What Would it Have Been Like to Visit Zion in 1919?

In 2019, Zion celebrated 100 years as a national park. 

In the century since the park first opened to visitors, millions of people have passed through its gates. Today, 4 million people visit the park each year. While visitors in both 2019 and 1919 marveled at the same towering rock structures and plunging canyons, their experiences were incredibly different. 

Ever wonder what it might have been like to be one of Zion’s first visitors? Keep reading to find out.

Zion National Park wasn’t “historical” yet, but there were definitely humans

Today, as you wander the Zion Human History Museum, you can check out pictures and artifacts from the time before Zion National Park was formally established. The first visitors to the park wouldn’t have had historical pictures of the park being used as farmland; they were still living that reality. 

Native Americans were the first people (on record, at least) to visit what is now Zion National Park. The Anasazi people inhabited Zion from approximately 1,500 to 800 years ago, leaving behind abandoned cliff houses and rock art throughout the park. When Latter-day Saint settlers arrived in the 1850s, the Paiute Native Americans also occupied the canyon. 

The settlers established several homesteads near present-day Springdale by 1862. This group of farmers continued to work the land up until 1909, the year the land that is now Zion National Park became federally protected. Cabins, farm fields, and other artifacts left behind by both the settlers and Native Americans of that period would have still been present throughout the area in 1919.

Traveling was a much bigger part of the journey

One of the biggest ways present-day visitors’ experiences differ from that of early guests is how they arrive at Zion National Park. 

Today, most visitors drive to the park. Many fly into St. George or Las Vegas and then take a road trip to the park. Bus tours from Las Vegas and Salt Lake City are also popular.

Of course, 100 years ago, plane travel wasn’t an option. And while cars were around, they weren’t as common as they are today. Even the families who enjoyed the luxury of a vehicle in 1919 would have struggled to get to the park – automobile technology was new and far less refined. 

When Zion was first opened to visitors, the only roads that existed were those that were in place before the lands were federally protected. These rugged dirt roads were forged by farmers. They wound around mountains and rivers, over rocky surfaces. Ruts from wagon wheels made for a bumpy ride. Flash floods often wiped out roadways and made them inaccessible. 

In the 1910s, the Utah State Road Commission began construction on a state highway system – conveniently synchronized with Zion’s official national park status. Throughout the following decades, the roads and car technology slowly progressed, making Zion as connected and accessible as we know it today.

Options for staying overnight in (or near) Zion National Park were limited

Camping overnight in Zion or staying nearby in Springdale is a treat that most visitors today take advantage of. But, thanks to modern transportation, you could technically fly into St. George, drive to the park for the day, and catch a flight back to your home city, all in less than 24 hours. You wouldn’t see much, but it could be done.

Of course, none of those options existed 100 years ago. Because travel to and from Zion took much longer than it does now, visitors required a place to stay – often for several days – to experience the park. And back in 1919, the pickings were slim.

Before Zion Lodge came around in 1924, permanent campsites were the only option. They were available in several of the early national parks, including Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. They featured canvas tents and cots. A central dining tent provided home cooked meals. If visitors wanted to venture out into the wilderness, they could rent saddle stock and mobile camping gear for their own exploration.

While these camps may seem a bit rugged when compared to the luxuries some modern visitors enjoy, they did allow an opportunity to authentically connect with the park in a way people still seek out today. Thousands of visitors still flock to reserve a campsite in Zion National Park. Sorry, home cooked meals are no longer included. And glamping has taken the vacation scene by storm for travelers who want the best of both worlds. 

What will Zion be like in 2119?

If you think that the experience of visitors to the park in 1919 and 2019 were vastly different, just imagine what the park will be like 100 years from now. Time marches on, water and weather influence the landscape, and Zion National Park continues to change and evolve even as you read this sentence. Rockslides, the persistent Virgin River, and other elements of the landscape shift under the very feet of visitors who continue to make the trek and witness the wonder that is Zion National Park. 

It is up to us to protect this wonder for future generations so Zion can live and thrive for centuries to come. Keep exploring to learn more about Zion’s history and how to be a good steward.