Take a drive through the heart of Zion National Park, and it’s easy to think that not much has changed since the very first people to inhabit the area walked the canyon. But while the park is a wonderful example of the benefits of preserving natural landmarks for future generations to see and explore, it has a long and eventful past and has been both home and a destination for a variety of cultures and people.
In fact, the area was first inhabited around 1,500 years ago and has largely remained populated or in use ever since. Ready to start preparing for your next visit? Keep reading to learn more about the rich history of this unique park.
Zion’s First Visitors
Researchers agree that the earliest known visitors to what is now Zion National Park came to the region around 6,000 B.C.E. These early visitors likely didn’t settle in the area permanently. Instead, they were hunters and gathers, living and moving in small groups that followed migration patterns of large wildlife and the growing seasons of the nuts and berries that they foraged for.
Because these early people led nomadic lives and didn’t build villages and settlements, they have left behind very few traces of their time in the region, making it difficult to learn more about their way of life. However, dry caves and burial sites dug into the dry earth have preserved some items, like baskets, sandals, and tools that let us know they were here.
The Region’s First Settlers
It wasn’t until 300 B.C.E. that native groups began to plant small patches of crops, including mostly corn and squash, near sources of water. This includes the Virgin River, one of the only reliable natural sources of water in the area. Like the earlier hunter and gatherer tribes, little is known about these first farmers, and few artifacts remain.
But within just a few centuries, these small patches of crops grew into large-scale farming. It was at this time that two distinct tribes, the Ancestral Puebloan and the Parowan Fremont, emerged in the region. Both groups developed villages with permanent houses and farmed the low-lying areas near the water.
The Parowan Fremont people remained largely hunters, while the Ancestral Puebloan people developed many diverse crops and planted extensive fields. However, by C.E. 1300, both groups left the area, to destinations unknown. It’s likely that extended droughts during this period, separated by catastrophic floods, much like the flash floods that the area still experiences today, likely drove them away.
From the time that those early groups left the region until the late 1700s, nomadic tribes passed through the area, mostly hunting and gathering, though occasionally planting crops.
Europeans Arrive in the Region
European Americans began exploring the Southwest in the late 1700s. They developed the Old Spanish Trail, a trade route that connected New Mexico to Los Angeles. Fur trappers and other merchants traveled this rough trail with mule pack teams to take their wares to growing cities in the west.
It wasn’t until 1872, when John Wesley Powell led an exploration of the area around Zion Canyon as part of a western study by the U.S. Geological Survey, that the region was charted and mapped. Also during this time, trails through the area that once carried merchants and fur trappers now began carrying wagons, which were traveling from Santa Fe to various cities in California.
Zion’s First European American Settlers
Before John Wesley Powell led his survey team, the first European American settlers built log cabins in the area. The very first settler was Issac Behunin, a Mormon settler who built a one-room cabin near what is now the Zion Lodge. Other settlers soon followed, and homesteads and towns popped up throughout the canyon along the Virgin River.
From the time that Issac Behunin built his cabin in 1863 through the end of the century, life was tough for these early settlers. Flooding regularly destroyed their homes and crops. The soil was poor along the upper Virgin River, limiting the available growing area and making it impossible to get away from the unpredictable floods. Many settlers left the area, and whole towns were abandoned.
Tourism Arrives in Southern Utah
While the landscape of what is now Zion National Park was largely determined to be uninhabitable for farmers by the start of the 20th century, it had attracted the eye of developers for a different reason; tourism.
In 1909, the area was designated as the Mukuntuweap National Monument, thanks to a Presidential Executive Order. Getting to the park was still difficult, and few visitors made their way down the rough existing roads in the monument’s early years.
However, roads were quickly improved. Wylie Camp, a tent camp that was established in the park’s early years, could be reached by car by 1917, and visitor numbers quickly grew from there.
Just two years later, in 1919, Congress promoted the monument to a national park and changed the name to Zion. A few years later, the Union Pacific extended a rail line to nearby Cedar City. Alongside the Utah Parks Company, they began offering combination rail and bus tours to Zion, as well as nearby Bryce Canyon and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. They acquired Wylie Camp, which would be replaced by the first Zion Lodge in the mid-1920s.
To accommodate an increase in traffic through the canyon and to Bryce Canyon, the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel was built in 1930. It remains an engineering marvel, even today.
Zion National Park Today
Thousands of years after the first people gazed across Zion Canyon, more than 4.5 million people visit the park each year. While the way that they get to the park and how they experience it has changed by leaps and bounds, many of the stunning views remain largely the same.
Take a quiet morning stroll along the Virgin River or a sunset hike along the upper canyon, and imagine what early Native Americans or European American settlers were seeing when they walked the same paths.
If you’re ready to experience this incredible piece of living history for yourself, now is the time to start planning your next visit. Start searching for the perfect hotel or vacation rental for your visit today!