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The Watchman Zion National Park

November 19, 2019 marks the 100-year anniversary of our beloved Zion. In 1918, Mukuntuweap National Monument was renamed Zion National Monument and then in fall 1919, a bill was passed by Congress that officially made Zion a national park. Join us on a journey of celebrating Zion over the decades. Oh, how we love this special place and its rich history!

Zion National Park historical entrance sign 1919

Used by permission Utah State Historical Society

1920s in Zion National Park

Construction began on many of Zion’s trails in the 1920s. The Riverside Walk, Observation Point and West Rim trails were all constructed in 1925. The path to Angels Landing was finished in 1926 following the completion of the East Rim Trail. The infamous Walter’s Wiggles, a series of 21 steep switchbacks along the Angels Landing trail, were also constructed in 1926 and are named for Walter Ruesch, Zion National Park’s first superintendent. The next time you have the opportunity to take a hike in Zion, take a moment to appreciate all the hard work that went into building those beautiful trails!

Zion Mt Carmel Tunnel 1930

Used by permission Utah State Historical Society

1930s Zion National Park Growth

In 1930 the Mount Carmel Highway that connects the east side and south entrance of Zion was completed, allowing for much easier travel through the park. This impressive road includes the famous mile-long Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel where the above photo was taken. The Great Depression was hitting America hard at this time and President Roosevelt developed a plan to put unemployed men to work on our public lands. This Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) spent a total of 9 years in Zion building and improving trails, making campgrounds, reducing flooding of the Virgin River, and much more. The next time you have the opportunity to take a hike in Zion, take a moment to appreciate all the hard work that went into building those beautiful trails!

1940s horseback rides ZIon National Park

Used by permission Utah State Historical Society

1940s Tourism in Zion National Park Booms

Tourism in Zion really took off during this decade! Visitors looking for a way to see the park could enjoy guided horseback adventures in Zion canyon. For the truly adventurous, a 1940s guide book advertised: “Escorted [horseback] trips to the East or West rim are made daily; the cost is $5 per person.” In 1947, Utah’s Tourist and Publicity Council released a short film called “Call of the Canyons” that encouraged people to visit Zion and Bryce (Utah’s only two national parks at the time) as well as the surrounding area. The word was out about the beauty of southern Utah; visitors were coming from both near and far to experience the grandeur!

utah state history kolob arch

Used by permission Utah State Historical Society

1950s Kolob Canyons Officially Part of Zion National Park

Mormon pioneers originally settled the area surrounding Kolob Canyons in 1852 and used the land for grazing cattle, collecting timber, and irrigating water. The Kolob Canyons area was named a national monument in 1937 but officially became part of Zion National Park in 1956. Located in the northwest part of the park, Kolob Canyon’s 2000 foot cliffs shouldn’t be overlooked when visiting the area. Pictured above is an early tourist enjoying the beauty of Kolob Arch, accessible via the La Verkin Creek Trail in Kolob Canyons.

Checkerboard Mesa Zion National Park history

Used by permission Utah State Historical Society

1960s Zion Ponderosa Property Purchased

We couldn’t celebrate Zion’s first 100 years without mentioning our own origins at Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort. In the early 1960s, Ray Lewis was living in southern California with his family. While his business was quite successful, Ray was always looking for a reason to move back to his beautiful home state of Utah. One night, Ray’s son-in-law was flipping through the LA Times and saw an ad for 8,500 acres in southern Utah described as, “high desert property, covered with Ponderosa Pine.” Ray’s curiosity got the best of him. Within a few hours, he had packed up his family and was on his way to Utah. The day they arrived, Ray stood atop Pine Knoll, the highest point on the ranch, and looked down into Zion National Park. His imagination soared as he envisioned a place where people could come from all over the world to experience the beauty and grandeur of Zion. He put down $1000 on the property that very afternoon. Ray’s vision would ultimately come true in the early 1990s when Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort was officially opened. Checkerboard Mesa, an iconic feature on the east side of Zion, can be viewed from Zion Ponderosa property.

