A Brief History
Why be one of the three million annual visitors to Zion National Park in Southern Utah? Because this unique park, famous for its tan-colored Navajo Sandstone, cut and shaped by the Virgin River over millions of year is located just 3 hours south of Las Vegas, Nevada, and is a spectacle everyone should experience. Those visitors make it one of the most visited National Parks in the USA.
The earliest known inhabitants of Zion and the surrounding areas, the Anasazi people left behind cliff houses and petroglyphs dating back 800-1500 years. Visitors discover these throughout the park.
In 1858 Nephi Johnson, a Mormon pioneer, was in search of better areas for settlement when he found what is now known as Zion National Park. Johnson, however, did not start a settlement in Zion. It wasn’t until 1861 when Issac Behunin built a 1 room cabin near what is now the Zion Lodge. He believed he had found Zion. He said “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church-this is Zion.”
John Wesley Powell, who was the U.S. Geological Survey director in 1872, called the canyon Mukuntuweap which was in an Indian word that meant “straight canyon”
President William Taft signed a proclamation in 1909 creating Mukuntuweap National Monument a protected canyon along with its surrounding area. In 1918 the Woodrow Wilson administration renamed Mukuntuweap Zion National Monument, and in 1919 Zion finally became a National Park.
By 1927 the park had begun construction on a 1.1 mile tunnel which would connect the main part of Zion National park with the town of Mt. Carmel. The tunnel took 3 years to complete and was considered an engineering marvel at the time. Workers had to blast through solid sandstone. The tunnel included lookout galleries so motorists could see the canyon below. Sadly you are not allowed to stop at the lookout galleries anymore due to traffic and safety concerns. I even had an uncle who, with high school friends, boldly walked the tunnel, creating an encounter with park service that ended with parental involvement. The tunnel is still one of the man-made wonders of the park.
Although Zion has been millions of years in the making each year the Virgin River flash floods a few times which changes the landscape of the canyon and surrounding area. There have been a few times when a flash flood has washed out the main road leaving visitors trapped inside the main canyon. Honoring nature, however, the park staff simply rearranges the park roads and paths to allow the park to remain as natural as possible.
In 2000, Zion National Park started a mandatory shuttle system to transport visitors down the main canyon during the peak season from March to November. During the off season private vehicles are allowed to drive into the main part of the canyon; however with only 400 designated parking spots the canyon, it can be difficult to find parking even in the off season.
As you determine your kind of visit to Zion, hiking the slot canyons or riding the shuttle, you will be reminded at every turn of this park’s origins, both its people and its natural and ever changing beauty.