July 5th, 4:28am

A Sanctuary in the Desert

Zion National Park has likely been our most difficult park to date. Even for a desert as lush as the Zion canyon, the red rock landscape cliffs provided a backdrop that seemed to intensify the heat, as it rose to 102, 104, 109 degrees in the heart of the mid-June heat wave.


It was here that our process became vital. Even those who know it well will admit the desert is an acquired taste, and this was just our first visit. As we struggled to adapt, our interviews with locals became more important than ever. Only in this way were we invited to see the desert through the eyes of those who love and respect this place. Respect came easy for us, but it was only through their passion and enthusiasm that we saw the desert as a lush and generous landscape.

We leave Zion with another stack of books (we’re building the best library ever!), from the quintessential “Water, Rocks, Time” to “Why the North Star Stands Still,” a book of Paiute legends. Before we make our way into Yosemite National Park, we keep these following themes from the desert in mind.

A Geology Park

“This is the place where the earth opens itself up and says here’s my story.” The canyon walls surround you as you enter, announce themselves as they tower 2000 feet over the visitors. Unlike in most national parks, there is no road to to the top of the canyon—it wasn’t possible to build one here. A hiking trail up to Angel’s Landing required 23 switchbacks to tackle such a steep grade; a trail affectionately named “Walter’s Wiggles.”

Geologists have flocked here, and spell out the recipe for the formation of this canyon. Step 1: Collect sand, gravel, and mud into a nearly flat basin. Repeat sedimentation until 10,000 feet of material has collected. Step 2: Seep in water with iron oxide, calcium carbonate, and silica to bind all agents, so that with pressure, sand dunes turn into sandstone. Step 3: Lift area above sea level. And Step 4: Unleash the Virgin River, concentrating its mighty flow over this rock, and eroding over time the canyons and valleys that define this landscape. Millions of years later, enjoy one Zion National Park. And do consider the time taken to create these mountains, to feel appropriately small.


The geology also creates other unique features throughout the park:

- Snow melt and rainfall seeping into the top of the rock, travels through the porous sandstone until it reaches the impermeable shale layer, where the water travels sideways and seeps out of the canyon walls. This creates the rock that weeps.
- The straight up and down shape of the canyon creates a daily wind, where the sun heats air that rises through the canyon and up to the plateau. It cools down at night, and blows back down through the canyon. They say this canyon breathes.
- The changing wind direction also formed some of the park’s iconic and most unique rock formations, such as Checkerboard Mesa and the many beehive rocks that can be spotted on the east side of the park.


Land of Many Names

Of all the names given to this canyon, it’s Zion that’s stuck.

Before it was Zion, famed explorer John Wesley Powell recorded the name as Mukuntuweap, as he had heard from the native Paiute people. Mukuntuweap has been translated as “straight river,” and “sacred cliffs,” and also “straight arrow.” Although President Taft declared it Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909, it was renamed Zion when it became a national park in 1919. Unlike Denali in Alaska (renamed Mount McKinley, and recently returned to Denali), there is no movement to return the area to its native name. The difficulty of the pronunciation of Mukuntuweap, and the contested meaning of the native word, paved a clear path to Zion.

Later, Methodist minister and explorer, Frederick Vining Fisher, came here on a trip to name many of the great features of Zion. Fisher declared the tallest mountain as The Great White Throne, a seat fit for God, and its shorter neighbor as Angels Landing. Upon seeing three peaks together, he thought these could only be Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: the Court of the Patriarchs. Even Paiute spirituality lives on in the Temple of Sinawava. Sinawava is Coyote, the hero of many native myths, a mischievous trickster who is also a teacher of people.


A Sanctuary

Zion was first uttered by Isaac Behunin, one of the first Mormon settlers of the canyon. He said, “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church—this is Zion.” Think of Isaac’s point of view. Here in this place was the spring-fed Virgin River flowed, giving life to flora and fauna unseen in many desert lands. And for a Mormon people who were forced out west to escape religious persecution, the canyon walls that rose 2000 feet on all sides offered a sense of peace, of protection. To these weary travelers, this place must truly have felt like their promised land; a place of rest, and sanctuary.To this day, Zion holds on to its metaphors of a spiritual place. The park celebrated its own centennial in 2009, celebrating “A Century a Sanctuary.”

But humans aren’t the only species to consider the canyon a sanctuary. In the desert, over 500 times more species are found near water then in the surrounding desert landscape. Zion is home to peregrine falcons, mountain lions, kangaroo rats, and bighorn sheep—all adapted to live in the cracks, crevices, and cliffs of this landscape. The Zion snail lives only in the hanging gardens that are created by the rocks that weep. Even a pair of endangered California condors have decided to nest in the park, although a recent death jeopardizes the future of this family.


With so much protected land, Utah’s lack of light pollution also makes it a sanctuary for viewing the night sky. Wondering about the stars is yet another activity that connects visitors to their ancestors, whose stories explained how these lights fell into place. Do you see Orion preparing to fight Taurus? Or know why does Cassiopeia sit upside down? With more development in nearby cities like Las Vegas, the Colorado Dark Sky cooperative works to the new waning wilderness of a dark sky.

