mountain of the Sun, Towers of the Virgin, and the Three Patriarchs. And at one spot in the park, you drive through a 1.1-mile tunnel bored through solid rock.

Home to sandstone cliffs that are among the highest in the world, the canyon was named “Zion” by Mormon pioneers in the 1860s. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Home to sandstone cliffs that are among the highest in the world, the canyon was named “Zion” by Mormon pioneers in the 1860s. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One beauty of this park is in the perspective it offers. Unlike most other Utah parks, Zion is a canyon viewed mostly from below. A lodge and cabins are nestled on the canyon floor. White and vermilion cliffs tower all around, some of them reaching nearly 8,000 feet.

The main canyon in Zion, center of park activity, was cut by the North Fork of the Virgin River. It is narrow, less than a quarter-mile wide. But it is deep, flanked by towering sandstone palisades 2,000-3,000 feet high that draw rock climbers attracted to big walls. The six-mile canyon drive ends at a formation known as Temple of Sinawava, where the canyon begins narrowing to a slot only 30-40 feet wide.

Kolob Canyons Viewpoint is located in the northern, quieter section of the park and can be accessed via a 5-mile scenic drive along Kolob Canyons Road. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kolob Canyons Viewpoint is located in the northern, quieter section of the park and can be accessed via a 5-mile scenic drive along Kolob Canyons Road. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As far as how to best see Zion National Park, the most time-honored method—putting one foot in front of the other—is still the best.

As for where to stretch those legs, the park has nearly two dozen hiking trails.  These range from short, easy strolls along paved paths to challenging all-day hikes with large elevation gains and steep drop-offs.

If you’re looking for something less strenuous, try the 2.2-mile round-trip paved trail known as Riverside Walk, which follows the Virgin River along the bottom of the canyon. The paved 1.2-mile round-trip Lower Emerald Pool Trail is another good choice that leads to a picturesque waterfall.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the 5.4-mile round-trip hike to the appropriately named Angels Landing is as famous for its stunning views as it is for its difficulty. Hardcore hikers may also want to try hoofing it 14 miles round-trip to the Kolob Arch, one of the largest freestanding natural arches in the U.S.

Located in southwestern Utah, Zion National Park lies at the intersection of three significant geographic regions: the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin and the Mojave Desert. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in southwestern Utah, Zion National Park lies at the intersection of three significant geographic regions: the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin and the Mojave Desert. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Finally, the subject of hiking in Zion National Park wouldn’t be complete without a mention of The Narrows. This classic 8.4-mile round-trip hike will have you walking in the rocky bed of the Virgin River itself, which can be a great—if somewhat slippery—way to cool off on a hot summer’s day. And don’t worry if you’re not up for the whole hike — doing just the first mile-long section at the end of Riverside Walk will lead you to the most spectacular and narrowest part of the river’s deeply incised gorge.

Zion’s South Campground features 117 sites with no hookups, available on a first-come, first-served basis. A dump station and potable water are on-site. Sites are often claimed by midmorning so get an early start if you hope to snag one.

The park’s Watchman Campground offers 95 RV sites with electric service, and accepts reservations at www.recreation.gov.

Many commercial RV parks can be found nearby, including Zion Canyon Campground and RV Resort, Zion River Resort, Zion RV & Campground, and Zion West RV Park.

While Zion National Park may not be heaven, you can see it from there.

Worth Pondering…

Nothing can exceed the wondrous beauty of Zion…
In the nobility and beauty of the sculptures there is no comparison…

There is an eloquence to their forms which stirs the imagination with a singular power

and kindles in the mind a glowing response.

—Clarence E. Dutton, geologist, 1880

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