Zion National Park

Zion National Park, The Watchman at Sunset

Zion Canyon

Steep cliffs, narrow canyons, and unpredictable weather add to the challenge and adventure of visiting Utah's Zion National Park. Overcome the challenges and one is rewarded with awe-inspiring beauty.

The Watchman

Above, the iconic image of Zion, The Watchman (6,545 feet, 1995 m) at sunset. The Canyon Junction Bridge provides photographers with the ideal vantage point over the Virgin River to capture the incomparable view.

Zion National Park is much more than a recreational or photographic destination. It is a sanctuary of natural and cultural resources. Conserving the heritage of Zion is a task that the National Park Service cannot accomplish alone. All visitors serve a critical role in maintaining Zion for the future by respecting the natural environment.

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Zion National Park, Virgin River

We took I-15 northwest from Las Vegas for about a 2½ hour drive to Springdale, Utah, at the west entrance of Zion. There we stayed in a particularly nice Hampton Inn & Suites. It was perhaps the nicest Hampton Inn ever. We had a King Suite that was positively luxurious and huge for a ridiculously low price. I rarely recommend a hotel but the Hampton Inn & Suites Springdale/Zion National Park was exceptional. In fact, all the hotels we choose in Utah were above the standard we experience in other parts of the country.

For our visit through Zion National Park we divided the park into two days, one day touring Zion Canyon, dug through Navajo Sandstone by the North Fork of the Virgin River, and another day exploring the peaks of the Kolob Canyons section of the park on our way west toward Bryce Canyon National Park.

Winter in Zion National Park

Though small by National Park standards, Zion National Park encompasses 229 square miles (590 square kilometers). The most prominent feature of the park is Zion Canyon which is 15 miles (24 km) long and up to a half a mile (800 m) deep. The lowest elevation is 3,666 feet (1,117 m) at Coalpits Wash and the highest elevation is 8,726 feet (2,660 m) at Horse Ranch Mountain.

Winter in Zion

One benefit of touring Zion National Park in winter is that there are few tourists and one is not relegated to a shuttle tour bus to visit the canyon. Only from November 30 to March 14 are private vehicles allowed to travel in Zion Canyon. The rest of the year visitors are consigned to tour buses as private vehicles are prohibited in the Canyon.

A drawback is that winters in Zion are cold and often wet. Temperatures can range from highs of 50° during the day to lows well below freezing at night. Nearly half of the annual precipitation in Zion Canyon falls between December and March. During our visit it was much colder with highs in the low 30°s and plenty of snow and ice at all elevations. Where there wasn't frozen water on the surface there was ample mud which stuck to every surface and which helps to keep the roads in Zion stained their signature red (more on that below).

Most roads are plowed, but trails are sometimes impassable due to snow and ice. After winter storms, snow typically disappears within a matter of hours at lower elevations. At higher elevations, the snow accumulates.

Court of the Patriarchs, Zion National Park

Court of the Patriarchs

We took a systematic approach to the Canyon stopping to see each of the prominent features and some that were not so-mentioned on the maps and guidebooks. One of the first such features (above) is the Court of the Patriarchs. Named for three towering figures of the Old Testament, these sandstone cliffs hold court over Birch Creek Canyon and the Virgin River. In 1916 Federick Vining Fisher, a Methodist minister, gave the religious names to the peaks. Today is is not hard to imagine how the grandeur of the view could inspire such reverence.

Left to Right, Abraham Peak (6890 feet, 2101 m), Isaac Peak (6825 feet, 2081 m), Mount Moroni (multiple peaks foreground right, 5690 feet, 1734 m) and Jacob Peak (lighter color, background, 6831 feet, 2083 m).

It is hard to describe the prominence of these peaks. The canyon is silent except for the sound of wind and the occasional raven. One looks up in awe at the massive cliffs on both sides of the canyon, and feels quite small and insignificant in comparison to these magnificent mountains.

Hiking Zion Canyon Utah

On the opposite side of the canyon from the Court of the Patriarchs we decided to hike a bit and quickly encountered impassable ice and copious red mud.

Warning Signs on Hiking Trails in Zion National Park

There were many warning signs about icy conditions and deadly falls that had occurred on both sides of the canyon so we took it slow, steady, and cautiously. We saw some hikers emerging from the icy trails wearing open-toed shoes and light jackets. Surely they were more accustomed to the conditions than we Floridians.

Red Roads in Zion National Park

In places the canyon opens up enough to let some light in and there are plenty of Cottonwood Trees along the Virgin River. In other places the canyon is tight and there is little light even at mid-day in winter.

What Makes Zion's Roads Red?

Throughout Zion the roads are red-orange. The roads are chip sealed which is a type of coating combining oil and rock chips. Local red cinders are used to create Zion's signature red roads. The seemingly endless red dust and mud probably helps to keep the roads a nice shade or red year round.

