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Zion National Park is that kind of gorgeous natural wonder that brings awe to nearly everyone seeing it, and a sense of spirituality or religion to many. The Paiute Indians consider the canyon a sacred place and the Mormon pioneers named it "Little Zion" for what they imagined were temples in the stone. An early Methodist minister gave many of the towers and cliffs biblical names, which endure today, such as Angels Landing, Great White Throne, West Temple, the Virgin River and The Three Patriarchs. Early on (1909), the area was named Mukuntuweap National Monument, but thankfully, that became Zion National Monument in 1918 and Zion National Park a year later. It's about a two-hour drive from Las Vegas, but the nearest town is St. George, UT.

Zion is the middle part of The Grand Staircase, at the top of which is Bryce Canyon and its plateau (11,000 feet high), and the bottom of which is the Grand Canyon itself. Most famous for its sheer beauty and colorful rock strata, especially Navajo sandstone, the park is popular for hiking, biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, nature walks, bird watching, tubing, running races and camping. For general interests, there are live theater, outdoor concerts, movies, festivals, star gazing, photography, painting and drawing, and kids programs. The park size is 229 square miles or about 147,000 acres.

When visiting, it makes sense to stop at one of the visitor centers, the Zion Canyon center at the south entrance, across the river from Springdale, or the more northern Kolob Canyons center, on I-15 at Exit 40, 17 miles south of Cedar City. You can get information, view exhibits and ask questions of the rangers, as well as buy books and maps. Just half a mile north of the south entrance is the Zion Human History Museum, opened in 2002, showing how humans have influenced Zion and vice versa. The museum is closed from late November through March 1.

There are at least ten hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty, as well as two magnificent scenic drives. The first such, Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, is a seven-mile free shuttle (in season) that takes you along the canyon floor. The second, the Zion-Carmel Highway, is a self-drive 13-mile road winding up through the mountains and through a mile-long tunnel toward the east side of the park. If you wish, you can leave your car in Springdale and take their shuttle to the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, where the park's own shuttle service starts. Note that the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is open to private cars in the winter months, but is closed for them in season, when you have to take the shuttle. Among the hiking trails, the Riverside Walk and the Emerald Pools Trail are the best, in my opinion.

Rangers give talks on nature and the park during the season and the Field Institute organizes workshops lasting one, two or three days in the great outdoors. You can join the institute's parent, the Zion Canyon Historical Association, for just $35, and get discounts as a result. If you're in the area in summer, check out the Utah Shakespearean Festival at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, one of the theaters used being a replica of the Bard's Globe Theater in London.

Among the animals living in the park are the mountain lion, elk, and the peregrine falcon. Altogether, there are 75 species of mammals, 290 of birds, 32 of reptiles and amphibians, even eight of fish. The Zion snail is found nowhere else on earth, park officials say. The word Zion in Hebrew means "refuge," and this park is clearly the place for animals and plant life that need sheltering. Trees, plants and flowers seen here include the quaking aspen, prince's plume and Colorado columbine, as well as the sego lily and Fremont cottonwood. Altogether, there are some 800 native species of plants here.

New in 2008

The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to private cars from March 21 through October, during which period you can take the tour only by free shuttle bus. One loop of the bus includes nine stops in Zion Canyon itself, and a second includes nine stops in the town of Springdale, also free. If you stay at Zion Lodge, you are allowed to drive to the lodge, but after that, you have to use the shuttle to see the rest of the canyon. To use the shuttle, park at the visitor center and board there, or because the center lot is usually full by 10 AM in summer, you might want to park in the town of Springdale and take the shuttle from there. The buses run from dawn to late evening as often as every six minutes.

Entrance Fees

The park will charge you $25 per vehicle, good for seven days in Zion National Park. If you walk or bicycle in, it's $12 per person. There's an annual pass for $50, and of course, you could use the Interagency Senior Pass ($10 lifetime) or Interagency Annual Pass ($80), the latter two good at any federal fee property. The park says that about 80% of the entrance fee stays in Zion itself.

Number of Visitors

There were 2,600,000 visitors in 2006, the last date for which figures are available.

Lodging

In addition to dozens of establishments in nearby towns, you might want to try the Zion Lodge, open year round, with a nice dining room. A Xanterra concession. Zion Lodge, tel. 888/297-2757 or 435/772-7700, website www.xanterra.com.

Contacts

Zion National Park, Springdale UT 84767, tel. 435/772-3256, website www.nps.gov/zion. The Zion Natural History Association, a non-profit entity which seeks to help the park, can be reached at 800/635-3959 or 435/772-3264, website www.zionpark.org.

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