Zion National Park

Zion National Park is full of rich history, beautiful geological features, diverse wildlife and plant life, and many different activities for visitors to participate in. Here are some of the most interesting facts about Zion National Park!

Things To Do

Zion National Park has activities for everyone.

Whether you like to see beautiful views from the comfort of your car, from the back of a horse, or whether you are an experienced, adventurous outdoorsman, Zion has an opportunity for you to experience the natural splendor to the fullest. Here are just a few of the wide variety of activities that Zion National Park offers.

Zion-Mount Carmel Highway

The Zion-Mount Carmel Highway is a beautiful, ten mile road that offers incredible views of the park’s natural splendor. This stretch of road allows you to see the highlights of the park from the comfort of your own car, and also has multiple overlooks. It also opens into different hiking trails, for those who want to experience some of these views on foot.

The highway stretches from the Zion entrance to Mt. Carmel. The most incredible views come from the rock formations of the park, which can be seen in unparalleled beauty during the drive. You can see sights like Checkerboard Mesa, a Navajo sandstone mountain that has been eroded and changed by wind and rain over the years.

There are two distinctive tunnels carved into the mountains during the road. These tunnels were built when cars were, on average, much smaller, so these tunnels do not accommodate mobile homes and cars of larger sizes. For larger vehicles, an escort is required. There are no pull out or stopping points within the tunnels, but they have “windows” carved into them, so you are never separated for long from the beautiful scenery you came to see.

Angels Landing Trail

Angel’s Landing is one of Zion’s most famous and incredible hikes, and is an unforgettable experience. The hike is 5.4 miles long, and is rated as strenuous in difficulty. The round trip takes, on average, four hours to complete. The hike is open year round, but the best time to go is in the spring and summer, as the rain and snow of the fall and winter seasons can make for dangerous conditions.

During this hike, you ascend 1500 feet in elevation. You begin on the West Rim Trail, then make your way through Refrigerator canyon. The next sight on the hike is Walter’s Wiggles, a steep and winding section of the trail. This leads you to Scout Lookout, which offers the first spectacular scenic view.

The rest of the hike is a steep climb up the spine of Angel’s Landing. Near the top, the trail narrows to only a few feet wide. When the trail is crowded, this can make for a difficult experience. After this, you reach the top of the landing, where you can experience a magnificent view that is unparalleled by any other in the park. If you are up for a strenuous climb, this trail is definitely worth the difficulty level. Seasoned hikers recommend going early, as the trail can get crowded later in the day.

This trail is one of the deadliest hiking trails in the world. The park administration has made safety precautions to help ensure the safety of park visitors, but the steep slopes can prove dangerous, if you are not careful. It is very important to exercise proper safety precautions when hiking this trail.

Weeping Rock Trail

Weeping Rock is a famous landmark of Zion Park. It is a large, bowl shaped sandstone alcove. Water runs down the side, earning the landmark its name. This alcove is also home to one of Zion’s famous hanging gardens. During heavy rainfall, a strong waterfall often forms on Weeping Rock from the rainfall runoff.

This hike is one of the family friendly ones in the park. It is a short 10 minute, paved walk from the Weeping Rock Trailhead to the landmark itself. This trail is ideal for individuals who want a beautiful sight with little effort, or for someone looking for an easy start to a more difficult hike, as the weeping Rock Trailhead is the starting point for other, more difficult hikes, including Hidden Canyon and East Rim Trail.

Human History Museum

The Human History Museum at Zion shows the history of human settlement in the park. This history ranges from the first inhabitants, the Native Americans, to the establishment of Zion as a national park. There is also a heavy focus on water in this museum, as water is what has driven human history and settlement in the park.

The museum has both temporary and permanent exhibits. Park rangers are available on site to answer visitor’s questions, and videos detailing the park’s history are available every half hour. This museum is ideal for anyone who wants to become more educated on the history of the park, or has interest in different cultures.

