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The Colorado Plateau

The Vast and the Intimate
Suspended in Time
A Textbook of Geomorphology


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Zion NP, Utah

PlacesZion National Park, Utah


Zion in snow

West Rim Trail after a big snowfall in Zion National Park. Photo 1999 Ray Wheeler.

Spectacular Zion National Park on the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau is known for its colorful sandstone cliffs, colossal monoliths and carved rock formations [area map]. With an elevational range from 3,666 to 8,740 feet, biotic communities of the park include semi-arid scrub on canyon bottoms, pinyon-juniper on talus slopes and canyon walls,  and ponderosa pine, aspen and mixed-conifer forests at higher elevations. Cryptobiotic soil covers large areas of Zion's lowlands.

Zion's topographical extremes create subtle differences in elevation, sunlight, water, and temperature resulting in "microenvironments" which contribute to the richest diversity of plants in Utah--almost 800 native species. Slicing through thousands of feet of sandstone, the Virgin River has carved a spectacular gorge in the heart of the park. The middle section of the river within the park is a dramatic slot canyon termed the Narrows, while the lower portion in Zion Canyon meanders through lush riparian forests of cottonwood, ash and willow.

The variety of plant communities provides habitats for many animal species, including over 285 species of birds. Mule deer, desert cottontail, mountain vole, banded geckos and canyon tree frogs are found in the park. Bighorn sheep were extirpated from the park by 1953. A small flock of sheep from Nevada was reintroduced to the park in the 1970s; the success of this endeavor is still being determined. Zion snails are endemic to the wet walls of sheer cliffs in the Narrows.

The canyon walls of Zion reveal a fascinating geologic history. Zion Canyon's geologic story picks up where the Grand Canyon's ends. The oldest formation at Zion, the Kaibab limestone, forms the rimrock on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Thus, while the the Grand Canyon formations reveal ancient geologic history, the nine formations comprising Zion Canyon reveal middle geologic history, beginning 250 million years ago. Each of the nine formations was laid down successively over millions of years and under varying environmental conditions, including a vast sea, volcanic eruptions and an arid, sandy desert. As the Markagunt Plateau, which encompasses Zion, began to rise 13 million years ago, the Virgin River became fast and strong, cutting down into the plateau and carving out Zion Canyon. Even today, Zion Canyon is still being formed by the Virgin River, which drops from 9,000 to 1,000 feet within 200 miles.

Human History

The Basketmaker culture is the first human group known to have inhabited Zion, although the archaeological evidence is sparse. By 500 A.D. the people of Zion are what we now refer to as Anasazi. Anasazi culture in this region was not as sophisticated as it was in other Four Corner settlements. Although pictographs and petroglyphs are present, the archaeological record consists only of the remains of several pueblos and food storage cists. Corn, squash and beans, the typical Pueblo era agricultural complement, were farmed in the arable canyon bottoms. Turkey, deer and bighorn sheep rounded out the Zion Anasazi diet. Fremont peoples may also have occupied what is now Zion National Park, permanently or seasonally. Like the Anasazi, the Fremont grew corn and squash, however, interaction between the two cultures appears to have been minimal. By 1200 A.D., the Zion area had been abandoned by both the Anasazi and Fremont. This is earlier than abandonment dates for other Four Corner regions, probably due to pressure from enemy tribes to the north and west.

In later centuries, Paiute Indians occupied the area. The Paiute cultivated small fields of corn, but relied more heavily on their extensive knowledge of wild food sources and thus built no permanent dwellings. These people were strongly dominated by the greater Ute tribe to the north, which demanded annual tributes from the Paiute, including children if other goods were unavailable. In addition, Navajos frequently raided the Paiutes from across the Colorado River. When Mormon settlers arrived at Zion in 1858, the Paiute people were impoverished and easily displaced by the newcomers and their foreign diseases. Many adapted to the swift changes by becoming ranch hands or miners. Today, their descendents live in towns and reservations throughout southern Utah.

A side canyon showing diversity of vegetation typical of Zion. 

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Mormon settlers from northern Utah systematically colonized lands along the Virgin River, founding towns such as Rockville and Springdale, on what is now the border of the park. A few settlers also moved into the flat lands within the canyon, growing corn, tobacco, vegetables, and fruit to sell at local markets. Cattle and sheep were grazed on the canyon floors and surrounding plateaus until 1909, when the area was designated as "Mukuntaweap National Monument" by President Taft. In 1919, the name and designation were officially changed to Zion National Park.

Despite its national park designation, Zion was largely inaccessible due to the rugged desert and canyon terrain surrounding it on all sides. The only approach road, located on the river's floodplain, was difficult even for area residents who needed to travel to ranches, timber areas and produce markets in order to support their livelihoods. The few existing foot trails out of the canyon were dangerous, and several cattle, horses and humans were hurt or killed falling from the switchbacks. These problems were addressed by the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, completed in 1930. Hailed at the dedication ceremony as the "most remarkable road ever built," the highway took three years to complete. This engineering marvel of its time passes through two tunnels bored through over 6000 feet of sandstone, several dynamited road cuts and 3.6 miles of switchbacks stacked within a quarter of a square mile.

