Zion National Park, located in southwestern Utah, is a crown jewel of the U.S. National Park System. Known for its awe-inspiring red rock formations, deep canyons, and lush oases, Zion draws millions of visitors from around the world each year. It covers an area of approximately 146,597 acres (or 229 square miles) and offers a diverse range of outdoor experiences, from hiking and rock climbing to wildlife viewing and stargazing.
Zion National Park Facts
U.S President Woodrow Wilson officially designated Zion National Park on November 19, 1919, when he signed a historic bill into law. This remarkable park is a testament to the captivating beauty of American canyon country, boasting towering plateaus, a labyrinth of sandstone canyons, and cascading waterfalls surrounded by vibrant hanging gardens.
- Founded: November 19, 1919
- Annual Visitors: 4.7 million. This was the 3rd most visited park in the United States in 2022.
- Size: 150,000 acres
- Location: Utah
- Entrance Fee: $35 per vehicle, valid for 7 days
While many people are familiar with its beauty and popularity, here are 5 lesser-known facts about Zion National Park:
1. Geological Marvels
Zion National Park has a rich geological history dating back millions of years. The towering sandstone cliffs and canyons you see today were formed by the slow erosion of sedimentary rock layers, which began around 250 million years ago. Fossils of ancient reptiles and other creatures have been discovered in the park, providing valuable insights into the Earth’s distant past.
Name Origin: The park’s name, “Zion,” has deep religious and historical significance. It was named by Mormon pioneers in the late 1800s, who considered the area a place of refuge and sanctuary. In the Hebrew Bible, “Zion” refers to a place of peace and holiness, reflecting the pioneers’ vision for the region.
Zion’s Sandstone Canyons: The park is renowned for its deep and narrow sandstone canyons, carved by the Virgin River over countless eons. The most famous of these is Zion Canyon, which stretches for 15 miles and reaches depths of up to 2,640 feet. The unique combination of the Virgin River’s erosive power and the varied rock layers has created a breathtaking display of colorful cliffs and towering monoliths. Some of the prominent formations in the park include the Great White Throne, the Court of the Patriarchs, and the Temple of Sinawava.
The Virgin River: The Virgin River is the lifeblood of Zion National Park. Over millions of years, it has steadily cut through the layered rock, forming the Zion Canyon we see today. The river has also nurtured the park’s lush riparian zones, providing a stark contrast to the arid desert surroundings. Visitors can hike along the Riverside Walk to experience the serene beauty of the Virgin River’s emerald waters and the hanging gardens clinging to the canyon walls.
2. The Subway – A Hidden Gem
While many visitors flock to the main canyon of Zion, there are lesser-known, equally captivating areas to explore within the park. One such hidden gem is “The Subway,” a unique slot canyon formed by the Left Fork of North Creek. What sets The Subway apart is its distinctive tunnel-like passages and captivating series of potholes that resemble actual subway stops.
The Subway Hike: To reach The Subway, adventurous hikers must embark on a challenging 9.5-mile round-trip hike, which requires a permit due to its popularity and environmental sensitivity. The journey involves navigating through a maze of slickrock, wading through cold and sometimes waist-deep water, and climbing over obstacles. It’s an exhilarating adventure that rewards intrepid explorers with unforgettable scenery.
Unique Geological Features: The Subway derives its name from the cylindrical shapes formed by swirling water, which resemble subway tunnels. These potholes have been gradually carved out by the action of water and sediment over millions of years, creating a natural wonder that is a paradise for photographers and nature enthusiasts.
3. Cultural Significance
Zion National Park is not only a geological wonder but also holds deep cultural and historical significance. Long before it was designated as a national park, the region was inhabited by indigenous peoples, including the Southern Paiute tribe. The Paiute had a profound connection with the land and its resources, relying on the diverse ecosystems of the area for their sustenance.
Mormon Settlers: In the late 1800s, Mormon pioneers settled in the region, naming it “Zion” due to its association with a place of refuge and sanctuary in the Hebrew Bible. They recognized the beauty and uniqueness of the area and played a pivotal role in its early exploration and development.
