The name Zion is interpreted by the Mormons as a place of safety or refuge. If this is true, then Zion National Park is aptly named. The park’s 229 square miles are a dramatic landscape of sculptured canyons and soaring cliffs, located at the junction of the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin, and Mojave Desert provinces. Only 150 miles from a very different kind of place — Las Vegas — Zion offers plenty of things to do for nature enthusiasts, including hiking trails that range from short jaunts to strenuous adventures.
Entrance fees: $20/vehicle for 7 days or $10/individual for 7 days
Visitor centers: Kolob Canyons and Zion Canyon visitor centers are open daily, except December 25.
Other services: Museum, lodge, and three campgrounds
Elongated shadows cross the floor of Zion Canyon in the early morning, while sunlight bathes the tops of massive sandstone towers. Mormon settlers gave these natural wonders biblical names, such as the Altar of Sacrifice, the Court of the Patriarchs, and Angels Landing. But even without these appropriately reverential names, the great figures, hulking 2,000 feet above the canyon floor, command our respect and awe. This narrow, curving gorge seems to cut through time itself.
Zion is a canyon of spectacular and enormous scale. Its perpendicular cliffs are nearly 3,000 feet high. Its great rock figures are imposing and monolithic, as are the monumental buttresses, deep hanging canyons, rock landings, and alcoves that have been gouged out of the cliff faces.
In contrast to this grandeur, the upper end of Zion Canyon, just a few miles away, is so narrow that two people standing side by side can touch both of the canyon’s rock walls. The canyon is so deep that the sun penetrates to its floor for only minutes each day.
Unlike other canyon parks — including Canyonlands, Bryce, and the Grand Canyon, where many visitors view the canyons from their rims — Zion draws visitors to its floor. From that vantage point, they look up at the stupendous perpendicular topography. Walking along the Virgin River, which created this scenic spectacle, park visitors gain a unique perspective on nature.
As they contemplate the great rock figures towering above them from the serenity of groves of Fremont cottonwood, willow, and box elder trees, which line the canyon floor, visitors feel the unusual serenity of this unique place. Here, only muted sounds interrupt the special reverence the canyon inspires: the song of a quail, water trickling down a side valley, or the wind blowing through the leaves.
A favorite for professional photographers, Zion National Park is a visual dream come true. The sheer canyon walls of time-scarred white limestone, red sandstone, and slickrock are adorned with plunging waterfalls, hanging gardens of golden columbine and green fern, and peaceful cottonwood groves, where the wild grass is allowed to grow very deep. There are tons of things to see, and you don’t want to miss the best. Here are the top six, can’t miss sites at Zion:
Much of the park consists of a forested plateau deeply incised with the tributaries of ancient watercourses, such as the North and East Forks of the Virgin River. Desert and semidesert vegetation prevails at lower elevations, with big-leafed sage, prickly pear cactus flats, and tangled patches of Gambel oak, Utah and Rocky Mountain juniper, and two-needled pinyon. Elsewhere, the park is thickly forested with fir, spruce, and aspen.
Hikers are bound to enjoy the selection of trails in Zion. Well-named Angels Landing is a rock pinnacle that rises 1,500 feet above the valley floor of the canyon. Visitors reach its airy and dangerous summit by following the West Rim Trail, one of the most beautiful trails in the western United States. The trail leads through a series of long switchbacks up the canyon wall to Refrigerator Canyon. Many people take a break in a glen of pine and maple before negotiating a series of steep switchbacks, called Walters Wiggles.
A narrow ridge leads to the summit of Angels Landing. The rock drops straight down on either side for more than 1,000 feet, but there are chains strung along the path and footholds cut into the rock to make the trail as safe as possible. The vista from the summit is well worth the effort. It is one of the grandest sights anywhere: a 360-degree view of Zion Canyon.
A huge rock monolith, called the Great White Throne, seems to be within a stone’s throw in one direction, and there is a startling view of what now appears to be a tiny Virgin River meandering through minuscule trees far below.
The must-take camera shots in one of America’s greatest national parks are truly endless. Here are the top four photo ops you can’t go home without a shot of:
This great canyon in the desert has drawn human visitors since ancient times. Archaeological remnants indicate that people lived in Zion Canyon as early as A.D. 500. They were probably wandering groups of weavers who hunted small game and gathered food in the area.
Later, the Anasazi settled more permanently in the southern end of the canyon, where they built pueblos and irrigation systems to water their crops of corn and beans. The Anasazi disappeared from the area abruptly during the 13th century.
Zion Canyon was sculptured over the course of a million years by the flowing waters of the Virgin River sifting down through layer after layer of the red and white Navajo sandstone that forms the canyon’s sheer walls.
The layers of sedimentary sandstone and limestone had been a desert 15 million years ago. Gradually, these layers were pushed upwards to form the 800-square-mile Markagunt Plateau. Then the Virgin River went to work carving out the monumental canyon. Drawn relentlessly by gravity, it slices its way through the rock down to the desert floor below.
Zion Canyon provides natural sights that have awed people for centuries. Plan a trip there and find out what all the fuss is about.