For as green as it can all seem, this is a fragile desert, and requires time to invent itself. Yearly rainfall amounts to a mere 15 inches. Farming, recreation, and grazing have already changed the landscape here, and presents challenges for those preserving this ecosystem. Any damage can throw the ecosystem off balance and threaten this wild sanctuary. Here in the desert, recovery may take another million years.

Floods and Fury

The spiritual metaphor is apt not only for the reverence that this canyon inspires, but also the fury that it can hold as well. Active erosion still causes rock to fall from cliffs. Flash floods arrive without warning. And the intense heat of the desert challenges the presence of humans here.


It’s hard to describe in words the intensity of the heat in the desert. Consider that most of the wildlife in Zion National Park is nocturnal. After just one week camping in the park, we adopted the same lifestyle—moving around at dawn and at dusk, struggling to escape the sun’s debilitating grasp.

Thank goodness for the Virgin River. Some think that Zion should be called “Virgin River National Park,” for its the river that carved the canyon, that brought the settlers, that makes possible any life here. Although a small river, it’s one that moves at extraordinary speed, at an average rate of 60 cubic feet per second (cfs). And even with blue skies in Zion, rainfall north of the river can bring furious flash floods through the canyon, increasing the water flow up to 2000 cfs, bringing whole trees and other debris with it. In 1995, a massive landslide and flood wiped out the main road, stranding visitors at the Zion Lodge for a few extra nights. Just last year, 7 hikers ignored officials’ warnings and trusted the blue skies, unfortunately met and killed by a flash flood in Keyhole Canyon.


This unpredictable power made life difficult for early settlers. Taming the land and growing crop was frequently challenged by floods that could reconfigure the landscape in an instant, and without warning. If it wasn’t the flood, the active cliff face posed a threat. Throughout the park, there are numerous blind arches, that are remnants of giant boulders breaking free from the canyon wall. Water in various rock layers will freeze and thaw, eventually send massive boulders down to the canyon below. One unofficial account tells of a Mormon family returned from Sunday church service to find fragments of a boulder had settled where their farm used to be.

On the Map

We found in Zion, no great movements, no revered individuals who led the movement for preservation. Unlike with a park, a National Monument only requires a president’s signature. This can account in part to the slow start for visitors to Zion. Also a factor was that the route out West was then still pioneer territory. Instead of advocacy, early Zion history is a story of a community campaign to extol the virtues of this destination.

The Union Pacific Railroad was the most important commercial advocate. Needing passengers as owner of the rail lines to the West, the railroad established the Utah Parks Company, producing brochures and advertisements for wide distribution. They also built grand lodges in Zion and Bryce Canyon, assuring visitors of comfortable accommodations. The “Grand Circle” tour they created and promoted—a train to Cedar City, Utah, then bus to Zion National Park, North Rim of Grand Canyon, to Bryce Canyon, and then Cedar Breaks National Monument—finally established a trek out west. Its legacy still exists today, with the Utah’s “Mighty5” campaign now including Utah’s other parks (Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands), and air & car travel encouraging a stop in a very different kind of wild—Las Vegas.


Artists also played a vital role in this campaign. As part of John Wesley Powell’s 1903 expedition, Frederick S. Dellenbaugh spent much of the summer painting Zion Canyon. His paintings at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and article in Scribner’s Magazine flowed with superlatives describing Zion’s wondrous landscape. Painters like Howard Russell Butler and Maynard Dixon continued to make paint and exhibit their Zion landscapes, assuring a place in public imagination for this red rock landscape.

There were other efforts to increase visitation. A plan was hatched to create a road connecting Zion to Bryce and Grand Canyons. This Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, would have to blast through 1 mile of solid rock, an engineering feat that had never been attempted before.  A quirkier effort included six University of Utah women. In June of 1919, the feminist movement had just earned the right to vote. It was thought that six women, as the first tourists of newly re-declared Zion National Park, could re-introduce the “gigantic grandeur” of the park. Their adventures were captured and published in national newspapers to promote the park.

It took 56 years for the park to reach 1 million annual visitors in 1975. With 3.7 million annual visitors in 2015, today’s visitor may be nostalgic for those early days. In fact, a defining feature of the today’s visit is the Zion shuttle. Efforts to increase visitation had become so successful, that by 1997, the park was experiencing incredible traffic and resource damage. Then park superintendent successfully worked with nearby Springdale to design an alternative to automobiles on the main scenic road. Today, all visitors are invited to shuttles that take visitors through Springdale, and through the Zion Canyon.


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If the desert is an acquired taste, we were slow to drink it in. But our process enable us to assemble a map of place through the lens of lived experience. In Zion National Park, the landscape itself is the wonder, a place that “opens itself up and tells you its story.” We saw a deeply spiritual place, through its history of its settlement, and the history of a river’s patience. But we also saw the intensity of that same spiritual power. There are stories to tell here - we get more excited to share stories as we dive deeper into our research - but any additional research on Zion will have to wait until we’re back home.

After a short break along the California coastline, we make our way to Yosemite National Park, fresh off the heels of a visit by the President!