Park History: Zion National Park

Kolob Arch in Zion National Park is one of the world's largest arches. Kurt Repanshek Photo.

Sandstone monoliths and a tight slot canyon are what most stands out about Zion National Park, and rightfully so. When you enter Zion Canyon your eyes can't help but be drawn to the Sentinel, the Three Patriarchs, and the Mountain of the Sun.

At canyon's end stands the Temple of Sinawava, the gateway to Zion's famous "Narrows," a slot canyon whose walls soar in places to 2,000 feet while embracing the Virgin River. Across from the Temple just to the south rests Angel's Landing, a lofty perch 5,990 feet above sea level that offers incredible views of Zion Canyon for those who manage the nerve and mountain goat ability to make it to the top.

For more than 13 million years the Virgin River has been carving the park's landscape, boring down through the Carmel Formation, Temple Sandstone, Navajo Sandstone, Kayenta Formation, and Moenave Formation and into the Chinle Formation. For comparison's sake, the national park has existed only since November 19, 1919, a factoid which makes Zion the oldest national park in Utah. It actually started out as a national monument, as President Taft created Mukuntuweap National Monument on July 31, 1909.

Of course, the park's human history goes back much, much farther, roughly 12,000 years to when nomadic peoples followed mammoth, giant sloths and even camels across this landscape.

While fewer than 2000 visitors viewed Zion's wonders in 1919, these days more than 2.5 million tour the park each year. Sadly, the bulk of those visitors go into, and out of, Zion Canyon and head on to their next destination. It's unfortunate, for Zion offers a surprising landscape outside the canyon, and because the canyon struggles to bear up to that much traffic.

Within Zion Canyon itself are not just the dominant sandstone walls but hidden hanging gardens with delicate and colorful vegetation that you wouldn't normally associate with the desert Southwest. Short hikes lead you to shimmering pools of waters, and summer's thunderbursts can turn on incredible waterfalls toppling off the cliffsides.

Head out of the canyon to the east and into the surrounding parkscape and you'll encounter the intriguing Checkerboard Mesa with its unique crossbedding. Head to the northwest corner of the park, through the Kolob Canyons Entrance, and if you're not averse to a hike you can find one of the world's largest sandstone arches, 287.4-foot Kolob Arch. This corner of Zion also harbors Double Alcove Arch, which entails a much shorter hike to reach and doesn't disappoint.

While Zion's big walls attract climbers, and its backcountry hikers, you don't have to exert yourself that much to enjoy this sprawling red-rock spectacle. Some 271 bird species pass through the park each year, making it popular with birdwatchers. Then, too, the surrounding landscape can be mesmerizing for photographers and landscape painters. And then, of course, there are the many wildflowers that can be spotted during the late spring and summer months.

For campers, there are two main options, the South and Watchman campgrounds located just inside the south entrance. South, open March through October on a first-come, first-served basis, might be the quieter of the two, as it has no hookups for RVs. Its 127 sites go for $16 a night. Watchman, on the other hand, is open year-round and allows you to reserve the exact site you want. Tent sites run $16 a night, RV sites are $18, and riverside sites, of which there are only 16, go for $20.

Those who don't mind heading off the beaten path might be interested in the Lava Point Campground, found off the Kolob Terrace Road in the northern end of Zion. However, there are just six sites here, and there is no available water.

It currently costs $25 to drive your rig into the park. When the Zion Shuttle is in operation in Zion Canyon (basically from April through October), you can leave your car in Springdale, but you'll still have to pay to enter the park -- $12 per person for seven days, (although you won't pay more than $25 for your entire family).