bighorn sheep in zion national park

Photo by Mark Wade

1970s Bighorn Sheep in Zion

Did you know that Zion’s photogenic bighorn sheep haven’t always been around? In the mid-1900s, they were “locally extinct” due to human encroachment, hunting, and habitat loss. However, in 1978, the National Park Service teamed up with the Utah Department of Wildlife Services to reintroduce 14 sheep back into the Zion wilderness. The herd slowly grew over the years and by 2015 had grown to include over 400 sheep.

Pro tip:When visiting the park, the best place to spot the sheep is on the east side where they like to hang out on the steep and rocky terrain.

Photo by Mark Wade

1980s Zion National Park Trail Improvements

Zion’s West Rim Trail was originally paved in the 1920s with a combination of oil, sand, and rock. In 1985, however, major repair was done on the popular trail between Refrigerator Canyon and Angel’s Landing in order to repave it with concrete. This concrete would help prevent erosion and reduce the impact of the increasing number of visitors. This repair was no small feat; Walter’s Wiggles (named after Walter Reusch who originally constructed the switchbacks in 1926) alone were resurfaced with 88 cubic yards of concrete. The project required 258 helicopter flights to haul all of the concrete to the site, and then mules were used to haul it up to the switchbacks. So the next time you’re huffing and puffing up Walter’s Wiggles, just be glad you’re not hauling concrete!

The Sentinel Zion National Park

Used by permission, Utah Historical Society

1990s History Repeats 

In April 1995, a large landslide below the Sentinel (pictured above) blocked the Virgin River for hours after heavy rain. This caused a pond to form and, eventually, the river to wash out an entire section of the Scenic Drive. The impassible road caused 300 guests and 150 park employees to be stranded up canyon at the Zion Lodge for a day. What’s especially interesting about this landslide is that it was a small scale version of a much larger rock avalanche, referred to as the Sentinel Slide, that occurred in the same location almost 5000 years ago. The Virgin River was blocked by 10 billion cubic feet of debris that fell from the Sentinel, creating a natural dam and forming a large lake that extended all the way up to Temple of Sinawava. This lake existed for about 700 years and deposited the sediment that made the canyon bottom flat like it is today. Without that lake, Zion Canyon would likely be a V-shaped canyon like others that have been carved by rivers.

A month later, on Memorial Day 1995, Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort officially opened. Overlooking Zion National Park from 6,500 feet, the Zion vacation property featured 16 guest cabins, showers, a pole barn for dining and recreation, and a pool for cooling off after a day of adventure!

1930 Tour Bus Zion Mt Carmel Tunnel

Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society

2000s Zion Shuttle System

Zion National Park’s shuttle system celebrated its grand opening in May 2000. The ever-increasing traffic the park was experiencing called for a more efficient way to help visitors get around. The phrase “back to the future” was used, not in reference to the popular movie, but rather in reference to the 1920s and 1930s when buses were the best way to see Zion. The event’s program read, “Beginning today, we visit Zion Canyon by shuttle to restore the tranquility and power of the early days of Zion National Park.” The shuttle system was a huge success and the benefits were immediate — a quieter canyon, no fighting over parking spots, and less damage to the environment. Today, the shuttle system continues to do its best to accommodate over 4 million visitors annually. The picture above shows a pair of Utah Parks Company charter buses that could’ve been spotted cruising around Zion in the 1930s. These buses were part of the inspiration for Zion’s current shuttle system!

By Jo Welling

East Zion Jeep tour overlooking Zion National Park

Get to Know Zion in 2020

East Zion Adventures offers Jeep tours that overlook the park and surrounding region, guided hikes along some of Zion National Park’s most iconic trails, and guided canyoneering adventures to Zion’s world-famous slot canyons. You’ve never seen Zion like this!