Zion National Park protects 146,597 acres in southeastern Utah. It’s located at the junction of the Colorado Plateau, Grand Basin, and Mojave Desert regions. This intersection of regions, combined with a wide range of elevation from 3,000 to 9,000 feet, result in a great and unusual diversity of plants and animals.
At the heart of the park is Zion Canyon, which is 15 miles long and up to a half-mile deep. The canyon was cut by the North Fork of the Virgin River, which transports 3 million tons of rock and sediment each year, primarily during spring floods. In this photo, Theresa is standing on Observation Point above Zion Canyon.
A hiking trail winds behind the spray from the Lower Emerald Pool waterfall. Lush hanging gardens abound in the recessed rock.
Towering cliffs over 1,500 feet high surround the Upper Emerald Pool on three sides.
Native Americans started to inhabit the area about 8,000 years ago in small family groups. The Anasazi and Fremont tribes lived here from 1,500 to 800 years ago. Then Mormons settled in the area in the early 1860s.
The fall foliage was peaking in colorful splendor.
Dogs are not allowed on national park trails, but they are allowed on paved pathways, including the Pa’rus Trail, which runs through the center of Zion Canyon.
Our all-time favorite hike is Angel’s Landing, a strenuous 2-1/2 mile climb up a 1,200-foot knife-blade of a mountain (on left, above).
Walter’s Wiggles is a series of 21 steep switchbacks on the Angel’s Landing Trail. It was named after Walter Reusch, the first superintendent of Zion, who helped engineer the switchbacks in 1924.
The last half-mile of the Angel’s Landing Trail is treacherous, with narrow paths and sheer thousand-foot drop-offs. Chains are mounted into the rock to help keep climbers from plunging off the mountain. Try to spot me in the photo above pulling myself up the chains.
In the past eight years, six people have fallen to their deaths off the Angel’s Landing Trail. The park ranger likens this trail to a “Class 5” technical climb. The park recently added numerous signs warning of the danger on this trail, especially in stormy or icy conditions, yet the trail is more popular than ever. One wrong move, and a hiker can fall over a thousand feet to the valley floor below. In 2010, a police officer from southern California helped save a girl who slipped and was plunging head-first over the edge.
In 1909, President Taft protected Zion Canyon as Mukuntuweap National Monument. In 1918, the National Park Service changed the park name to Zion. According to historian Hal Rothman, “The name change played to a prevalent bias of the time. Many believed that Spanish and Indian names would deter visitors who, if they could not pronounce the name of a place, might not bother to visit it. The new name, Zion, had greater appeal to an ethnocentric audience.” Congress designated the area as a national park in 1919. Then in 2009, President Obama further protected 125,000 acres within Zion National Park as wilderness.
In the 1990s, traffic congestion became a serious problem in Zion Canyon, with over 5,000 vehicles on busy summer days competing for less than 500 parking spaces. The result was traffic jams, plenty of noise and thick clouds of pollution. In 2000, the park service introduced a public transportation system using propane-powered shuttle buses and closed Zion Canyon to private vehicle traffic from early April through late October. The photo above shows Theresa sitting on the top of Angel’s Landing with a spectacular view down Zion Canyon.
Here is the view off the back of Angel’s Landing. You can see the road and Virgin River in the valley below.
There are nearly 3 million visitors each year to Zion National Park. Many visitors stop by the Zion Lodge, which is nestled below the steep canyon cliffs and has a large green rotunda with a massive cottonwood tree in the middle.
The Virgin River drops 50 to 80 feet per mile, which is one of the steepest stream gradients in North America. In April 1995, heavy rains triggered a landslide that blocked the Virgin River in Zion Canyon. As a result, the river diverted and washed away the canyon’s only road exit, stranding 450 visitors and employees in the Zion Lodge.
Bighorn sheep were native to the Zion area and were plentiful until the 1950s when they disappeared. In 1973, a dozen bighorn sheep were reintroduced in Zion from Lake Mead. They were initially held in pens to acclimate them to their surroundings, and when their numbers grew to 20, they were released, only to vanish again. Then in the mid-1990s, the elk mysteriously appeared again, reaching a population within the park of 115 by 2009. So naturally the Utah Wildlife Board sanctioned a bighorn hunt in 2010, though hunting is prohibited within park boundaries. The top photo above shows three of a group of six bighorn sheep we saw on the edge of a cliff along the Canyon Overlook Trail. And in the bottom photo, can you spot the bighorn sheep just above the infamous Zion Tunnel?
We camped in the Watchman Campground below “The Watchman,” one of the most photographed icons in Zion National Park. The giant sandstone spire glows like fire at sunset.
Click on the photo above for a large panorama of Zion Canyon as seen from Angel’s Landing.