As far as National Parks go, Zion, Utah’s first National Park, is by no means the largest. At only 229 square miles of total area, Zion is dwarfed in size compared to larger locations like Yosemite at nearly 1,200 square miles, or Yellowstone, encompassing more than 3,400 square miles (bigger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined). But total square miles isn’t really all that important for what makes Zion so unique.
Immediately upon entering the gates of Zion, it is clear you are entering a sacred space filled with towering sandstone cliffs and peaks, swirling together in deep and faded reds and oranges, spliced by shades of white and tan. On clear evenings just as the sun sets, its final rays reflect off the intermixed jagged and smooth rock walls causing them to seemingly glow in the fading light. It was this mesmerizing sight in part, that motivated President William Howard Taft to first conserve these lands as Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909, protecting what he called a “…labyrinth of remarkable canyons with highly ornate and beautifully colored walls, in which are plainly recorded the geological events of past ages.”
Before being designated a National Monument, the president and others had been inspired by the works of Fredrick Dellenbaugh, an early artist and topographer who traveled with the 2nd expedition of John Wesley Powell in the early 1870s. Enamored with the landscape during that trip, Dellenbaugh returned in the summer of 1903 to capture in paint the canyons that inspired him decades earlier. At the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, Dellenbaugh introduced Zion to the world with his paintings. In a Scribner’s Magazine article, he wrote,
“One hardly knows just how to think of it. Never before has such a naked mountain of rock entered into our minds! Without a shred of disguise its transcendent form rises preeminent. There is almost nothing to compare to it. Niagara has the beauty of energy; the Grand Canyon, of immensity; the Yellowstone, of singularity; the Yosemite, of altitude; the ocean, of power; this Great Temple, of eternity.”
A decade later, in 1919, Congress would change the park’s status, in an act signed by President Woodrow Wilson, from Mukuntuweap National Monument to Zion National Park.
The Zion Forever Project, the official non-profit partner of Zion National Park, traces its origins back to 1929. Early residents in the small gateway town of Rockville would sell black and white infographic postcards to passing tour buses as they headed towards the park gates. The funds raised from these sales were used to develop some of the park’s first naturalist and interpretive programs. Today, the Zion Forever Project serves as the official non-profit partner to Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, and Pipe Spring National Monument.
Working to fund essential park programs, the Zion Forever Project works side-by-side with Zion National Park Rangers every day to help support the park’s highest priority initiatives. As Zion moves into its second century of service, we must remember that caring for our parks will always be a group effort. Despite its popularity, with proper planning and a few good tips, you can still experience the majesty of Zion.
If it’s your first visit to Zion National Park, make sure to head to the park’s website for up-to-date details on trip planning, park alerts, and conditions (visit nps.gov/zion). Arrive early, and once inside the park, head to the visitor center. On busier weekends and holidays, parking inside the park might be full; if so, find parking in the gateway community of Springdale and ride the free town shuttle or walk to the park pedestrian entrance along the Virgin River. If you forgot any park essentials or need maps, books, or park memorabilia, make sure to grab them at the park store inside the visitor center.
Directly across the road from the shuttle bus area is the trailhead for the Pa’rus trail.
This easy, mostly flat paved trail is only 3.5 miles roundtrip. For first-time visitors and Zion lovers alike, this trail offers hikers a real sense of the canyon as the trail meanders along the Virgin River, flanked by high desert plants and some of the park’s tallest and most notable peaks, like the Watchman. The Pa’rus trail is also the only trail in the park open to bicycles and leashed pets.
For returning visitors to the park or those looking to escape the crowds sometimes seen in the main canyon, consider looking beyond the town of Springdale to one of Zion’s less-visited areas along the Kolob Terrace road.
After heading up scenic State Route 9 from the nearby town of LaVerkin, turn left to head north up the Kolob Terrace road just after the small town of Virgin. This road is well-paved north, all the way to the Kolob Reservoir. While portions of the drive may close due to snow, when open, this road takes travelers into lesser seen territory at much higher elevations than what you would experience from the canyon floor.
One hike, in particular, the North Gate Peaks at 4 miles roundtrip, is relatively flat and easy but offers views of tented sandstone spires that most visitors will never see. If hiking is not an option, journey further north up the road to a well-designated viewing area at Lava Point. There you can gaze over the high-desert plateau surrounded by Ponderosa Pine trees.
If you are still looking for more ideas, Zion has two other sections that see a fraction of the visitors. Try searching online for Zion’s Kolob Canyons section or Zion’s East Side to get great ideas that are more off the beaten path.
Whether it is caring for Zion’s iconic Bighorn Sheep herd or stewarding the next generation of park rangers and leaders, the Zion Forever Project is proud to invest in the future of the Zion National Park experience. To learn more about our work and connect with projects that need your support, visit zionpark.org today.