Zion National Park Today

Today Zion National Park receives over 2.5 million visitors annually. Although much of the park is relatively inaccessible to tourists, heavily used areas are suffering from trampling of the desert vegetation, wildfires due to carelessness, and sanitation problems. Others management concerns include restoration of the Virgin River floodplain, water and air quality, excess light and sound, and relations with Native Americans and adjacent property owners. Park management has recently composed a draft report with four alternatives of action to address these problems. 

Grazing and logging continue today just outside the park's boundaries, contaminating the Virgin River upstream of the park with animal waste and erosional silt. An important management directive for the riparian corridor along the Virgin River calls for the removal and exclusion of tamarisk, an invasive species that is invading the native cottonwood and willow gallery forests along the stream.

--Researched and written by Shannon Kelly


Crawford, J.L. 1994. Zion National Park: Towers of stone. Albion Publishing Group, Santa Barbara, CA, 57 pp.

Eardly, A.J. and Schaak, J.W. Zion: The story behind the scenery. KC Publications, Las Vegas, NV, 48 pp.

Garate, D.T. 1991. The Zion tunnel: From slickrock to switchback. Zion Natural History Association, UT, 52 pp.

Gildart, R. 1984. Zion National Park. Pp. 300-343 In: J.V. Murfin, editor. The Sierra Club guide to the National Parks of the Desert Southwest. Stewart, Tabori and Chang, New York, NY.

Madany, M.H., West, N.E. 1983. Livestock grazing-fire regime interactions within montane forests of Zion National Park, Utah. Ecology 64: 661-667.

Other resources:

Bradley, A. F., Noste, N. V. and Fischer, W. C. 1992. Fire ecology of forests and woodlands in Utah. General Technical Report INT-287. USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station, Ogden, UT, 128 pp.

Davidson, D. W., Newmark, W. D., Sites, J. W., Jr., Shiozawa, D. K., Rickart, E. A., Harper, K. T. and Keiter, R. B. 1996. Selecting wilderness areas to conserve Utah's biological diversity. Great Basin Naturalist 56: 95-118.

Fowler, D. D. 1989. The western photographs of John K. Hillers, "myself in the water.". Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 166 pp.

Gregory, S. C. and Deacon, J. E. 1994. Human induced changes to native fishes in the Virgin River drainage. Pp. 435-444 In:  Marston, R. A., editor. Effects of human induced changes on hydrologic systems. Technical Publication Series No. 94-3.  American Water Resources Association.

Hamilton, W. L. 1979. Holocene and Pleistocene lakes in Zion National Park, Utah. Pp. 835-844 In: Linn, R., editor. Proceedings of the First Conference on Scientific Research in the National Parks: New Orleans, 1977. National Park Service, Washington, D.C.

Hereford, R., Jacoby, G. C. and McCord, V. A. S. 1995. Geomorphic history of the Virgin River in the Zion NationalLavender, D. 1984. Pipe Springs and the Arizona Strip. Zion Natural History Association, Springdale, UT.

Madany, M. H. and West, N. E. 1980. Fire history of two montane forest areas of Zion National Park. Pp. 50-56 In: Stokes, M. A. and Dieterich, J. H., editors. Proceedings of the fire history workshop, October 20-24, 1980, Tucson, Arizona. General Technical Report RM-81, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiement Station. USDA Forest Service.

Madany, M. H. and West, N. E. 1984. Vegetation of two relict mesas in Zion National Park. Journal of Range Management 37: 456-461.

McCutchen, H. E. 1982. Behavioral ecology of reintroduced desert bighorns, Zion National Park, Utah. Ph.D. Dissertation. Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, 208 pp.

Nelson, R. A. 1976. Plants of Zion National Park. Zion Natural History Association, Springdale, UT, 333 pp.

Newmark, W. D. 1995. Extinction of mammal populations in western North American National Parks. Conservation Biology 9: 512-526.

Rinkevich, S. E. and Gutie!rrez, R. J. 1996. Mexican spotted owl habitat characteristics in Zion National Park. Raptor Research 30: 74-78.

Schroeder, A. H. 1955. Archaeology of Zion Park.Anthropological papers No. 22. University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

Welsh, S. L. 1988. Zion National Park threatened and endangered and exotic plant surveys. Unpublished final report by Endangered Plant Studies, Inc. Contract No. CX 1590-7-0001., Zion National Park, UT.

West, N. E. and Madany, M. H. 1981. Fire history of the Horse Pasture Plateau, Zion National Park. Final report. University of Utah - NPS Cooperative Studies Unit, Provo, 225 pp.

Woodbury, A. M. 1933. Biotic relationships of Zion Canyon, Utah, with special reference to succession. Ecological Monographs 3: 147-245.

Workman, G. W. 1983. Aquatic and riparian ecological relationships of the North Fork of the Virgin River and its Deep Creek-Crystal Creek tributary, Zion National Park, Utah.Unpublished report NPS CX-1200-0-B041 and USU 246 2760 1009 16501. National Park Service, Zion National Park, UT, 272 pp.

Youngblood, A. P. and Mauk, R. L. 1985. Coniferous forest habitat types of central and southern Utah. General Technical Report INT-187. USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station, Ogden, UT, 89 pp.