WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #6
ZION NATIONAL PARK
January 18, 2012
For millennia, it was one of the earth’s loneliest places, known only to aboriginal Native Americans such as the Virgin Anasazi (arriving here in the 1200s), followed by the Paiutes [meaning “Utes who live by water]. A Mormon pioneer named Nephi Johnson is reputed to be the first individual of European ancestry to set eyes on the canyon, in 1858. Isaac Behunin, another Mormon settler, in the 1860s, was so awestruck by the magnificent scenery of the canyon that he proclaimed, “This is Zion!” Brigham Young himself packed into the canyon in 1863. Famed explorer John Wesley Powell, hearing of the area’s wonders, trekked in sometime in 1872.
Even so, the canyon remained virtually unknown to the outside world until Scribner’s Magazine featured it in a 1904 article. At that time, although there was a lot of national buzz generated by the new Fred Harvey hotel, El Tovar on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, there was virtually nothing known about any of the many national wonders north of the Grand Canyon we take for granted a century later.
In 1917, National Park Acting Director, Horace Albright, accepted an invitation to visit Southern Utah, where the Virgin River carves its way through a beautiful canyon of sandstone cliffs. It had been set aside as a National Monument in 1909—named Mukuntuweap, from a Paiute word for “canyon”—but had been virtually ignored by the federal government ever since:
I was surprised, excited, and thrilled. More than that, I was just plain stunned. I had no concept of the staggering beauty I beheld. Local Utah people said that Yosemite was a [Mukuntuweap] without color. But this didn’t faintly prepare me for the reality of the towering rock walls, splashed with brilliant hues of tans and reds interspersed with whites.
The great towers, temples, spires, and peaks appeared unearthly as they encircled the narrow, lush gorge cut by the sparkling Virgin River.
It was love at first sight for me. I was so impressed . . . that I determined we should expand Mukuntuweap and have it made a national park.
Albright’s enthusiasm, upon his return to Washington, took him to the White House where he convinced President Woodrow Wilson to change the monument’s difficult-to-pronounce name to the name Local Mormons had long used for the canyon, “Zion.” Within a year, Congress would follow Wilson’s lead, expand the protected area to 147 ,551 acres and elevate its status to Zion National Park (Duncan and Burns, 171).
But even national park status failed to significantly increase tourist traffic into the park, mainly because it was so difficult to get to. Horace Albright and Stephen Mather, to remedy this situation, in 1922, persuaded the executives of Union Pacific Railroad to join forces with the National Park Service and construct spur lines into the park’s vicinity and create a lodge worthy of its setting. In May of 1923, architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood was summoned to Union Pacific’s headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska and invited to add Zion to his portfolio, along with Bryce.
It is interesting to note the pattern that developed over the years of Underwood’s long and distinguished architectural career with the National Park Service: the rustic lodges would be secondary to the landscape itself—lying gently on the land. His earlier ones tended to simplicity, but as the years passed, Underwood’s vision for the lodges grew grander.
In Zion, Underwood constructed a two-story wood, stone, and glass edifice, anchored by four large native sandstone columns. By 1927, he had flanked the hotel by ten duplex Deluxe Cabins; and by 1929, five fourplex Deluxe Cabins. Those Deluxe Cabins were as beautiful and enduring as the Bryce Canyon cabins descried in our January 11 blog: characterized by native stone fireplaces, chimneys, foundations, exposed mill framing, gable roofs, and front porches.
At the same time, Mather and Albright helped push through an engineering marvel: the 10-mile-long Mt. Carmel-Zion Scenic highway [Highway 9]; the 1.1 mile tunnel, blasted through solid rock, took almost three years to complete. Before the highway was opened in 1930, fewer than 4,000 visitors a year made it into the park; the year it opened, that number swelled to 55,000.
Sadly, on January 28, 1966, Underwood’s lovely lodge burned down, accidentally ignited by a crew doing repair work. All that was left were the stone fireplace and the four pillars. It was rebuilt in 108 days—but gone forever was the charming original. Trying to be kind, Barnes characterizes the result as “a simple two-story utilitarian building with little appeal and none of the design and planning that went into earlier park architecture” (Barnes, 119). Others were more frank, labeling ti a “monstrosity.” Through the years since then, however, beginning in 1992, current ownership (XANTERRA Parks and Resorts [formerly Fred Harvey Hotels]), began a program of restoration and has tried to bring back some of the ambiance of the original. But to anyone who has studied photographs of the original, what exists today jars and elicits a longing for what once was.
