Top 10 Things to Know About Zion National Park: PHOTOS

by Jon D. B.

With some of the most scenic canyons and plateaus in America, Zion National Park offers breathtaking adventures rivaled by very few national parks. And encased in all that beauty is a fascinating past, present, and future.

Ready to traverse mazes of multi-colored sandstone canyons and chase waterfalls surrounded by hanging gardens? Zion is for you. One of the country’s first national parks, this “heavenly” wonderland leaves millions of visitors speechless every year.

A lot has happened in the park’s century-long history. But the landscapes (and secrets) it protects are far, far older. Below, we’ve gathered 10 of the most fascinating things to know about Zion National Park, both new and old.

10. Zion’s Beauty Covers One of the Most Dangerous National Parks

North America, USA, Utah, Zion National Park. Zion Mount Carmel Canyon Scenic Drive, Framed by Goldenrod. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

There’s an endless list of things to love about Zion. But this landscape’s eclectic beauty also hides a more sinister side.

Thanks mostly to the park’s infamous Angels Landing, Zion is one of the world’s most dangerous national parks. The canyon landmark stretches a staggering 1,488 feet into the sky, with the Virgin River flowing below. Angels Landing views are no doubt worth the hike but be warned, it’s a 2.2-mile trek over slickrock and switchbacks to get there. The most dangerous elements of the hike, however, are the numerous exposed edges and drop-offs with no guard rails or protection elements of any kind.

But make no mistake, it’s entirely possible to make the Angels Landing journey safely with the right knowledge and prep. And when you do, prepare for some of the most breathtaking views on Earth.

9. Zion National Park is a Climber’s Wonderland

Looking for a climber’s paradise? Zion National Park has you covered. Whether you’re looking to boulder, scramble, or full-on climb 2,000-foot sandstone cliffs, the park is renowned by climbers the world over.

Specifically, Zion hosts incredible big wall climbs, which require intense physical fitness and hearty gear commitments. Many local companies offer climbing training and tours, so be sure to check gateway communities when you arrive at Zion. And if you’re serious about it, visit from March through May for the best climbing conditions. September through early November is an excellent time for climbing, as well.

8. From -20°F to 100°F, Zion Hosts Extreme Highs & Lows

No matter what time of year you visit, it’s important to check local weather conditions before venturing into Zion National Park. Summer temperatures can reach 100°F or more down in Zion canyon floors.

And then there’s winter, which hosts regular snowfall and temperatures ranging from daytime’s 50°F down to well below freezing at night. In fact, the winter of 1989 saw Zion National Park dip to its lowest recorded temperature ever at -20°F, the Department of the Interior (DOI) cites.

To explore in moderate weather and temperatures, visit Zion during spring or fall. Flash flooding does occur in Zion due to summer rainstorms, however, so again – always check the weather forecast ahead of time.

7. Zion is One of the Best Dark Skies Destinations in the U.S.

Many Outsiders are familiar with the U.S. Dark Skies program. But if you’re not, Zion National Park is one of the best places in America to view pristine nighttime skies.

After the sun sets, Zion’s remote location leaves little-to-no light pollution in the night sky. This allows for brilliant stargazing, with even the Milky Way visible to the naked eye.

Courtesy of the park, the following times are the best to see the Milky Way in the Northern Hemisphere:

  • May: 1-10, 25-31 (2:00AM – 5:00AM)
  • Jun: 1-7, 22-30 (12:00AM – 4:00AM)
  • Jul: 1-5, 20-30 (11:00PM – 3:00AM)
  • Aug: 1-3, 17-31 (10:00PM – 2:00AM)
  • Sept: 15-30 (9:00PM – 12:00PM)
  • Oct: 13-28 (8:30PM – 10:30PM)

Consider camping in Zion in kind. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.

6. North America’s Largest Birds Roost in Zion National Park

Endangered California condor flies over Zion. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The ancient civilizations knew a famous endangered resident well. Today, however, only fierce conservation efforts stand between the majestic California condor and extinction.