Canyon Trail Ride

Zion National Park also offers an incredible and unique experience and way of seeing the park. Horseback riding excursions are offered to take you on a unique tour of the park. They offer horseback riding excursions for every level of rider. These range from a relaxing hour long ride, taking visitors along the Virgin River to reach the Court of the Patriarchs. There is also a three hour option that takes you along the Sandbench Trail, with a more intense elevation increase that allows for spectacular views of the southern end of the canyon. These rides are offered from March-October, and require booking in advance. For visitors looking for a unique adventure in the park, these riding excursions are highly recommended. 

Rock Climbing

Zion National Park is renowned for its rock climbing opportunities. The sandstone cliffs of the canyon stretch 2,000 feet, providing countless options for climbers. Most of the climbs are recommended for experienced climbers due to the difficulty levels. Climbing is recommended from March- May and September-October. While the temperatures can be extremely hot, it is recommended to avoid climbing when rain is present, as sandstone is prone to weakness during rain, and can take days to be safe for climbing again.

Besides the adventure that rock climbing offers, climbers have an opportunity to do some good during their climbs! Bats make their homes on the cliffs where the climbs occur. The park is currently tracking the whereabouts of bats, as they are threatened by an invasive fungus. If you spot a bat’s roosting spot during your climb, report it to a park official! They will find the bat and test for the fungus, collecting important data to help the bats of Zion.

The Subway

Hearing that there is a subway in Zion National Park may spark some confusion, but this incredible site is entirely natural. The subway is a small, very uniquely shaped canyon deep in the heart of Zion. The formation resembles a subway that you might find in the city. There are two ways that you can experience the subway. To participate in either, you will need to obtain a permit from park administration.

The first is from the bottom up. This is a nine mile, strenuous hike that takes visitors through the Left Fork of North Creek all the way to the subway. This is an off trail route, and takes people anywhere from 6-10 hours to complete.

The second way is from the top down. This is a 9.5 mile round trip hike that requires grappling, rope, route finding experience, and swimming. Neither of these routes are for the faint of heart, but the subway should be on the list for any extreme outdoorsman visiting Zion.

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best things to do in Zion National Park

Wild Life

Zion National Park spans a wide range of land and altitude, which results in different biomes, habitats, and microclimates.

With so many varying heights and resultant microclimates and habitats, it is no surprise that Zion is able to support over 78 species of mammals, 291 species of birds, 37 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 8 species of fish. Here are some of the most notable species that Zion is proud to host.

Mojave desert tortoises

Zion is home to one of the most elusive species in the desert- the Mojave desert tortoise. Tortoises have been inhabitants of the desert for millions of years. As recently as the 1900’s, desert tortoises were commonly spotted by visitors to the desert, but in recent years, sightings have become less and less frequent.

Desert tortoises have large shells and thick legs that have been said to resemble an elephant’s legs. They can retract their heads fully into their shells. They can grow up to 15 inches long. Their shells usually have either a grey, brown, or black coloration on top, with lighter coloration on the bottom. They have clawed feet which aid in digging burrows. There are small differences between males and females, but it is difficult to tell the difference within the first 20 years of their life, or until they reach reproductive age.

They can live up to 50 years in the wild, and have been known to live even longer in captivity. They are herbivores, subsisting mainly on wildflowers, cacti, and desert grasses. Their bodies are able to effectively store water, making them ideal for life in the desert. They can live in a variety of habitats, from sandy areas to rocky areas. In the Mojave desert, these individuals occur both east and west of the Colorado River. They spend up to 95% of their lives underground, which is one of the reasons why they are so elusive.

Mexican spotted owl

The Mexican spotted owl is one of the largest in North America. They can grow up to 48 cm tall, and have a wingspan of up to 45 inches. Female owls are both larger and heavier than males- 100 grams heavier on average! Males and females are otherwise similar in appearance. They have a brown coloration with lighter spots, as the name suggests. They have dark eyes, and white bands on their tails.

