How Zion National Park Became the Treasure We Know and Love Today

In just under two weeks, Zion National Park’s centennial celebrations will begin (or, if you’ve been lucky enough to enjoy the concerts or museum exhibits that have already been going on, continuing). Zion may be celebrating 100 years since it officially became a national park. But the towering cliffs, sweeping valley, and stunning landmarks have a history that’s much, much longer in the making. Keep reading to learn a little about the history of the park that we know and love today.

Native Americans Become the First Humans in the Region

There’s no way of knowing exactly who the very first humans were to pass through Zion. Or even when they first visited. Scientists largely agree that Native Americans were in the area at least as early as 6,000 B.C. These early visitors were nomadic in nature. This meant that they passed through the land that is now a part of the park but didn’t set up villages or farm the land. Instead, they hunted and gathered. But they still left behind only trace clues that they were there, like tools or other remnants in caves in the region.

By 300 B.C., the first evidence of Native Americans actually settling in the area began. These early settlers planed crops, including corn and squash. It’s unclear whether they settled in the park year-round at this point, or whether they stayed only during the warmer months to plant and harvest their crops.

It would take until 500 A.D. for year-round settlements to definitely appear. Two separate tribes of indigenous people built towns and planted larger farm fields. This included both the Virgin Anasazi and the Parowan Fremont tribes. These tribes flourished for a long time until extreme droughts in the 11th and 12th centuries drove them from the region. 

The last Native American tribes to settle in today’s Zion were the Numic People. They came to the region in the 1300s. Another nomadic tribe, they would continue to pass in and out of the area until the late 1700s, when early European settlers would lay claim to the land.

The Europeans and Americans Arrive

As the last Native American tribes moved out of the area, Early European explorers arrived. Often traveling up and down the Virgin River, these explorers were mostly fur traders and government surveyors. They came to map the region and lay claim to it.

In the late 1840s, Brigham Young, the famous Mormon leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, brought a group of settlers to the region, which was then called the Utah Territory. They started in the Great Salt Lake Valley before eventually traveling down the Virgin River and setting up towns near its banks. Some of these towns, like Springdale and Paradise, still exist today.  A Mormon settler by the name of Issac Behunin built the first American home on land that is now a part of the park, building a cabin near where the Zion Lodge stands today. 

These early settlers suffered the same terrible flooding that Native Americans contended with. This eventually drove many settlers away and led to the abandonment of many of the towns built along the river.

Mukuntuweap National Monument is Formed

Before the land became Zion National Park, it actually went by an entirely different name; Mukuntuweap National Monument. In the early 20th century, the first efforts were launched to preserve the park, culminating in President William Howard Taft establishing a national monument. 

The “Mukuntuweap” name was not popular. Not long after the National Park Service was established, the name was changed to “Zion.” Just two years later, on November 19, 1919, a large portion of land was added to the monument, and it officially became Zion National Park.

Early visitors to the park arrived via a rugged road or railroad tour. Prior to 1925, when the Zion Lodge was built, visitors could stay at the primitive Wylie Camp. Visitor numbers remained low until 1930 when the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway opened up the park and made it easier for visitors to get to the park.

Through the years, additional land has been added to the park. In 1937, Kolob Canyons became a part of Zion. A separate portion of land that was previously called Zion National Monument was also added to the national park in 1956.

Zion National Park Today

Zion National Park has come a long way since Native Americans first passed through the rugged, beautiful region. Now, the national park is the fourth-most visited in the country. Millions of visitors making their way to the park every year. And the park continues to change even today. New facilities, improvements, and more seem to be rolled out every year. 2020 is no exception; check out the changes that are coming to the park next year.