As a recreational heaven with a dramatic desert backdrop, Zion National Park is one of the most popular tourist destinations in America. About three million visitors come from all over the world - and for good reason. They come to see a breathtaking showcase of red and pink hues, hoodoos, and to hike in narrow canyons. Whether you want a place for adventure or relaxation, Zion National Park is the destination for you.
Founded in 1909 as Mukuntuweap National Monument, it was renamed Zion National Park in 1918. It covers 229 square miles with a valley floor at about 4,000 feet and a high point of about 8,700 feet. Zion Canyon, one of the major areas of the park, is a six and a half mile section of the Virgin River's North Fork that has up to a quarter mile width.
You will find that Zion National Park is one of the greatest examples of nature's artistry as it transformed the area from sand dunes to its current magnificent state over millions of years. For example, there are many natural bridges and arches here. In fact, Zion National Park is home to the longest freestanding arch, Kolob Arch with a span of 310 feet, in the world. Arches reflect the natural history of the park; they are formed when wind carves out sections of rock. Since the Virgin River and other streams flowing from the Colorado Plateau sculpted this area, there are many rock formations that stand as a testament to water's erosive power on sandstone. In contrast, bridges are formed by water, and there are also many of these throughout this region. Checkerboard Mesa further represents nature's power as horizontal lines forming a checkerboard are evidence of how rain and melting snow etched this sandstone mesa in Zion National Park. The geologist in you will also appreciate the different types of sandstone exposed on the mountains and cliffs - Navajo sandstone is one of the most discussed types.
Varied plant life enhances this geologic grandeur of Zion National Park as trees and shrubs provide green for the landscape and many species of wildflowers, like the Shooting Star and Indian Paintbrush, add many colors. Wildflowers flourish in grottos near the Virgin River and in the many hanging gardens around the many smaller waterfalls like that between Lower and Middle Emerald Ponds. Further away from water, plants such as the prickly pear thrive as they are more apt at living with less water. Clearly Zion National Park's flora accents the beauty of this area.
Wildlife watchers will enjoy Zion National Park's great variety of fauna. One of the most magnificent mammals of the area is the cougar, which is unfortunately rarely seen. However, the cougar is the predator of the mule deer and helps keep the population in check. The wildlife enthusiasts will enjoy seeing other animals like the gray fox, ringtail cat, cottontail rabbit, and beavers. There are also over 250 bird species in Zion National Park including: the American Dipper and American Kestrel. Reptiles like the Western Whiptales and Desert Horned Lizards and amphibians like the Red Spotted Toad and Canyon Tree Frog also live in the park. With all this geological diversity, flora, and fauna in Zion National Park, nature must have made this area beautiful just for you.
One of the best times to visit Zion National Park is when it is raining in the area because the cliffs of the canyons spout spontaneous waterfalls. The Virgin River erodes faster than its tributaries and other streams, and this is why so many streams flow into waterfalls when there is rainfall in the area. However, at the same time there are flash floods in the narrows and slot canyons, and many hikers have been killed in the past when they were caught in these sudden flash floods. While rain brings beauty to the canyon, caution in narrow and slot canyons is needed as flash floods are common under such conditions.
Interestingly, "Zion" is an archaic Hebrew word that means a place of sanctuary, and the park has a spiritual heritage. For instance, Paiute Indians believed that spirits lived here. Later a Mormon pioneer named the main canyon "Zion" because its scenery inspires reverence, and in this tradition some of the landmarks are named: Angels Landing, Great White Throne, Altar of Sacrifice, West Temple, and the Three Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). Irrespective of your spirituality, you will find peace in Zion National Park.
You can have fun while enjoying the wondrous scenery of Zion National Park. We recommend hiking the Narrows - skinny canyons that have creek beds. The Narrows provide access to many slot canyons that all will want to see, especially photographers and canyoneers. You will want good, sturdy footwear, and several companies in Springdale sell and rent such equipment. Please note that these narrow canyons are dangerous when it rains nearby or miles away because of the threat of flash floods.