The Mexican spotted owl occurs from the Southern Rocky Mountains all the way to the Oriental Mountains. They can live in a wide variety of habitats, although they have a strong preference for forests. Some of the most common habitats are mixed-conifer forests, madrean pine-oak forests, and rocky canyons, which are mostly used in the northern part of their range.

These birds are typically solitary outside of mating season. However, they are monogamous, and form long-term bonds with mating partners. They live up to 15 years. Some of them are migratory, but are typically very loyal to their home ranges. They roost during the day and hunt at night. They generally feed on small mammals, including mice and voles, but have been known to hunt other birds and reptiles.

The Mexican spotted owl is a threatened species in both the U.S. and Mexico. The biggest threats to this species are the loss and fragmentation of their habitat from development and mining.

Southwestern willow flycatcher

The southwestern willow flycatcher is a small perching bird. They measure less than 15 centimeters in length. They have a brown to greenish-grey coloration, a whit throat, with a pale yellow belly. Males and females have the same coloration, and are not differentiated in that way.

These small birds make their homes in riparian habitats, mostly in the American southwest. They require wet conditions in order to breed, which is why they require riparian habitats in order to build their nests. They are migratory birds, with winter ranges in Mexico and South America.

The flycatcher spends 3-4 months out of the year with their mate, and defends a small breeding territory during these months. Flycatchers move their breeding grounds often, due to flooding in their preferred riparian habitats.

Like many birds, the flycatcher feeds mainly on insects. They forage during the day, and eat insects from flying ants to dragonflies.

The southwestern willow flycatcher is federally endangered. Their range has remained similar throughout the years, but their population numbers have declined drastically. This is mainly due to loss of their riparian habitats.

Mule Deer

The mule deer is one of the most common animal sightings in Zion National Park. They are similar in appearance to a white-tailed deer, with some noticeable differences. They have black-tipped tails, are larger in size, and have forked antlers.  Bucks begin to grow their antlers in the spring, and shed them in the winter. They can grow to a height of 42 inches at the shoulder, and 6.9 feet long. Males can weigh up to 331 lbs., while females can weigh up to 198 lbs.

Mule deer are herbivorous, eating shrubs, trees, and grasses as their primary diet. They are able to adapt to eating new kinds of plants very readily, making them able to exist near the human population. Their main predators are humans, coyotes, wolves, and cougars, with bears and bobcats often feeding on them opportunistically.

Mule deer are found in the Western Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the southwest United States, and the west coast of North America.

Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn sheep are named for the large, curved horns that rams grow. Ewes also have horns, but they are smaller. The bighorn sheep’s coloration ranges from light brown to dark brown. Males weigh up to 315 lbs., while females weigh up to 201 lbs. They can be up to 41 inches tall and 73 inches long.

There are two climates that bighorn sheep occupy- colder, mountainous regions, and desert regions. Their main predators are bread and wolves, and most importantly, mountain lions. The species is very sensitive to human influence, and the presence of the bighorn sheep is often used as an indicator of land health. 

Bighorn sheep live in large herds, and do not follow a single leader. When mating season comes around, males attempt to establish a dominance hierarchy.

Ringtail Cat

One of the most interesting and elusive creatures in Zion National Park is the ringtail cats. They are related to raccoons, and weigh approximately 2 lbs. Their most identifiable features is their long, fluffy tail, which has approximately 14-16 stripes. They have a catlike body, with small retractable claws and extreme agility.

Ringtails are mainly solitary, and do not often interact with other members of their species outside of the mating seasons. They are mainly nocturnal, and are very elusive, staying away from other life forms. They have been known to break into human residences in search of food.

The ringtail cat is mainly found in the southwestern United States and Mexico. They prefer rocky desert habitats, and tend to flock around water. They are agile climbers and are very light on their feet. The ringtail is omnivorous, but primarily subsists on small vertebrates, including birds, rats, frogs, and lizards. They also eat berries and insects.

