History of Zion National Park

Native Peoples

Zion’s unique geology greatly influenced the cultural development of its early inhabitants. While the earliest people to use the land around Zion were thought to be hunter-gatherers that roamed the Great Basin from 6,000 B.C., an increasing sparsity of resources eventually led to the practice of limited agriculture in the arid soil, and to semi-permanent settlement. Archeological sites dating from 300 B.C. showed a preponderance of baskets and other woven artifacts, earning this culture the name “Basketmakers.”

Petroglyph

Two distinct horticultural societies emerged in the region over the following centuries — the Ancestral Puebloan and the Parowan Fremont. These societies were typified by their use of pottery and the construction of permanent settlements, complete with storage sites and tools for food preparation. Judging by the grindstones that they left, the most prominent foodstuff among these societies was corn. The Parowan Fremont in particular cultivated a cold- and drought-resistant kind of corn that grew well at high elevations. Yet even the cultivation of specially adapted crops could not save these horticultural societies from the massive droughts and flooding that affected the region by the 12th century.

The next peoples to move to the region were well-adapted to desert living. While some groups, such as the Southern Paiute, cultivated corn, sunflowers and other crops, much of the lifestyle in the region returned to semi-permanent settlement and hunting and gathering.

American Settlement and Park Establishment

Mormon settlement of Utah Territory paved the way for expansion into the Zion region’s sun belt. Starting in the 1860s, homesteads and towns began popping up along the Virgin River, hoping to grow cash crops like cotton. But the same difficulties that wiped out the first permanent communities of Native Americans soon besieged the new settlers. Drought and flash flooding, combined with poor soil conditions, lead many down the quick, brutal road to ruin.

But not all was lost. The new American interest in tourism, spurred in large part by the establishment of national parks, ripened the destination potential of Zion and its surrounding regions. Established by executive order in 1909, Mukuntuweap National Monument was the first important step in preserving the area. The second crucial step would be building sufficient infrastructure to support it.

As it stood at inception, Mukuntuweap — later renamed Zion — was taxing to get to. No rails came within 100 miles of the area, and local roads were shoddy at best. Over the next decade, state transportation commissions and officials would spearhead initiatives that improved road and rail access, as well as built tourism-related services in the region. By 1919, when Zion was established as a national park, cars could access the park’s rustic campgrounds.

Later improvements, undertaken from the 1930s, would include a lodge complex, a highway connecting Zion with nearby Bryce Canyon (which included a 5,600-foot tunnel) and the construction and maintenance of trails, campsites and additional facilities. The tourism economy continues to support local communities around Zion today.