Zion National Park

Written by on May 29, 2015 in UT Outdoor Adventures - 1 Comment

The Paiute Indians call it Mukuntuweap, “straight up place.” An apt name considering massive canyon walls soar to enormous heights to be framed by a shockingly blue sky. Today, we call it Zion National Park.

Amazingly, all the natural beauty and wonder in Zion National Park was carved by water! The North Fork of the Virgin River begins high on the Markagunt Plateau at an altitude of 9,000 feet. The river drops roughly 80 feet per mile as it carves its way through 20 miles of Navajo sandstone, including carving one of the most popular slot canyons in America, The Narrows. These unique sandstone cliffs range in color from cream, to pink, to red, and are the crowning jewels of a fantastic and beautiful setting. For much of the year, the Virgin River sits tamely in its banks, but during summer thunderstorms, the calm river can become a raging beast, with 100 times the normal flow of water through the canyon.

Due to its softness, Navajo sandstone seems to weather into gigantic cliffs where ever it is found, but none so stunning as in Zion National Park. Perhaps the most majestic and awe-inspiring location is known as West Temple, where 2,000-foot-tall cliffs painted in creams and reds, soar to the skies.

The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is accessible by shuttle bus only. Private vehicles are not allowed. The neat part is that the bus ride is free and you can spend your time looking, rather than worrying about driving! There are eight stops within the park where you can get off and soak up the scenery, take a hike, swim or just enjoy the breezes that always seem to stirs the leaves of the huge cottonwood trees the grow in the river bottom. There are plenty of hiking trails that will take you to many areas of the 229 square miles that make up the Zion National Park … as long as your feet hold up. Trail rank from easy to extremely challenging, depending on where you want to go in the park.

If you have only a few hours to spend in the park, you should take the Zion Canyon Scenic Shuttle, and take the quick hikes on Weeping Rock Trail and Court of the Patriarchs. If you have more time to spend in the park, Lower Emerald Pool, the Riverside Walk, Watchman Trail, Angel’s Landing Trail, Observation Point and Hidden Canyon are all great hikes. During the summer, bring a swim suit and just lounge by the river and take a dip or wade in the cool water. Temperatures can reach above 100 in the canyon, so the cooling waters of the river are a welcome relief. This also mean staying hydrated is critical – take plenty of water and don’t be afraid to use it!

Perhaps the most fun and interesting part of the park is the place people often miss, especially since most people enter through the south entrance. But keep driving on Route 9 past the main entrance and visitor’s center. The canyon walls rise around you and you’ll take a series of switchbacks that lead to an incredible 1 mile long tunnel. Keep a sharp eye on the left hand side of the tunnel for the windows that overlook the canyon. The east entrance and the narrow canyon are well worth seeing.

The elevation changes in the park, from 3,600 feet up to 8,700 feet provide locations for some of the richest diversity of plants (and animals) in Utah — almost 800 native species. The differences in elevation, sunlight, water, and temperature create “microenvironments,” like hanging gardens, side canyons, and isolated mesas that create this fantastic diversity. 67 species of mammals, 207 birds, 35 reptiles and amphibians and six species of native fish call the Zion National Park home.

Human habitation of Zion National Park dates back at least 12,000 years, when prehistoric people hunted mammoth and giant sloth in the area. Only a few ancient artifacts have been found buried deep or in sheltered caves. Between 500 and 1300 A.D., the Anasazi people arrived. The word anasazi means ancient ones. Two distinctive groups, the Virgin Anasazi and Parowan Fremont, appear in the archeological record of Zion National Park during this period. These people were prodigious builders as the pueblo ruins in the park prove. They also cultivated the tops of the plateau as well as the river bottoms.

The northwestern extension of Zion (added in 1990) called Kolob Canyons is a recent addition to the park. Here narrow parallel box canyons are cut into the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, forming majestic peaks and 2,000 foot cliff walls. To get to Kolob, you must take Route 9 to Highway 15. Just a few miles south of Cedar City, this little known part of the park has a stillness and grandeur all its own. Hanging gardens nestle high on the red rock walls – the green a startling contrast to the towering red rock cliffs. There are some truly terrific hiking trails along the base of the cliffs that follow the streams that come down from the plateau. This is a great “off the beaten” path option if the crowds at Zion are too much for you.

If you are looking for places to stay, Watchman Campground is open all year. South Point Campground is open April – October, and primitive camping is allowed at Lava Point Campground. Zion Lodge sit at the three-mile point on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive and is open year-round. The Zion Lodge Dining room serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, while the Cafe provides quick lunches. Other lodging, dining and shopping is available in Springdale, Rockville, Mt. Carmel Junction, Kanab, and Cedar City.

Other attractions in the area include:
Bryce Canyon National Park
Capitol Reef National Park
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Snow Canyon State Park

Zion National Park
Springdale, UT 84767-1099
Visitor Information 1-435-772-3256

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