Photo: Sandstone cliffs in Zion National Park

Zion's sandstone cliffs—in hues of creams, pinks, and reds—reveal clues to the geologic events that were important in shaping this national park, the first established in Utah.

Photograph by Ovidiu Ifrim, submitted to My Shot

Location: Utah

Established: November 19, 1919

Size: 148,733 acres

Rising in Utah's high plateau country, the Virgin River carves its way to the desert below through a gorge so deep and narrow that sunlight rarely penetrates to the bottom. As the canyon widens, the river runs a gantlet of great palisade walls rimmed with slickrock peaks and hanging valleys.

A million years of flowing water has cut through the red and white beds of Navajo sandstone that form the sheer walls of Zion. The geologic heart of the canyon began as a vast desert millions of years ago; almost incessant winds blew one dune on top of another until the sands reached a depth of more than 2,000 feet. You can still see the track of these ancient winds in the graceful crossbedded strata of Zion's mighty cliffs.

Unlike the Grand Canyon where you stand on the rim and look out, Zion Canyon is usually viewed from the bottom looking up. The vertical topography confines most of Zion's 2.5 million yearly visitors between canyon walls.

Streamside on the canyon floor grow thick stands of Fremont cottonwood, box elder, willow, and, a short distance away, cactus and Utah juniper. Vegetation changes rapidly as the terrain rises almost a mile in elevation. The high plateaus support Douglas fir and ponderosa pine.

Within the park's 232 square miles lies a landscape of remote terraces and narrow gorges. A number of these canyons are so hidden that early surveyors overlooked some that are 20 miles long. More than 100 miles of wilderness trails crisscross the backcountry, while 15 miles of paved trails encourage casual visits.

Did You Know?

As the intersection of three separate ecosystems, Zion has a variety of plants—more than 900 species—not found anywhere else in Utah. The 287.4-foot-long Kolob Arch, perched high on a canyon wall in the park's backcountry, is one of the world's largest freestanding natural arches. In 1920, Zion National Park had 3,692 visitors. In 1998, the park had 2.7 million visitors.

Copy for this series includes excerpts from the National Geographic Guide to the National Parks of the United States, Seventh Edition, 2012, and the National Parks series featured in National Geographic Traveler.

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    Some of the most dramatic scenery in the U.S. rises—and falls—from Utah's high plateau country.

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