Navajo Sandstone, Zion National Park

Navajo Sandstone

The Navajo Sandstone of Zion is a great mass of windblown sand deposits nearly 2000 feet thick. It is strangely cross-bedded. Geologists have given each layer a name. The Kayenta and Chinle formations, below the Navajo are composed of softer shale and sandstone layers. Streams, which tend to cut almost straight down through Navajo sandstone, erode a wider channel in the flat layers beneath. Thus, the canyon is first broadened at the bottom (above).

When the Navajo Sandstone is undercut, it breaks off in vertical slabs, keeping the canyon walls almost perpendicular. Folding and faulting may cause the same rock layers to lie at different elevations in different places.

Phillip at the Welcome to Zion National Park Sign

Despite ample layers I was still quite cold. By the end of the day I was also muddy and with cold feet. Next time, water-proof boots.

Temple of Sinawava

At the northern end (end of the road) in Zion Canyon is the Temple of Sinawava. Here the river canyon narrows abruptly. The cliffs' colors and textures are clues that two different rock layers intersect at the riverbed and affect how the canyon is carved.

Confined within the hard Navajo sandstone upstream, the Virgin River is forced to slice straight down, with almost no side-cutting—creating a tight, perpendicular gorge.

Downstream the river undercuts the softer eaasily eroded Kayenta Formation. Rock slabs topple, cliffs landslide, and the canyon widens as the river continues south toward Springdale, Utah.

Warnings at Angel's Landing, Zion National Park

Above, one of many warning signs.

Frozen Waterfall in Zion Canyon, Utah

Above, a frozen waterfall.

Winter sunlight in Zion Canyon, Utah

Above, a flash of light. For the most part the canyon remained dark during our visit with snow clouds overhead.

A Cottonwood Tree in Zion Canyon, Utah

A Cottonwood Tree and the rising moon.

Mile High Cliffs in Zion Canyon, Utah

Surrounded on all sides by mile-high cliffs the Temple of Sinawava leaves the visitor speechless.

Zion Canyon, Zion National Park

Down in the canyon a tight trail leads into the gorge. Traveling upriver the trail passes through surprisingly lush vegetation—a desert swamp. Overflow from occasional cloudbursts and spring run off leaves the low ground perpetually moist, creating a cooler, greener microclimate of ferns and mosses. Without actually seeing a flash flood, hikers here experience the results of flooding and witness how the Virgin River pumps life into the desert canyon.

We also experienced some exceptionally annoying children and their clueless mother. It was cold, icy, wet, muddy. We were doing our best to not slip and fall in the ice nor sink in the mud. The children ran through both splashing mud on everyone on the trail while their mother very callously and carelessly talked on her iPhone. ARGH! I cannot imagine the place in summer. I would not do well trapped with groups of strangers and children on tour busses.

Cliffs and a plane, Zion Canyon, Utah

While I did not notice it at the time, when I was looking at the images later I noticed a jet in the middle of this image. Click on the image (or any image at Phillip's Natural World) for a larger view. Even in this remote location one is never far from civilization.

The Great White Throne, Zion National Park

Above, A solitary image of the Great White Throne. The mountain is not solitary, of course. There are mountains all around this opening in the canyon.

The Great White Throne, Zion National Park

The Great White Throne

Below, a panorama of the Great White Throne area.

Click on the image for a larger view

Center foreground is The Organ, The Great White Throne is background center (lighter color) and Angel's Landing is the massive mesa taking up the right side of the image.

Paiutes (Native Americans of the Great Basin of the USA), pioneers, and early visitors applied religious names to many of this area's features. The name "Zion," first used by a Mormon settler in the 1860s, implied a peaceful or heavenly place. Many people have been and continue to be, inspired by the overwhelming beauty of Zion.

Panorama of The Great White Throne, Zion National Park (30 images stitched together)

Zion History

Human habitation of the area started about 8,000 years ago with small family groups of Native Americans; the semi-nomadic Basketmaker Anasazi (300 CE) stem from one of these groups. In turn, the Virgin Anasazi culture (500 CE) developed as the Basketmakers settled in permanent communities. A different group, the Parowan Fremont, lived in the area as well. Both groups moved away by 1300 and were replaced by the Parrusits and several other Southern Paiute subtribes. Mormons came into the area in 1858 and settled in the early 1860s. In 1909 the President of the United States, William Howard Taft, named the area a National Monument to protect the canyon, under the name of Mukuntuweap National Monument. In 1918, however, the acting director of the newly created National Park Service changed the park's name to Zion, the name used by the Mormons. According to historian Hal Rothman: "The name change played to a prevalent bias of the time. Many believed that Spanish and Indian names would deter visitors who, if they could not pronounce the name of a place, might not bother to visit it. The new name, Zion, had greater appeal to an ethnocentric audience." Ironic because today there are perhaps too many visitors to Zion National Park and thus the need to relegate visitors to tour busses most of the year.

The United States Congress established the monument as a National Park on November 19, 1919. The Kolob section was proclaimed a separate Zion National Monument in 1937, but was incorporated into the park in 1956.

Zion National Park and the Virgin River at Sunset