Last Fall, 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. In fact, today, more than 4 million people visit the park each year alone.
While visitors in 2019 and 1919 marveled at the same towering rock structures and dipped their feet in the same cool water of the Virgin River, 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.
Before Zion Existed, Settlers Lived Off the Land
Today, as you wander the Zion Human History Museum, you can check out pictures and artifacts from the time before Zion National Park existed. Mormon pioneers arrived in the area in the 1850s. By 1861, the first white farmer established a homestead, and within a year, other families had joined him, building their homes and plowing the land near today’s Springdale.
The first visitors to the park wouldn’t have looked upon pictures of the park as farmland as a look back through history; they were still living it. Mormon farmers continued to work the land up until the very year that it was federally protected; 1909. Cabins, farm fields, and other artifacts of that period would have still been present and visible throughout the area.
Traveling to Zion in the early 1900s
One of the biggest ways that the experience of today’s visitors differ from that of early guests is how they arrive at the park.
Today, most tourists drive to the park. Many fly into St. George or even Las Vegas, and then take a road trip to the park. Bus tours, from Las Vegas and even 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 ordinary, and even those families that had the luxury of a car would have struggled to get to the park.
When Mukuntuweap 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 wiped out roadways and made them inaccessible.
In 1910s,, the Utah State Road Commission began construction on a state highway system. Throughout the coming decades, roads slowly began to link Zion to cities and other parks in the region.
Rail Travel Arrives at the Park
While passenger air travel was still a distant dream, rail travel was very popular at this time. Unfortunately, in 1909, the nearest railhead was over a hundred miles away from the entrance to the park.
While the Utah State Road Commission began working on their new highway system, the state also started negotiating with the Union Pacific Railroad about developing rail links to tourist destinations throughout Southern Utah.
By 1917, railroads and roads allowed touring cars to take visitors all the way into the park, to Zion’s first lodging option.
Staying Overnight in Zion National Park
Staying overnight in Zion or nearby Springdale is a treat that most visitors today take advantage of. But 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, 100 years ago, that wasn’t an option. Because travel to and from Zion and Mukuntuweap took much longer than it does now, visitors needed a place to stay if they wanted to experience the park.
Before Zion Lodge, Wylie Camp was the only option. Named for William Wallace Wylie, Wylie Camps were systems of permanent campsites developed in a variety of early national parks, including Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.
These camps were usually reached by rail and then automobile. 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 camping gear.
Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel Connects the Upper and Lower Canyons
Most of Zion’s modern visitors enter the park through the South Entrance, located at the mouth of Springdale. But there is actually a second gate, the East Entrance, located on the other side of the park. Even when the Zion Canyon Shuttle is in operation, visitors can still drive through the park and out the East Entrance. This entrance also allows visitors to get to Bryce Canyon National Park and other parts of Utah much faster than going around the park.
In 1919, getting through the park in this way would have been impossible. Until the 1930s, when the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel connected the upper and lower canyons, visitors to the park would have had to go out and around the park quite a distance to reach the top of the park.
Zion Continues to Evolve
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! Zion National Park continues to change and evolve in a variety of ways. Rockslides, the shifting river, and other elements change the landscape, while human intervention brings new visitor centers and other adjustments to how visitors experience the park.
Of course, if we want our ancestors to enjoy the same beautiful Zion that we know and love today, each and every one of us needs to do our part to protect the land and the plants and animals that call it home.
For tips and guidelines to help you minimize your impact while still enjoying the park, check out this post next.