Great Lodges of the National Parks
Canyon Lodges: Zion Park
Indigenous people knew and used the Canyon for thousands of years before trappers and traders blazed the Old Spanish Trail beside the Virgin River. By virtue of its inaccessibility, the area remained free of settlers until 1862. Then the Mormons came to plant cotton. The crop had been so successful on nearby farms that the territory was known as "Utah's Dixie." The Mormons established the town of Springdale at the mouth of the Canyon.
In 1872, John W. Powell led a survey party into the Canyon. He decided to name the gorge Mukuntuweap, a Paiute word meaning straight river. But the Mormons preferred Zion, the Hebrew word for refuge.
The Mormons were still struggling to grow cotton in the Canyon when Utah became a state in 1896. A few years later, the settlers readily agreed to open the Canyon to tourism, in hopes of improving the local economy.
Zion National Park encompasses 229 square miles in southwestern Utah. It stands on a high portion of the Colorado Plateau, with the Pine Valley Mountains to the west, and the Kolob Terrace to the northeast.
The East and North Forks of the Virgin River run through the Park. Mile for mile, the Virgin is the steepest river in North America. The amazing geological formations of multiple canyons are the main attraction in the Park. Many of the narrow gorges have near-vertical walls. The rise in Park elevation, from lowest to highest points, exceeds 4,800 feet.
There are three distinct climate zones in the Canyon: high desert, transitional, and montane. As a result, the Park contains a wide variety of vegetation, from plants that thrive in hot, dry weather, to trees that prefer lots of moisture and cold winters.
People & Protection
Zion National Park contains almost 800 species of native plants, making this the most diverse area for plant life in Utah. The variety of microclimates allows many different types of flora to thrive. Park Rangers actively work to protect and restore plant ecosystems, partly for the benefit of animals that depend on the various types of vegetation.
The Park provides a home for 75 species of mammals, 271 kinds of birds, 32 reptiles and amphibians, and 8 fish species. Mule deer, rock squirrels and lizards are among the animals commonly seen by visitors.
There are also rare and endangered species in the Park, including the peregrine falcon, Mexican spotted owl, and southwest willow flycatcher. It's also the only place on earth where the Zion snail exists. This tiny little creature has developed an unusually large foot to help it traverse the canyon walls.
In the early years, touring cars collected passengers at the railway depot. Then the visitor-filled limousines would caravan through the Park, stopping en route to admire various scenes. The impact of vehicle traffic was minimal.
Road access to Zion was improved in 1930, when the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway was completed. The route includes a truly impressive feat of engineering – a mile-long tunnel that took hours off the driving times to Bryce and Grand Canyon National Parks. The highway encouraged travel by car, and the number of visitors to Zion jumped from less than 4,000 people in 1920, to more than 55,000 in 1930.
By 1997, the Park was getting 2.4 million visitors a year, resulting in major traffic problems. In 2000, a free shuttle system was introduced to help reduce congestion, and provide visitors with a more peaceful Park experience.