From Canyon Overlook Trail, Zion looks like the paradise refuge it’s named for—the verdant valley is enclosed by towering red cliffs and sculptural rock formations. So it’s no wonder Mormon pioneer Isaac Behunin, who settled in the canyon, said, "A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as he can in any man-made church; this is Zion.” The name endures and the valley does seem like a bit of heaven on earth. The rock formations are open-mouth awe-inspiring—explorer John Wesley Powell named the highest points West and East Temple, and later, Meth-odist preacher Frederick Fisher drew on the divine when he named Great White Throne, Angels Landing, The Three Patriarchs, and The Watchman. Mormons turned to the Book of Mormon for names like Kolob, Towers of the Vir-gins, Prodigal Son, and Tabernacle Dome. Visit viewpoints at different times of the day to see the changing light, and let the park and nature work its magic.
Because of its extreme range of elevations (3,666–8,726 ft.) and weath-er (with temperatures soaring over 100[dg]F/38[dg]C in summer and a landscape carpeted by snow in winter), Zion harbors a vast array of plants and animals. Over 900 native species of plants have been found: cactus, yucca, and mesquite in the hot, dry desert areas; ponderosa pines on the high plateaus; and cottonwoods and box elders along the rivers and streams. Of the 14 varieties of cactus that grow in the park, keep an eye out for the red claret cup, which blooms spectacularly in spring. Wild-flowers common to the park include manzanita, with tiny pink blossoms; buttercups; and the bright red hummingbird trumpet. You’ll also see the sacred datura—dubbed the “Zion Lily” because of its abundance in the park—with its large funnel-shaped white flowers that open in the cool of night and close by noon.
The different ecosystems in Zion are home to mammals ranging from pocket gophers to mountain lions, hundreds of birds (including golden eagles), lizards of all shapes and sizes, and a dozen species of snakes (on-ly the Great Basin rattlesnake is poisonous). Mule deer are common, as well as elk and bighorn sheep, plus foxes, coyotes, ringtail cats, beavers, porcupines, skunks, and plenty of squirrels and bats. Practically every summer visitor sees lizards, often the colorful collared and whiptail varie-ties, and you often hear the song of the canyon wren and the call of the piñon jay.