Historical Structures: Within the park, visitors can find historical structures that reflect the early human presence in the area. The Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, completed in 1930, is an engineering marvel that includes the famous Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, carved through solid rock. It provides access to the east side of the park and offers breathtaking views of the landscape.
4. Biodiversity and Unique Habitats
Zion National Park’s diverse ecosystems support a wide range of plant and animal species, making it a haven for nature enthusiasts and wildlife photographers. The park’s varying elevations and microclimates contribute to its rich biodiversity.
Plants and Vegetation: Zion boasts a remarkable variety of plant life, from desert flora at lower elevations to lush riparian zones along the Virgin River. You can encounter species such as cottonwood trees, ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, and prickly pear cacti. The unique combination of water, sunlight, and nutrient-rich soil in certain areas supports hanging gardens, where delicate ferns and mosses cling to the vertical walls of canyons.
Wildlife: While exploring Zion, you may encounter a wide range of wildlife, including mule deer, bighorn sheep, black bears, and a variety of bird species. The park is also home to the endangered California condor, and ongoing conservation efforts are helping to protect and restore these magnificent birds.
5. Dark Sky Sanctuary
In an era of increasing light pollution, preserving natural nightscapes has become a priority for many national parks. In 2019, Zion National Park received a prestigious designation as a Dark Sky Sanctuary from the International Dark-Sky Association.
Starry Nights: The Dark Sky Sanctuary status acknowledges the park’s commitment to minimizing light pollution and preserving the pristine quality of its night skies. Visitors to Zion can enjoy some of the most awe-inspiring stargazing experiences in the world. On clear nights, the Milky Way stretches across the heavens, and constellations shine brightly, creating a celestial display that connects us to the universe’s mysteries.
Educational Programs: The park offers various educational programs and events related to astronomy and night sky conservation. Ranger-led programs, telescope viewing sessions, and star parties provide visitors with opportunities to learn about the cosmos and appreciate the importance of preserving dark skies for future generations.
How to Navigate Zion National Park
Watch this video to get perspective on trip planning.
What To Bring
- Walking Shoes/Map
- Flashlight or headlamp
- Dress for the weather and bring everything you need for a day in the park.
- Be sure to bring your Interagency Pass or Park Entry Receipt for re-entry into the park.
- No eating or smoking on the shuttle buses
- Beverages other than water are not allowed on the bus
- Pets are not allowed on the shuttle buses
When the Shuttle Is In Operation
Parking is limited inside Zion, and parking lots at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center commonly fill by mid-morning. To avoid parking hassles, park in the town of Springdale and ride the free town shuttle to the park. You can park anywhere along the road in town that does not have a parking restriction. To find the shuttle stops, look for the numbered signs. If you are staying at a hotel, simply leave your car there and take the shuttle to the park. Tune your radio to 1610 AM for additional information.
Need to know
The Zion Canyon Shuttle System has two lines.
- Springdale Line – 9 stops in the town of Springdale
- Zion Canyon Line – 9 stops in Zion National Park
You can transfer from one line to another at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. Get on and off the shuttle as often as you like. You do not need a ticket or reservation, and the shuttle is free.
Buses are wheelchair accessible: During the busy season the free buses run from early morning to late evening. Times and headways (time between buses) change with the seasons. Current schedules are posted at each shuttle stop, at park visitor centers, and in park publications.
Zion National Park is a natural wonder that continues to inspire and amaze visitors with its geological marvels, rich history, diverse ecosystems, and commitment to preserving the beauty of the night sky. Its iconic red rock formations, such as those in Zion Canyon, are testaments to the power of nature over millions of years. The Subway showcases the park’s hidden treasures, while its cultural history, dating back to indigenous peoples and Mormon pioneers, adds depth to its significance.
Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast, a nature lover, or an avid photographer, Zion National Park offers an array of experiences that will leave a lasting impression. The park’s biodiversity, from the desert floor to the towering cliffs, provides ample opportunities for exploration and wildlife encounters. Moreover, the Dark Sky Sanctuary status highlights the importance of protecting natural nightscapes for the benefit of all.