Ringtails have been known to be kept as pets! They are supposedly easily tamed, and miners used to keep them as pets to keep their homes vermin free.

Zion National Park wildlife

Plant Life

The varying altitudes present in Zion National Park allows for a diverse range of plant communities.

The altitude in the park can  range from approximately 3,700 feet to 8,700 feet Zion National Park supports over 1,000 different species of plants. The range of altitude, temperature, sun, and precipitation levels throughout the bounds of the park creates many different, diverse habitats, able to meet the needs of many different plants. Here are some of the most unique or likely to be spotted species of plants in the park.

Cottonwood Trees

Cottonwood trees are large North American hardwood trees, which can grow up to 195 feet tall and 9 feet in diameter. They have silvery-white bark when young, which turns dark grey as they age. The cottonwood is one of the fastest growing trees in North America, growing up to 15 feet a year in the right conditions.

They mainly grow in the Midwestern U.S.. It grows in bare soil and full sun. It prefers to grow near rivers, usually targeting mud banks that are left behind after floods. They usually live between 70 and 100 years, but have potential to live up to 400 years old in the right conditions.

Hanging gardens

One famous plant formation in Zion National  Park are the hanging gardens. They are located in shady cliff recesses, and are lush due to the springs that they grow close to. They contain ferns, orchids, monkeyflowers, primroses, and wetland plants. They are unique because of the location- the plants that grow in these gardens are not typically associated with a desert climate. One of the most famous and easily accessible hanging gardens in the park is located at Weeping Rock.

Pinyon-juniper

Zion National Park is also recognized for its pinyon-juniper forests. These plant communities are associated with desert climates, and require 12 inches of precipitation annually. Pinyon trees cannot survive in the desert, and pinyon-juniper forests are classified as their own biome.

These forests span from New Mexico, to the eastern Sierra Nevada, to the mountain ranges of the Mojave Desert. Pinyons have a slow growth pattern, and can take almost a century to reach their full height. They are not adapted to fires, and forest fires are a risk to this biome.

Ponderosa

Ponderosas are large coniferous trees, identified by their unique bark structure. The bark grows in “plates” that are often referred to as puzzle pieces, giving the tree a unique appearance. The scent of the ponderosa is a debate topic, and could vary depending on different factors. Some say that the bark smells like turpentine, while others catch hints of vanilla, or no distinguishable scent at all. The tallest ponderosa on record is over 80 meters tall. The ponderosa pine is the official tree of the state of Montana.

Cacti

As a desert climate, Zion National Park is home to a number of different cacti species. A few of the notable cactus species in the park are the claret cup, prickly pear, and cholla. The claret cup cactus is a species of hedgehog cactus. They form clusters of round individuals, with spikes and red flowers. The prickly pear cactus is identifiable by their flat, round bodies and red crowns. The cholla cactus is also known as the jumping cholla. It grows in a tree form, with small stems that detach easily when they are touched, giving the impression of “jumping” off of the branches.

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Zion National Park plant life

Park History

Zion National Park has a rich history, spanning back thousands of years to the first human interaction with the area that would eventually become the national park.

From the first Native American pueblos to the Mormon settlements, to the long road of establishing Zion as a national park, the history of Zion has many different facets. Here are some of the most influential moments and people in the history of Zion National Park.

Archaic Period:

Humans began inhabiting the Zion National Park area approximately 8,000 years ago. Small family groups of Native Americans would camp in the area, where there was good hunting and plant collection. They began farming the area approximately 2,000 years ago. The primary crop was corn, along with a few other crops. This allowed for a sedentary lifestyle, rather than a semi-nomadic one, which was the lifestyle of the Native Americans in the area up until then. Later in this period, they began building permanent villages, known as pueblos.

Settlement:

The Zion National Park area was first discovered by Europeans on October 13th, 1776. Padres Silvestre Velez de Escalente and Fransisco Atanasio Dominguez were the first Europeans to visit the area, passing by the area that would later become the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center.

