The magical interplay of rock, water and time has given rise to a host of hauntingly beautiful geological features that draw visitors to the American southwest. The winding canyons and steep cliffs of Zion National Park, located in the southwest of the U.S. state of Utah, a little under an hour’s drive from the easy-going and active city of St. George, offer visitors a glimpse into both the deep geological past and the cultural history of the Native American people who inhabited the region for several thousand years. The environment you will find today in Zion National Park is a testament to change and I guarantee a visit to this beautiful place will leave you changed as well.
Zion National Park was established in 1909 and has now grown to encompass 229 square miles of sandstone and desert where erosion continues to shape the land and uncover the buried secrets of the earth’s long history. The colorful sandstone features that give Zion its breathtaking beauty are part of a much larger formation, known as the Colorado Plateau, which also plays host Zion’s famous southern neighbor, the Grand Canyon. Due to the way erosion and uplift have worked in these two locations, the bottom layer of rock exposed at Zion is actually the same as the top layer of the Grand Canyon. So after visiting Zion and looking up from the valley floor, head south to the Grand Canyon and look down. You will then be able to envision yourself in the midst of many millions of years of sedimentation, rock formation, uplift and erosion. It’s an awe-inspiring thought. Fortunately, your visit to Zion will provide you with plenty of opportunities to diffuse any potential existential crisis by distracting yourself with adventure and discovery in the outdoors.
The opportunities for outdoor recreation at Zion National Park are almost endless, with hiking, backpacking, climbing, horseback riding, bicycling, and bird and wildlife watching among the popular activities available. While adventure sports like rock climbing, canyoneering, and long distance hiking and backpacking draw outdoor sports enthusiasts, ranger-led expeditions and programs for children, along with the wide variety of hiking trails that include short and easy walks, make the park a great destination for families as well.
Climbing: With sandstone walls towering 2,000 feet over the canyon floor, Zion is a playground for big wall climbers.
Hiking: There are so many options for hikers at Zion that anyone should be able to find their ideal experience. Hikes vary in length from easy half mile strolls that should take under a half an hour to 14-mile, eight or nine hour hikes over extremely challenging terrain. Many of Zion’s trails fall between these two extremes and promise exceptional scenery and the opportunity to see into deep layers of earth. The sandstones that make up the rock features at Zion formed from deposits of sediment that accumulated around 240 million years ago near the edge of a shallow sea. For those who don’t mind getting wet, a spectacular and unique hike known as “The Narrows” requires walking upstream in the Virgin River as it enters the narrowest part of Zion Canyon.
Bicycling: The elimination of private vehicle traffic through Zion National Park has been a boon for bicyclists who are able to travel the park’s roads, except through the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel with relatively little interference. Off-road bicycling is not permitted except on the three and a half-mile long Pa’rus trail.
Human History: The history of Zion National Park doesn’t end with the geology. In fact, the story of the human inhabitants of the area and their relationship to the land is equally interesting and Zion’s museum collection contains over 290,000 artifacts. Some are on display for visitors to enjoy at Zion’s Human History Museum where visitors can learn about the 6,000 years of human beings adapting to the ever-changing environmental conditions of the area.
Staying in or near Zion National Park is easy. Along with a lodge and campgrounds in the park, hotels and restaurants are available in the nearby town of Springdale, Utah from which a free shuttle service ferries visitors from several locations in town to Zion National Park. Shuttles run daily through the summer months, cutting down on traffic both outside and inside the park where private vehicles are not permitted from March through October.
Inside the park, propane-powered shuttles run every few minutes along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, stopping at trail heads, rest rooms and the Visitors Center and Human History Museum, ensuring easy access for visitors to the sites they wish to visit within the park while keeping the air clean and the atmosphere peaceful. I visited Zion National Park in the winter when visitor counts were lower than the busy spring and summer season. However, the park’s smart decision to keep vehicle traffic to a minimum means that even at the busiest times of the year, you will be able to find some quiet moments in this natural wonderland. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to this awe-inspiring place and I’m sure you will, too.