10 Unique Facts About Zion National Park and Its Surreal Landscape

Sunrise at Zion National Park, Utah
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Located in southwest Utah and defined by its breathtakingly steep red cliffs, Zion National Park contains some of the most scenic canyon landscapes in the United States.

From the impressive number of animals and plant species to the archaeological discoveries made within its boundaries, here are 10 stunning facts about Zion National Park.

Zion National Park Encompasses 232 Square Miles 

On the canyon floor, there are some thrilling opportunities for hiking in the 20-30-foot-wide area known as the Narrows or the smaller slot canyon known as the Subway.

The high cliffs of Zion Canyon also help create waterfalls and colorful hanging gardens, while the 5,000 elevation change from the highest point at Horse Ranch Mountain to the lowest point at Coal Pits Wash gives the park a diverse topography with a variety of habitats and ecosystems.

It Is Home to 78 Species of Mammals

Goats standing on rock formation in Zion National Park
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Zion’s landscapes provide habitats for a wide range of wildlife, including 78 species of mammals, 30 species of reptiles, seven species of amphibians, eight species of fish, and 291 species of birds.

The park also has a high concentration of protected animals, like the endangered California condor and the threatened Mexican spotted owl. Zion even has a small population of Mojave desert tortoises, a rare, federally threatened species that spends almost all of its time inside burrows.

The Park Has 2,000-Foot Sandstone Cliffs

The rock layers that you’ll see in Zion today were deposited into the area between 110 and 270 million years ago, the Navajo sandstone made up of layered minerals formed by windblown sand dunes.

On average, the sandstone cliffs have a depth of about 2,000 feet, which helps make this park a world-renowned climber’s paradise. Every year from March through May and then again from September through November, hikers flock to the national park to participate in big wall climbs.

There Are More Than 1,000 Plant Species in Zion

Greenery inside Zion National Park
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The unique elevation and resulting habitats help support over 1,000 species of plants in Zion National Park. You’ll find mixed conifer and aspen forests on the high plateaus, cacti and desert shrubs in the arid grasslands at lower elevations, and a multitude of aquatic plants in the riparian area of the Virgin River.

Zion is also famous for its springs and hanging gardens of mosses, ferns, and wildflowers, which are fed by the water that seeps out of the Navajo sandstone.

Zion Contains the Fourth Largest Freestanding Arch in the World

Kolob Canyon, Zion National Park, Utah
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It isn't all sheer cliffs and canyons inside the park; Zion also boasts one of the world’s largest freestanding, natural stone arches. Kolob Arch is tucked away in the backcountry wilderness areas, specifically in the Kolob Canyons District.

The remote arch measures just over 287 feet long, and the trail to get there has become somewhat of a favorite challenge for adventure-seeking visitors to the park.

Kolob is the second largest arch in the country (second only to Landscape Arch in Arches National Park) and the fourth largest on Earth.

Zion National Park Is Part of an Active Volcano Field

The oldest volcano in the park is located in the Kolob Volcano field, which is estimated at 1.1 million years old, while there are four others along the Kolob Terrace Road that erupted 220,000 and 310,000 years ago as well.

Although the type of volcano field that Zion rests on typically erupts about every 10,000 years, a shorter period in between eruptions is always a possibility. The last eruption inside Zion is believed to have happened 32,000 years ago.

Zion Was Utah’s First National Park

President Woodrow Wilson established Zion National Park on November 19, 1919. Before that, it was a national monument—though it didn’t go by the name Zion. The park was initially protected in 1909 by President Willian Howard Taft as the Mukuntuweap National Monument.

According to the National Parks Conservation Association, the decision to change the name from the native Southern Paiute “Mukuntuweap” to “Zion” was an attempt to attract more visitors to the park. Horace Albright, who was the Park Service’s acting director at the time, felt that the name was too difficult to pronounce and spell when he first visited in 1917.

Zion Also Helps Protect Important Archeological Sites

Petroglyphs in Zion National Park, Utah
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Evidence of early humans dating back to at least 6,000 B.C. is spread throughout the boundaries of the park, including petroglyphs and pictographs.

Most of these sites are either closed to the public or not advertised in order to prevent damage, but visitors can get special permission from the Zion Canyon Visitors Center to see some of them.

It Has One of the Most Dramatic Hikes in the Country

Angels Landing in Zion National Park
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Angels Landing Trail is a 5-mile round trip hike with a steep 1,500-foot elevation gain inside Zion National Park. The final 0.7 miles of the trail are about 5 feet wide and consist of a set of 21 incredibly steep switchbacks with drops on either side.

While the views are nothing short of magnificent, and the park maintains chains, guard rails, and carved steps in some of the more dangerous portions of the hike, Angels Landing Trail has claimed the lives of 13 people since the year 2000.

The Canyon Is Continually Changing

The Virgin River that winds through Zion Canyon continues to carve and shape the landscape to this day, removing 1 million tons of sediment every year.

Thanks to the steep uplift of the Colorado Plateau, the river drops an average of 71 feet for every mile that it travels inside the park (as a reference, the Mississippi River drops one inch every mile).

View Article Sources
  1. "Rock Layers." National Park Service.

  2. "Plants." National Park Service.

  3. Willis, Grant. "Every Record Must Fall- an Update on the Largest Arches in the World." UGS Survey Notes, vol. 44, no. 1, 2012.

  4. "Volcanoes of Zion and Southwest Utah." National Park Service.

  5. "People." National Park Service.

  6. "Rivers and Streams." National Park Service.