Crowning the desert canyons

The article originally appeared in the Sunday, October 28, 2007 edition of The Kansas City Star ABOUT THE PARK

Thousands of years before Zion National Park was established, southwestern Utah was populated by native cultures, including the Anasazi people and Paiute Indians. Mormon pioneers began settling the area in the 1860s.

In 1909 the area was proclaimed Mukuntuweap National Monument. Mukuntuweap is a Paiute word meaning "straight arrow." In 1918 the name was changed to Zion. National park status was awarded in 1919.

Today’s park comprises 229 square miles, or 147,000 acres in the Great Basin and Mojave deserts and the Colorado Plateau.


Free shuttle buses traverse the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive from early morning until late in the evening through October. Most of the year it’s the best -- and only -- way to see the park. The main trailheads and highlights of Zion Canyon can be accessed by shuttle. You can walk short, easy trails or hit the high, hard ones.

Be sure to stop at the Zion Human History Museum, where you can learn about the early peoples who lived in the area. From there, you can access the gentle Pa’rus Trail, 3 1/2 miles round trip. It follows the Virgin River and is handicap-accessible.

A very short (100 yards, round trip) trail leads from the highway to a great view of the Three Patriarchs, the peaks named for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

A steep but short (half-mile round-trip) trail leads to Weeping Rock, where an alcove constantly drips with spring water. From Weeping Rock, you can also take the steeper, more strenuous Hidden Canyon Trail, which leads to a canyon and magnificent views of landmarks such as the Great White Throne.

From Zion Lodge or the Grotto, head to the three Emerald Pools or hike the much more strenuous, narrow Angels Landing Trail, which offers chains you can hold onto if you get nervous.

At the Temple of Sinawava, follow the Riverside Walk, a paved trail along the Virgin River. You can continue into the Zion Narrows by hiking in the river. Be prepared to get wet and be aware of the river conditions before you start.

For a different view of the park, drive up the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway through a tunnel built in the 1920s. You’ll be rewarded by views of park features such as Checkerboard Mesa, where deep grooves in the sandstone have carved a checkerboardlike pattern. Be warned that RVs and other large vehicles must be escorted through the tunnel. You may have to wait.


Freemont cottonwoods are common in the green areas near the Virgin River. Higher on the trails look for shaggy-barked junipers and piñon pines, often together. On the ground you’ll find plenty of yuccas and prickly pear cactus, which may sport delicate yellow and bright pink blossoms in early summer. Look for other wildflowers then, too, such as the sacred datura, or Zion lily.


Its dry, hot climate might not seem especially welcoming, but Zion is home to hundreds of species of plants and animals.

Along the Virgin River, especially in the evening, look for wild turkeys. They often roost in trees. Mule deer are common throughout the park. Coyotes and bobcats roam, too. Look for lizards in the rocks along the trails, including Utah Banded Geckos, fence lizards and collared lizards.


Zion National Park has a long visitor season -- most people arrive between April and October.

Summer days can quickly turn into scorchers, but evenings are pleasant. Winters tend to be mild, but snow is a possibility, especially in higher elevations.

Jan. Feb. March April May June July Aug. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec.

Normal daily high 52 57 63 73 83 93 100 97 91 78 63 53

Normal daily low 29 31 36 43 52 60 68 66 60 49 37 30

Source: National Park Service