You are here

Park History: Zion National Park

Situated near Springdale in southwestern Utah, Zion National Park is one of America’s most popular national parks. This remarkable park might very well be called Mukuntuweap National Park today were it not for unhappy Mormons and a faithful sidekick standing in for an iconic National Park Director who suffered terrible bouts of depression. It’s a fascinating story.

In the early 1850s, Mormon pioneers dispatched from Salt Lake City by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints leadership became the first white settlers of the Virgin River region in southwestern Utah. In 1851 they settled in the Cedar City area and began growing cotton and other crops. (Historians know this as the “cotton campaign,” and the early Mormon cotton growing region of the southern Utah plateaus is known as “Mormon Dixie.”) By 1858, the Mormon-settled area had pushed 75 miles up the Virgin River corridor into the immediate vicinity of Zion Canyon. At this time, these remote canyonlands were wild and barely explored.

The remarkable physical feature we now call Zion Canyon is located on the southern part of the Markagunt Plateau where it is deeply dissected by the Virgin River and its tributaries. Erosion has left deep canyons (slot-like in many places), soaring cliffs, and huge monoliths. Though strikingly beautiful, this was a harsh environment. And it belonged to the Southern Paiute Indians.

Before a settlement toehold could be established, the Mormons first had to know what sort of a place it was and whether it could be farmed. This exploration task was assigned to a young Mormon missionary and translator named Nephi Johnson. Enlisting the aid of a Southern Pauite guide, Johnson made his way into the main canyon in 1858. Upon his return, he rendered a favorable report on the agricultural potential of the canyon floor.

In 1861, Mormon pioneer Joseph Black became the first white to establish a farm on the narrow canyon floor. By 1862, several farming families had founded the town of Springdale just outside the mouth of Zion Canyon. In 1863, a Mormon settler named Isaac Behunin built a one-room log cabin (near the site of Zion Lodge) and farmed tobacco, sugar cane, and fruit trees. It was Behunin who named the place Zion Canyon.

Zion is a biblical word meaning a place of peace and refuge or sanctuary. It is an exceedingly important word to Mormons because it symbolizes a concept central to their history, or more specifically, to their heritage as refugees and pioneers in the western U.S. Persecuted in the eastern states, the early Mormons fled to the Great Basin and the Rocky Mountains beginning on the late 1840s. The Mormon pioneers who struggled to establish an essentially independent Mormon realm (Deseret) are said to have “gathered to Zion.” Eventually, the term Zion itself took on meaning as a symbol of Mormonism, embracing such qualities as courage, dedication to the cause, physical endurance, resoluteness, ingenuity, and faith.

To Isaac Behunin and other Mormons, applying the name Zion to the canyon in which they lived and worked was a profoundly important expression of cultural possession, not just personal ownership. These canyonlands were once fearsome wilderness, but now they had been made habitable by Mormon pioneers at great sacrifice. Limited arable land, poor soils, periodic flooding (some of it catastrophic), and other factors made agriculture quite risky in the upper Virgin River region. Mormons did not have it easy here.

After a while, almost all of the Paiutes died (mostly from diseases) or moved south to new homes. Whatever else the great canyon now called Zion might be, it was not, and would never again be, an Indian place. It was a Mormon place. 

Mormon isolation ended in the 1860s and 1870s with the arrival of outside surveying expeditions, the railroads, and growing numbers of non-Mormon (Gentile) miners and ranchers. But Mormons continued to farm in Zion Canyon until it was federally protected in 1909.

The John Wesley Powell expedition entered the Zion Canyon vicinity in 1869 after their first trip through the Grand Canyon. In 1872, Powell and geologist Grove Karl Gilbert returned to explore Zion Canyon. At that time, Powell named the canyon Mukuntuweap, believing it to be the proper name of the place when it belonged to the Paiutes. 

Mukuntuweap is sometimes translated as “straight arrow,” but expert opinion holds that it means “straight canyon” in Southern Pauite. The term may relate to the very high, near-perpendicular canyon walls.

In the decades following the Powell expeditions, the beauty and geologic wonders of the canyon and monoliths like Cathedral Mountain, Temple of Sinawava, Great White Throne, and the Great Temple (situated near the canyon entrance) were brought to public attention by artists and photographers. 

Artist Frederick S. Dellenbaugh played an especially important role. Dellenbaugh spent part of the summer of 1903 painting in Zion Canyon, and his paintings attracted a good deal of attention when they were exhibited the next year at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.

Dellenbaugh also published an article about Zion Canyon ("A New Valley of Wonders") in the January 1904 issue of Scribner's Magazine. Speaking of the Great Temple, he said: 
One hardly knows just how to think of it. Never before has such a naked mountain of rock entered our minds. Without a shred of disguise its transcendent form rises pre-eminent [sic]. There is almost nothing to compare to it. Niagara has the beauty of energy; the Grand Canyon of immensity; the Yellowstone of singularity; the Yosemite of altitude; the ocean of power; this Great Temple of eternity. 

On July 31, 1909, President William Howard Taft proclaimed Mukuntuweap National Monument. Local residents were shocked and angry. Zion Canyon had been brought within the embrace of the National Park System, but it had been preserved under the historical Indian name for the place.

This was considered a blunt insult to the Mormon heritage of Zion Canyon, and by extension, an insult to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Mormons in general, and residents of the Zion Canyon area in particular, complained loudly and bitterly.

In 1918, the acting Director of the newly created National Park Service, Horace Albright, took matters into his own hands and changed the park's name to Zion National Monument. That settled that. 

Albright was in a position to take this action because the iconic Director of the new agency, Stephen Tyner Mather, was suffering one of his periodic disabling bouts of depression. Albright, who had been appointed assistant director of the agency in May 1917, was acting director 1917-1919, and in this capacity launched the new agency’s operations. Mather eventually left office in January 1929 after suffering a stroke. Albright replaced him, serving as Director from January 12, 1929 - August 9, 1933.

Congress enlarged and redesignated the monument Zion National Park on November 19, 1919. The Kolob section, which was proclaimed a separate Zion National Monument in 1937, was incorporated into the park in 1956.

Zion National Park

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide