Zion National Park

Zion National Park

History of Zion

"Zion: a place regarded as devoted to God: a sacred city." 

– Webster's Dictionary

Geologic History

How were Zion's massive stone formations created? To answer that question, we must consider a span of time beginning 225 million years ago when the park's oldest rock layers were forming. It was the floor of a shallow sea, the delta of a great river and then the bottom of a lake. Volcanoes erupted leaving ash to form bright layers. Footprints left by dinosaurs and fossils of shellfish show that the area supported a wide range of life. 

"Zion: a place regarded as devoted to God: a sacred city." 

— Webster's Dictionary

Geologic History

How were Zion's massive stone formations created? To answer that question, we must consider a span of time beginning 225 million years ago when the park's oldest rock layers were forming. It was the floor of a shallow sea, the delta of a great river and then the bottom of a lake. Volcanoes erupted leaving ash to form bright layers. Footprints left by dinosaurs and fossils of shellfish show that the area supported a wide range of life. 

More than 150 million years ago, a great desert of windblown sand covered a huge area of today's western United States, including Zion. The sand provided the raw material for the Navajo Sandstone, which composes cliffs 2,000 feet high in Zion Canyon. The dunes were transformed into sandstone by tremendous compaction and the cementing properties of compounds, such as calcium carbonate, which were brought in by later groundwater. Other layers of rock were laid down on top of the sandstone as ancient seas came and went.

The next stage in the creation of Zion was the long, slow uplift of the Colorado Plateau. Beginning 4 million years ago, streams running off of it, such as the rapidly flowing and occasionally flooding Virgin River, with its load of sand, pebbles and sometimes boulders, carved the canyon we see today. The river scours its bed and carries away rock and sand delivered by tributaries, a total load of a million tons of sediment each year. All this goes to the Colorado River where the Virgin River joins it at Lake Mead.

The river's job of sculpting the canyon is made easier by the nature of sandstone. Sandstone consists of grains of quartz that are held together with a weak "cement." Tiny particles are loosened and swept away. Also contributing to the erosion process are numerous cracks in the sandstone, called joints. These joints form channels through which water can run and cut deeply into the sandstone. 

Nearly vertical monoliths and precipitous canyon gorges are evidence that Zion is geologically young. Zion has developed its characteristics during just the last few million years—a relatively short time in the life span of rock. And Zion keeps changing every year. Erosion continues and will someday reduce the magnificent landscape of Zion to flat plains.

Human History

Named by early Mormon settlers, Zion features massive stone formations and red cliff faces that have elicited feelings of reverence in those who have paused to reflect on this area's majesty. The names given by settlers and visitors to prominent landmarks reflect this: Angels Landing, the Great White Throne, Altar of Sacrifice, the West Temple and the Three Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Southern Paiute people recognized the extraordinary character of the canyon and tell their own related stories about spirits who live among the rock formations. 

The earliest evidence of human occupation in and around Zion comes from a time known as the Archaic Period, whose scarce remnants have been dated to about 7000 B.C. Dwelling in small family groups, they hunted and foraged for wild foods.

Over the years, farming was developed, grains were stored and the people began to live in larger groups. We call these people the ancestral Puebloans (Virgin Anasazi). They lived in and around Zion until about A.D. 1200, when a drought, among other environmental and social factors, may have made farming unproductive, if not impossible.

The Fremont Culture lived north of Zion Canyon concurrently with the ancestral Puebloans. The Fremont also depended on agriculture. They grew corn and squash and stored their surplus crops in granaries. They abandoned the area about A.D. 1200.

The Southern Paiutes farmed Zion Canyon in the years during and following the Fremont and ancestral Puebloan abandonment, and were still there when the first white settlers arrived several hundred years later. These white settlers were Mormons sent from Salt Lake City in the 1850s and 1860s to grow cotton, which was no longer available due to the Civil War. It is for this reason that the area is still known today as "Utah's Dixie." The Mormons established towns and settlements at Grafton, Rockville and Springdale, all in the immediate vicinity of what is now Zion National Park.

In 1858, Nephi Johnson explored the canyon. He was followed in 1861 by Isaac Behunin, who found it suitable for farming. Tobacco, fruit and vegetables were grown on the canyon floor, and cattle and sheep were grazed on the plateau until 1909 when the area was declared a national monument. In 1919, Congress designated Zion a national park.