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History and Heritage

Just 43 miles east of St. George lies Zion National Park, Utah’s oldest and most visited national park. Officially established in 1919, an average of 4.5 million visitors per year enter to observe the stunning rock monoliths and eroded canyon walls cut over time by the Virgin River.

The Anasazi people inhabited what is now Zion from approximately 1,500 to 800 years ago, leaving behind abandoned cliff houses and rock art throughout the park. When Nephi Johnson arrived in what would become Zion National Park in 1858, the Paiute Native Americans occupied the canyon. Isaac Behunin became the first permanent European-American settler in the canyon when he built a one-room log cabin near the present location of Zion Lodge in 1861. Behunin named his new home Zion, remarking, “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church – this is Zion.” A few other settlers soon joined Behunin, establishing farms along the narrow valley floor. 

The second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, John Wesley Powell, surveyed the area in 1872 and recorded the canyon’s name as Mukuntuweap, a Native American word meaning “straight canyon.” 

Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, an artist who was part of one of Powell’s trips down the Colorado, spent part of the summer of 1903 painting in Zion Canyon. Dellenbaugh exhibited his paintings at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and wrote an article that same year in Scibner’s Magazine flowing with superlatives describing Zion’s wondrous landscape, saying of the Great Temple that stands at the entrance to Zion Canyon: “Without a shred of disguise its transcendent form rises pre-eminent. There is almost nothing to compare to it.”

In 1909, President William Howard Taft signed a proclamation creating Mukuntuweap National Monument to protect Zion Canyon and its surrounding area. The first road up the canyon was finished in 1917 with the help of appropriations secured by Utah Sen. Reed Smoot. The Woodrow Wilson administration significantly expanded it and renamed it Zion National Monument in 1918. In 1919, it received national park status.

Zion’s history is also articulated in the exhibits of The Zion Human History Museum, just inside the Main Canyon Entrance of the Park. See the in-museum film, We the Keepers, a production of the Zion Forever Project, to learn more about the park’s heritage and its current caretakers.