While it may be easy to conjure up a single defining image of the enormous Grand Canyon or the delicately sculpted rock hoodoos of Bryce, Zion is more difficult to pin down. Here you'll find a collage of images and secrets, an entire smorgasbord of experiences, sights, and even smells, from massive stone sculptures and monuments to lush forests and roaring rivers. Zion is a park to explore, not merely to see; take time to walk its trails, visit viewpoints at different times of the day to see the changing light, and let the park work its magic on you.
First established as Mukuntuweep National Monument in 1909 -- mukuntuweep is a Paiute Indian word meaning "straight arrow" -- its name was changed to Zion National Monument in 1918, and the area gained national park status the following year. Comprising more than 147,000 acres, the park covers a wide range of elevations -- from 3,700 to 8,726 feet above sea level -- and terrain that runs the gamut from desert to forest, with a dramatic river canyon known as the Narrows thrown in for good measure.
These extremes of elevation have resulted in extremes of climate as well -- temperatures in the desert areas soar to well over 100°F (38°C) in the summer, while higher elevations are sometimes covered with snow and ice in the winter. Due to this variety of conditions, Zion harbors a vast array of plant life, ranging from cactus and yucca to ponderosa pines and cottonwoods. In fact, with almost 800 native species, Zion National Park is said to have the richest diversity of plants in Utah. Be sure to watch for hanging gardens, kept alive with water from porous rocks, which you'll see clinging to the sides of cliffs.
Zion is also home to a great variety of animals, drawn here in large part by the year-round water source. Indigenous mammals range from pocket gophers to mountain lions; you'll also spy hundreds of birds, lizards of all shapes and sizes, and a dozen species of snakes. (Only the Great Basin rattlesnake is poisonous, and it usually slithers away from you faster than you can run from it.) Mule deer are commonly observed grazing along the forest edges, and practically every park visitor comes across squirrels and chipmunks. A few elk and bighorn sheep may surface, although they're seldom seen. Among the creatures unique to the park is the tiny Zion snail.
Of course, it's not only plants and animals that need water. For some 1,500 years, humans have come here seeking not only water but also the plants and animals that the water nurtures. There is evidence that a group of people, known as the Basket Makers, lived here as early as A.D. 500, hunting the area's wildlife, gathering berries and seeds, and growing corn, squash, and other crops. They apparently abandoned the area about A.D. 1200, perhaps because of climate changes. Members of the American Indian Paiute tribe -- whose descendants still live in southern Utah -- are believed to have spent time in what is now the national park, but built no permanent homes. Spanish explorers were in the area in the late 18th century, and American fur traders came in the early 19th century, but there is no evidence that either actually entered what is now Zion Canyon National Park proper.
Historians believe that it was not until the 1850s that European-Americans finally ventured into Zion Canyon. Probably the first was pioneer Nephi Johnson, who was shown Zion Canyon by Paiutes in November 1858, and for whom Johnson Mountain is named. He was among a group of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as Mormons) that was sent from Salt Lake City by church leader Brigham Young in search of arable land. By the early 1860s, the Mormons had begun to establish farms and ranches in the area, near where Zion Lodge is located today and at other locations in what is now the national park. It was early Mormon settler Isaac Behunin who is credited with naming his homestead "Little Zion" because it seemed to him to be a bit of heaven on earth.
In the 1870s, Major John Wesley Powell explored the area, describing Angels Landing, Court of the Patriarchs, and some of the park's other now-famous landmarks in his journals. At about the same time, surveyor G. K. Gilbert was mapping southern Utah. He named the Narrows and described it as "the most wonderful defile it has been my fortune to behold."
Today, Zion National Park casts a spell over you as you gaze upon its sheer multicolored walls of sandstone, explore its narrow canyons, search for hanging gardens of ferns and wildflowers, and listen to the roar of the churning, tumbling Virgin River.
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