Park-wise, however, good things continue to happen. Over 2,500,000 visitors come here every year, from all over the world. Since the valley was being destroyed by congestion, beginning in 2000, the heart and soul of Zion (the valley floor), has been closed to auto traffic during tourist season. Instead, visitors park in Springdale and board propane-powered shuttle busses that ferry visitors into and out of the park. The only exceptions have to do with those lucky few who have secured lodging inside the park at the lodge. Their orange window cards enable them to drive to the lodge and park there until check-out time, when they may drive out. Exceptions are dealt with by park police. This has restored serenity to Zion.
OUR OWN JOURNEY
Awoke at 5:35 so as to get dressed and take in sunrise over Bryce Canyon. We (Bob and Lucy Earp, and us) were disappointed as the overcast sky kept the sun from doing its usual colorizing. After a delicious breakfast in the lodge dining room, we dithered as long as we could, furious at ourselves for failure to book two nights in that already cherished Duplex Cabin. After checking out, we spent several hours driving along the rim, stopping at overlooks, then proceeding to Rainbow Overlook (the highest part of the park). By then, the sun had broken through the clouds.
All too soon, we headed for the exit and then south on #89 through Glendale, Orderville, and Mount Carmel, to Mount Carmel Junction; here we turned west on #9 on the Mount Carmel-
Zion Scenic Highway. That famed tunnel continues to amaze, even over eighty years after it was bored through solid rock. The occasional panoramic windows provide us with glimpses of the magical world outside.
Once we came out into the sunlight, we were free to leatherneck—unfortunately, the Lincoln had no sunroof. Finally, we turned in at the Zion National Park Visitor Center in Springdale. It was a warm May day—but not nearly as warm as it gets in July (100E the daily average)! We took full advantage of the film on the park’s history and iconic landmarks (such as the Weeping rock, Angel’s Landing, Kolob Arch, Temple of Sinawava, Great White Throne, the Organ, the Narrows, the Watchman, Towers of the Virgin, Kolob Canyon, Court of the Patriarchs, Checkerboard Mesa, etc).
Then we got back in our car, and made it past security, thanks to our orange card prominently marked (Registered Zion Lodge Guest), with dates. We really felt privileged as we were permitted to drive in to the lodge.
The lodge was, as we knew it would be, a disappointment, after Bryce. Besides, the area around it is roped off because of a habitat restoration project. The wooden motel-like structure which housed our rooms was “same ol same ol,” typical of other forgettable lodgings we have stayed at through the years. Dinner, we ate at the lodge’s salad bar. After playing dominoes, we turned in.
J97 – Waterfall in one of the side canyons
Next morning, we awoke to a stunning blue sky day! Breakfast was delicious. We spent the day exploring the sites of the canyon, including side canyons, the Weeping Rock, along the Virgin River, and ending the day walking up into the Narrows where the Virgin River pours out of a slot canyon. Along the way, we rubbed shoulders with men, women, and children, of all ages and nationalities. Cooler than the day before, it turned out to be one of those absolutely perfect May days that come to us all too rarely in this journey called “life.”
Most visitors see only a small portion of the park, restricting their travel to the 6.2 mile road on the valley floor and possibly the Mt. Carmel-Zion Scenic Highway, and completely missing the spectacular northwestern end of the park, the Kolob Canyon area, which includes Kolob Arch, at 310 feet across possibly the largest free-standing rock arch in the world, and the steep 20-mile-long Kolob Terrace Road, out of the town of Virgin. Neither did we make it to that part of the park; we could only sigh once again, and with Lucy, intone “A blessing for another time.”
Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks I (Bend, OR: W. W. West, Inc., 2002).
Colorado and Utah (Heathrow, FL: AAA Publishing, 2010).
Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred Knopf/Random House, 2009).
Leach, Nicky, Zion: Sanctuary in the Desert (Mariposa, CA: Sierra Press, 2000, 2010).
The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest, Inc., 1997).
Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).
White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C., National Geographic Society, 2009).