To see the landmarks, waterfalls, and ponds of Zion National Park, you will use more traditional paths of varying lengths and levels of difficulty. Free guided and interpretive tours are available. Below are brief descriptions of the main trails.
The trail to Angels Landing is perhaps the most strenuous in the Zion National Park and starts at the Grotto Picnic Area. Despite its difficulty, the view of Zion Canyon from the landing is well worth the five mile trek. From the landing you will see a panoramic view of the canyon including the beautiful red mountains the meandering Virgin River. The half-mile stretch before the trail arrives at the landing has a narrow ridge that is surrounded by steep 1,500 foot drop-offs. Thus, this trail is not recommended for those who have a fear of heights.
The trail to Lower Emerald Pool is much easier and paved for handicap accessibility that starts across Zion Canyon Scenic Drive from the Zion Canyon Lodge. With a length of 1.2 miles, it is great for the entire family, especially since there is a plenty of shade along the path. The trail ends at a beautiful pool that is fed by a waterfall accented my hanging gardens. You can continue on towards Middle Emerald Pool that cascades over the waterfall into the Lower Emerald Pool on an unpaved path. If you still want to continue on, you can reach the Upper Emerald Pool on an uphill and sometimes rocky path. The upper pool is at the foot of a cliff and is surrounded by trees that provide shade as you stay in the beautiful part of Zion National Park. Please note that entering the water to swim or wade is prohibited.
From Weeping Rock you can hike to Observation Point to enjoy a spectacular view of Zion Canyon and the rest of Zion National Park as you rise about 2,100 feet. This eight mile trek on a paved trail that follows the East Rim Path takes you out of Echo Canyon to Observation Point. The view from this point is absolutely stunning and is well worth your exertion on the trail. This path connects with trails going to Hidden Canyon, Cable Mountain, Deertrap Mountain, and the East Mesa Trail.
Starting at Horse Pasture Plateau, the West Rim Trail is a 14.4 miles long trail that usually takes two days to complete. On the trail you will loss over 3,000 feet of elevation. Along the path you will see peaceful ponds and dramatic views of Phantom Valley, Heaps Canyon, and other areas of Zion National Park. Perhaps a highlight of the hike is a view of Great White Throne - one of Zion's preeminent landmarks that rises more than 3,400 feet above the canyon floor. Towards the end of the hike, hikers will encounter 21 switchbacks between Scout Lookout and Refrigerator Canyon that are known as Walter's Wiggles. If you choose to camp during your hike, Potato Hollow and Cabin Spring are the spots to stay. Please note that open fires are not allowed.
If you are not in the mood to explore by foot, biking and horseback riding are great ways to visit Zion National Park. You can even tube down the Virgin River from mid-May to mid-September. You can also enjoy wildlife watching and photography year round here. During the winter you can also cross country ski in some areas. Springdale businesses also cater to these activities. If you do not want to leave the park, you can camp in two campgrounds, South and Watchman Campgrounds, that have tent, trailer, and RV sites with flush toilets. Backcountry camping is also allowed with a permit. You'll find that Zion National Park is too beautiful to just sit and stare; action is required.
An interesting feature of Zion National Park is its free shuttle system that operates April through late October. Historically, cars have packed the road up the canyon from Springdale, and in response the park requires that all visitors use the shuttles during these months, unless they choose to bike up the road. The only private vehicles allowed on this scenic road are visitors who are staying at the park lodge. During the winter and spring when the shuttles do not operate, private vehicles are allowed. Shuttles stop at several hotels, restaurants, and shops in Springdale and at all the main trailheads in the canyon. You will find that their high frequency will not impede your desire to explore.
At the beginning or ending of your trek into Zion National Park, you can watch "Zion Canyon: Treasure of the Gods," a movie about the park that is screened on Utah's largest movie screen at Zion Canyon Giant Screen Theatre. This theater is at the mouth of the canyon in Springdale. The park shuttles also stop here.
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