Coming from Salt Lake, Mormons settled in the area in the early 1860s. They were drawn to the Kolob Canyons, where they harvested timber, and grazed cattle, sheep, and horses. The area was also rich in mineral deposits, which they prospected. They diverted the Kolob water to irrigate crops. The name Kolob came from the Mormons. In their scripture, the word means “the heavenly place nearest the residence of God”.

Early protections:

In 1909, the area was named Mukuntuweap National Monument by President William Howard Taft. This was done in an effort to protect the canyon. This protection came about after Frederick S. Dellenbaugh exhibited his paintings of the canyon at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. In 1905, a favorable article was written in Scribner’s Magazine about the paintings. This, along with other photographs, paintings, and reports, encouraged President Taft to create the national monument on July 31, 1909.

Park Creation:

After the National Park Service was created, Horace Albright was serving as the acting director of the department. In 1918, he drafted a proposal to create Zion National Monument, which expanded the existing monument and changed the name. The name Zion was also influenced by Mormon scripture, paying homage to the settlers. The United States Congress established Zion National Park on November 19th, 1919, and added more land to the park. The Kolob Canyons were made into their own monument, Zion National Monument, on January 22, 1937, and were eventually incorporated into Zion National Park on July 11, 1956.

Zion National Park History

Formation Of The Park

The geological formation of Zion National Park consists of uplift, tilt, and erosion.

Rock layers went through these processes to form the Grand Staircases, a feature of colorful cliffs between Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon. The bottom layer of rock at Bryce Canyon makes up the top layer of Rock at Zion, and the bottom layer of Zion creates the top layer at the Grand Canyon. Here are some of the most crucial processes that went into creating the park.

Sedimentation

Zion began as a flat basin located near sea level, approximately 240 million years ago. Sands, gravels, and muds eroded, coming down from surrounding mountains, carried by streams into the basin. They were deposited in layers, which weighed so much that they caused the basin to sink. The top surface of the basin always remained near sea level because of this sinking. The surrounding land underwent a great deal of change, as did the climate. The basin and its deposits changed as well, from shallow seas to coastal plains, to  a massive desert.

Lithification

The area also underwent the process of lithification. This process occurred when water containing minerals filtered through the compacted sediments of the basin. Some acted as cementing agents, which were iron oxide, calcium carbonate, and silica. The overlying layers exerted pressure over long periods of time, and compacted the deposits in the basin into stone.

Uplift

The process of uplift was also active in this area. From Zion to the Rocky Mountains, the surface started to rise due to pressures from deep within the earth. This was a very slow process, a slow vertical hoisting of large sections of the earth’s crust. This uplift raised the elevation of the basin, from near sea level to 10,000 feet above sea level. The area is still rising, as uplift still occurs to this day.

Erosion

The uplift of the area caused the next factor to occur. The uplift and increase in elevation gave the running water of the area greater cutting force as they made their way to the ocean. Zion’s location caused the water from the streams to cascade off of the plateau. This caused them to flow very quickly down a very steep slope. The speed of the streams caused them to carry more sediment and larger boulders. This sped up the process of erosion, and the streams cut into the rock layers, forming very deep and narrow canyons that give Zion it’s signature look. The Virgin River in the park is still excavating and eroding, forming new formations as it goes.

Volcanoes

Zion lies in a transition zone that is part of a volcanic arc. This arc goes from Delta, Utah, through Cedar Breaks, St. George, Zion National Park, Parashant National Monument, Flagstaff, Arizona, and finally up into Capulin Volcano National Monument and southern Colorado. Zion is host to the oldest volcano in the park, the Kolob Volcano. This volcano is located near Lava Point, and is the oldest point in the park. It is 1.1 million years old.

The most recent eruption in the arc is known as Crater Hill. It erupted below the West Temple, which is located along the Virgin River. This eruption occurred about 120,000 years ago.

The next volcanic eruption in or near the park is unknown. It could happen at any time, soon or tens of thousands of years from now.

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Formation of Zion National Park
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