The largest flying bird native to North America, the California condor is an ongoing conservation effort of grave importance. These immense condors are a relic of the Ice Age, sporting a massive 10-foot wingspan only a handful of other extant species can match.

Lead poisoning and loss of habitat, however, would leave the condors near total annihilation by 1967. The 1980s saw the beginnings of a huge conservation effort that thrives to this day, however, and these magnificent giants can now be seen coasting the canyons of Zion National Park.

Both Angels Landing and Kolob Terrace are excellent spots to see the California condor today.

5. The Park Hosts One of the Largest Freestanding Arches in the World

Zion National Park, Great Arch. (Photo By: MyLoupe/UIG Via Getty Images)

Look at the scale of these trees in contrast to Zion’s Great Arch, and it becomes immediately clear that this is one of the largest freestanding arches in the world. 

Arches National Park takes most of the credit when it comes to these natural formations, but Zion hosts a few others that are just as impressive, too. Kolob Arch, located in Zion’s backcountry Kolob Canyons District, was formed millions of years ago, fitting inside a relatively small canyon. But once you’re there, you’ll lay eyes on another of the world’s largest natural arches. It’s 287 feet long and shapes like a condor’s wing. The only Arch larger is the Landscape Arch in Arches National Park.

4. There’s a 1.1-Mile-Long Tunnel Running Through Zion

“Does this place look a little familiar? This is the east exit of the Zion Mt. Carmel Tunnel as it was being constructed in the late 1920s,” the park says on Instagram of the historic tunnel.

Work began on this immense 1.1-mile-long tunnel in 1927. At the time, “Publicity about Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon, and the newly designated Zion National Park spurred an interest in building a “grand circle” to connect all three parks,” the caption continues. “In 1923, the Bureau of Public Roads and State Road Commission were tasked with finding a route through Zion National Park.”

This route became Zion’s Mt. Carmel Tunnel. It took 2 years and 10 months to complete the masterwork, which was finally completed in June of 1930. It was the most expensive piece of roadway built at the time, costing $1.9 million, or $33.1 million today.

3. Zion National Park Has a Subway, Too – But It’s Not What You’d Expect

Tourists wade through freezing water as they hike up the Virgin River at an area called the Zion Narrows, Zion National Park. (Photo credit: MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s a fascinating subway running beneath Zion, but it’s certainly not used for public transport. Known as The Subway, the cavern runs through miles of the national park. To traverse it, visitors must rappelling, caving, wading, and even full-on swimming.

There are no trails leading to The Subway, either, so visitors must be up for the challenge of first finding the underground system. A permit is required to do so. And once you have it, you’d better be prepared for an adventure like no other through Zion National Park.

2. Zion Was Originally A National Monument and Named Something Else Entirely

In the time before Zion was a national park, the area was designated as Mukuntuweap National Monument. President William Howard Taft did so in 1909, three years after the passing of the 1906 Antiquities Act.

Zion spent a full decade as Mukuntuweap National Monument, undergoing significant expansion during this time. The name Mukuntuweap came from John Wesley Powell, a famous surveyor who took to the lands in 1872. The name honored the Indigenous Southern Paiute, centuries-old inhabitants of the region for centuries. In the Paiute language, “Mukuntuweap” means “straight canyon” or “straight river.”

Other translations include “the place where the Great Spirit dwells” and “Muggins’ farm” as possible meanings, too. But how did the park get its current unique name?

1. Where Zion National Park Got Its ‘Heavenly’ Name

North America, USA, Utah, Kolb Canyon, Zion National Park, Vistas along East Kolb Canyon Road. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Meaning sanctuary or refuge, the word “Zion” comes from the ancient Hebrew language. According to the DOI, it was Mormon pioneers who were the first Anglo-European settlers to scout the area in the late 1800s. They chose Zion for this magnificent place as a testament to its “heavenly” qualities.

After the incarnations above (in Fact #2), President Woodrow Wilson would sign a bill into law establishing Zion National Park into law on November 19, 1919.

For more on the history of our great National Park Service, head on over to our Outsider’s Quick History of the National Park Service next. And be sure to check out our Top 10 Things to Know About Yellowstone National Park with photos, as well.