Every area that receives the title of a national park contains ecosystems that must be protected from human influence. Many of those national parks are worth the visit as they include things you won’t find anywhere else. Zion National Park is a proof that nature needs to be protected as well as the fact that such protection can bring tourists that are interested in it.

According to Ron Terry, chief of interpretation and visitor services at Zion National Park, approximately 2.5 million people visit Zion National Park each season. Twenty to twenty-five percent of those people are international visitors.

Zion is unique in its close proximity to two other national parks, located between Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon in a series of stair-stepped plateaus known as the Grand Staircase. Zion is an ancient Hebrew word used to describe a dry, rocky place of holy sanctuary in ancient Israel.

The history of the area

Zion National ParkThere is evidence dating back 9,000 years of Indian groups who once inhabited the area which is now Zion National Park. Petroglyphs, which were chiseled into the rock, still remain. The first known people to inhabit the area of Zion were referred to as the Basket Makers. At some point, their lifestyle became more stationary. Around that time, the Anasazi, or the Ancestral Puebloans, appeared. They grew corn, squash, and beans along the banks of the Virgin River. The Anasazi inexplicably left the area around 1200 AD.

Inhabiting the area at the same time as the Anasazi was another cultural group called the Fremont Culture. They also left the area around 1200 AD.
The first recorded visit by people of European descent to southwestern Utah was in 1776. The Dominguez-Escalante expedition came within 20 miles of Zion Canyon. Later, after founding Salt Lake City in 1847, Mormon scouts were looking to establish a settlement corridor to California. Mormon scout Nephi Johnson entered Zion Canyon in 1858 and is considered the first non-Indian to do so.

President William Howard Taft set aside the canyon area as Mukuntuweap National Monument. Munkuntuweap was interpreted as a Paiute word meaning “straight canyon.”  In 1918, the locally unpopular name was changed to Zion, and in 1919, the area was made into a national park.

Terry, who has worked in several national parks said, “Each one of the national parks areas, whether it’s a national park, national monument or national seashore, are all parts of the national park system. In order to be designated a unit of the national parks system, there has to be some kind of significance to that place that makes it special, something that needs to be protected and preserved for posterity. There are really two groups of people that work for the National Park Service. There are those that get attached to a particular park and stay there for their entire career. Then there are others like myself who want to experience as much as they can. Zion, in terms of visuals, is certainly the most spectacular of the parks that I have worked in.”

Attracting tourists to a national park

In the early days of the national parks, there was an attempt to get people to visit the parks to see the natural wonders. “The National Park Service in the early years formed an alliance with the railroad,” Terry said. “Railroads would build lines to bring people into the park or at least nearby. In the case of Zion, in 1923, a spur line of the Union Pacific Railroad was completed to Cedar City. They would bring them in by train and bus them or coach them into the park. When they brought them into the park, there was a need for lodging.”

Engineers had to devise a way to connect the wild and remote areas between Zion, Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon. They looked at two or three different ways to construct a road out of Zion Canyon. According to Terry, the project started in 1927, and involved the construction of a 1.1-mile tunnel through Navajo Sandstone and a winding road with switchbacks.

The trail that goes up to Angels Landing is the West Rim Trail. Terry said that the section of the trail called Walter’s Wiggles was named after Walter Ruesch, the first acting superintendent of Zion. The trail was finished in 1927. “It was his idea to put those switchbacks on the trail so people could get up to the top,” Terry said.  “Other trails have been here for a long time. We probably wouldn’t build trails like that today because it took a lot of work, and in some cases, there was some blasting required.”

What you can see in the Zion National Park

Zion National ParkThe park is home to more than 900 plant species, 78 species of mammals, 290 species of birds, 44 species of reptiles and amphibians and eight species of fish. Some of these are on the endangered species list, including the Mexican Spotted Owl, Southwest Willow Flycatcher and Desert Tortoise. Rare species include the Zion Snail, Virgin Spinedace and the Peregrine Falcon. According to Terry, approximately 20 to 30 mountain lions roam the park.

During the peak season, the park employs approximately 200 people, not counting the people who work at the lodge for Xanterra Parks and Resorts. Park rangers do everything from guided walks, working the gate, law enforcement in the park, search and rescue and also encouraging young people through the Jr. Ranger program.


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