On Oct 7th, 1919, a telegram arrived at Mammoth Hot Springs, at Yellowstone National Park, addressed to Horace Albright, who would eventually become the second Director of the new National Park Service. The telegram read: “Congress today passed Senator Smoot’s bill making Little Zion a National Park. Congratulations.”
In autumn of 1919, with the stroke of a pen, Zion was named the first National Park in the state of Utah, and the 15th overall in the National Parks system. But, the story of the land now officially dubbed “Zion” by the United States government, certainly did not begin in 1919.
The rock record at Zion is hundreds of millions of years old. Those beautiful towering walls of Navajo Sandstone date back 180 million years. The basement Kaibab Formation, limestone that was once the floor of a shallow tropical sea, is dated 270 million years old. Each of the exposed rock layers at Zion, like the Kaibab and the Navajo, has its own story, shared through not only its fossil record but also in its structure, colors, and speed of erosion. Each layer tells of its own unique depositional environment from when it was formed.
“Zion – it is a testament to time, and echoing deep within the canyon walls, its story is told.” – Frank Waters
The people of Zion’s past have a story to tell, as well. Both the human and natural history of this place come together as a single tale. This story has been told in works of art, like paintings, poetry, and photographs. Come along on a journey following the path of Zion’s Past.
For nearly the entirety of the past 10,000 years, humans have lived in-and-around this corner of wilderness, north of Arizona’s great Grand Canyon in what is now Utah.
With little written record from this span of time, the Native story depends a great deal upon the oral traditions of the tribes, as well as in the understandings and interpretations of archeologists and anthropologists.
There must have been a powerful shared connection felt by the various tribes who’ve called this place home. Excavation of a location found to have historical significance can yield a great deal of information that could not have previously been obtained. This includes data on the diet, lifestyle, tools, architecture, time period, and the environment of people who once lived here. Sites and artifacts uncovered by archeologists from the Archaic culture, dating from about 7,000 BC to 300 BC, from Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) and Fremont cultures, dating from 300 BC to AD 1225, and from Southern Paiute culture, dating from AD 1250 to the present day.
These people and their stories are every bit as important to the overall tale of Zion as is its natural beauty that today draws so many visitors, adventurers, and photographers, like us.
The first inhabitants of the region lived in small family units, subsisting on hunting, gathering seeds, nuts, and berries, and with small garden-style farming of corn. By roughly A.D. 750, life began to change as farmland became adequate to support collective living. More families chose to live closer together, in the tradition of the Anasazi.
Around the same time the Anasazi peoples were living in the southern part of the park area, the northern portion may have occupied or at least seasonally visited by groups belonging to the Fremont culture. Fremont peoples, who occupied the northern two-thirds of Utah, lived in small pithouse villages.
After the Anasazi and Fremont peoples left the Zion area, about A.D. 1200, the area was apparently not occupied again until the 19th century, although the area may have been visited for several hundred years by small bands of Paiute foragers hunting and collecting wild foods.
The pioneer record in the Zion region belongs much to the Mormon settlers, as they began farming the Virgin River region around 1847. The Mormon people had been forcibly moved from the eastern part of the United States across the Great Plains, finally settling in the Salt Lake region of northern Utah. Soon after, Brigham Young sent ‘scouts’ across southern Utah in order to find areas where families of Mormon settlers could occupy. Good news from the scouts was returned and by 1850 several hundred Mormon families moved from northern Utah to lands along the Virgin River.
By 1861, Zion Canyon had been identified and found suitable for farm sites. Here, along the banks of the glorious and dependable Virgin River, settlers cultivated corn, tobacco, garden vegetables, and fruit trees. On the canyon floor and the plateau above they grazed cattle and sheep.
This region stayed quiet and out of the public eye for many years due in part to its remote location. In 1903, artist Frederick S. Dellenbaugh painted scenes in the canyon, exhibiting his work at the St. Louis World’s Fair, thus exposing the area garnering it public attention that eventually led President Theodore Roosevelt to proclaim the area Mukuntuweap National Monument, providing it federal conservation protections in the process. The U.S. Congress established Zion National Park in 1919; additional areas were included in the park in 1937 and 1956.
Even under the control of the United States Government, the Mormon influence in what was now the park was still felt. Zion, the park’s new name, is a biblical word meaning a place of peace and refuge or sanctuary. It is an exceedingly important word to Mormons because it symbolizes a concept central to their history, or more specifically, to their heritage as refugees and pioneers in the western U.S.
The area today called Zion National Park has a long and rich cultural heritage. Many different groups, with their own unique traditions, called Zion home and made their lives from the bounty of the land. Today, Zion National Park is one of the gems of the National Park System. In its first 100 years as a national park, Zion has grown exponentially. Its boundaries have significantly expanded, as has its visitation—from 1,814 people in 1919 to nearly 4.5 million in 2018. In the year 202, Zion was the third most visited park in the National Parks System. The draw for many, including landscape photographers is clearly in its massive sandstone cliffs of cream, pink, and red that soar into a brilliant blue sky, and in the slot canyons carved out by the rush of icy cold river water tumbling from their headwaters high on the above plateaus.
This area has a significant geologic history, as well. A tale for another day.
Humans have been drawn to this land for generations, as we have learned. Their stories, their history, are as much a part of the Zion we see today, as the rock we can touch. And while we cannot physically connect with the people of Zion’s past, we can grow to understand, which in the end helps us all understand the place, as a whole, better. How can knowing a location help with the photography of a place? That might be up to the individual photographer to find out. In every image, we look to tell a story. How would you tell the story of Zion’s past through an image taken today?
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.