Zion National Park Centennial

Southern Utah’s bedazzling red-rock park offers countless hiking trails and special events this year to mark Zion’s centennial.

On July 31, 1909, President William Howard Taft created Mukuntuweap National Monument to preserve its “many natural features of unusual archaeologic, geologic and geographic interest.” Since then, Mukutuweap’s wind- and water-wrought sandstone formations have attracted a rising tide of vacationers from across the United States and around the world. This summer, the Utah monument, now known as Zion National Park, will celebrate its centennial.

Preserved Landscape

It may seem dry and desolate at first glance, but the Colorado Plateau is more than the sum of its colorful parts of ancient rock. National parks like Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion possess a stunning array of wildlife, plant life and human history as well.

The Ancestral Puebloans (formerly known as Anasazi) and later Paiute people lived off of the land here for centuries before the first settlers arrived on the heels of Isaac Behunin, a Mormon farmer who built a simple home near the present location of Zion Lodge and gave the canyon its name. Following Zion Canyon Scenic Drive as it twists and turns alongside the Virgin River, it’s still possible to see the landscape much as those pioneers did: The National Park Service wisely prohibits private vehicles beyond Canyon Junction between the busy months of April and October.

Hitting the Trails

For first-time visitors, the shuttle bus ride down Scenic Drive remains an impressive introduction to the park and its highlights, including the Court of the Patriarchs, the Great White Throne and the Temple of Sinawava.

There is no charge to use the buses that run from early morning to early evening, but sitting inside a slow-moving vehicle really isn’t the best way to experience the park’s natural beauty. Instead, hop on and off at any of its eight stops, and test your boots on one of the paths leading up from the valley floor.

Less strenuous walks such as the Emerald Pools and Weeping Rock Trails are ideal for families with kids, while those like the five-mile Angels Landing and eight-mile Observation Point trails will challenge seasoned hikers wanting to view the canyon from above.

Events for a Century of Sanctuary

As crowded as Zion becomes during the warmer summer season (well over 2 million people trek to the park annually), those who travel to Utah in 2009 will be rewarded with more than breathtaking views or the opportunity to glimpse a desert bighorn in its natural habitat.

Running throughout the year, a number of events including special ranger-led programs, a 100th Anniversary Ceremony on July 31 and a walk through the 1.1-mile Zion–Mt. Carmel Tunnel in August, are meant to celebrate “a century of sanctuary.”

Zion’s “birthday” will also be marked with special exhibits in the Human History Museum, art shows and free movie screenings. Beginning on August 13, the Zion Canyon Field Institute will present a 10-week film series with showings every Thursday night at 7:30 at the Canyon Community Center in Springdale, Utah; admission is free.

“A Century of Cinema” will focus on films shot in and around Zion National Park, and opens with a lecture by Dr. James D’Arc, curator of the Brigham Young University Motion Picture Archive. The Vanishing American (1925), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Electric Horseman (1979) and Desperate Hours (1990) are just a few of the movies scheduled to be shown this summer and fall. www.nps.gov/zion

Where to Eat

After hiking Zion’s sun-baked trails, treat yourself to a hearty Mexican meal at the Bit & Spur Restaurant & Saloon. Selecting from the seasonal menu might be too much after a tiring afternoon, so consider pairing one of its house favorites with a fresh fruit margarita. Mango goes quite well with the mushroom-stuffed poblano chile for example. 1212 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale. Tel. 435-772-3498. Bitandspur.com

Should a visit to Utah take you near Zion’s east entrance, add the Buffalo Grill at Zion Mountain Ranch to your dining itinerary. If you happen to turn up hungry while they’re still serving breakfast, try the biscuits with gravy and bison sausage. Your arteries may protest at first, but your taste buds will thank you afterwards. East Highway 9, Zion National Park. Tel. 866-648-2555. www.zionmountainresort.com/dining

Where to Stay

Situated about halfway up the canyon on the Scenic Drive, the historic Zion Lodge opened its doors to the public in 1925 and offers guests a choice between 75 motel rooms, 40 private cabins or six spacious suites—as long as you make reservations well in advance. Rates start at $159 per night based on double occupancy. Zion National Park. Tel. 888-297-2757 or 435-772-7700. www.zionlodge.com

With 50 well-appointed rooms and a heated swimming pool, the new Cable Mountain Lodge—which opened September 2008—is located just outside of Zion’s south gate, walking distance from the Visitor’s Center and the Virgin River trailhead. Rates start at $149 per night in season, and $79 per night in the off-season, November through March. 147 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale. Tel. 435-772-3366 or 877-712-3366. www.cablemountainlodge.com

A third option is camping (RV or tent) either just inside the park’s south entrance (Watchman Campground or South Campground) or in neighboring Springdale. By far the most affordable choice, four of the five sites have toilets, drinking water, fire pits/grills and laundry facilities. Springdale camping rates start at $30 per night (based on two campers). 479 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale. Tel. 435-772-3237. Zioncamp.com. Zion National Park tent-only rates start at $16 per night. www.nps.gov/zion

Destinations: Utah, Zion National Park

Themes: Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking, Camping, Sightseeing