Glimpses of our National Parks
NPS Logo


Special Characteristics: Vividly-Colored and Fantastically-Carved Sandstone Cliffs Bordering a Deep, Valley

NOT many miles north of the Grand Canyon National Park the desert of southern Utah finds its most gorgeous expression in a deep canyon between sandstone cliffs of great height and vivid color. Here the famous Vermilion Cliff, whose brilliant red precipice brightens more than a hundred desert miles, joins the glistening White Cliff, another desert feature of celebrity, the white overlying the red. Here, too, sandstones and shales of many other hues unite in dazzling combination. The canyon of Mukuntuweap River, cutting vertically down 3,000 feet, displays these colors in many majestic and fantastically modeled masses.

Photograph by R. D. Adams

This valley has been known to the Mormons since the late fifties, and Brigham Young named it Little Zion Canyon in 1861. A few years later it was explored and described by Government geologists and a few years afterwards reserved for scientific reasons under the title of Mukuntuweap National Monument. It was not until 1916 that its amazing scenic splendor was made known to the public, and since then it has been entered by an automobile road and has become the resort of tourists. In 1918 President Wilson enlarged its boundaries and renamed it the Zion National Monument. On November 19, 1919, Congress elevated it to national park status as the Zion National Park.

This gorgeous valley has about the same dimensions as the famous Yosemite Valley. Extraordinary as are the sandstone forms, the color is what most amazes. The gorgeous red of the Vermilion Cliff is the prevailing tint. Two-thirds the way up these marvelous walls and temples are painted gorgeous reds; then, above the reds, they rise in startling white. Sometimes the white is surmounted by a cap of vivid red, remains of another red stratum which once overlay all. The other colors are many and brilliant. The Vermilion Cliff rests upon 350 feet of even a more insistent red relieved by mauve and purple shale. That in turn rests upon a hundred feet of other variegated strata.

Through these successive layers of sands and shales and limestones, colored like a Roman sash, glowing in the sun like a rainbow, the Mukuntuweap River has cut its amazing valley.

Zion National Park is reached by an automobile ride of a hundred miles from the railroad through a vividly colored sandstone country. The entrance is between two gigantic stone masses of complicated architectural proportions which are appropriately named the Eastern and the Western Temple.

The Western Temple is seen from a foreground of river. From a stairway of many colors, it springs abruptly 4,000 feet. Its body is brilliant red. Its upper third is white. The Eastern Temple, which rises directly opposite and two miles back from the rim is a thousand feet higher.

Passing the gates the traveler stands in a canyon of nearly perpendicular sides more than half a mile deep, half a mile wide at the bottom, a mile wide from crest to crest, whose walls blaze with color. On the west the Streaked Wall, carved from the Vermilion Cliff, is wonderfully eroded. Opposite is the Brown Wall, rich of hue, supporting three stupendous structures of gorgeous color, known as the Sentinels. Opposite these rise on the west the Three Patriarchs, Yosemite-like in form, height and bulk, but not in personality or color.

Here, where the canyon contracts, we reach the comfortable public camp, terminal of the automobile journey. It is on the river side in a shady alcove of the west wall near a spring.

A mile above the camp stands the most remarkable monolith of the region. El Gobernador is a colossal truncated dome, red below and white above. The white crown is heavily marked in two directions, suggesting the web and woof of drapery. Directly opposite, a lesser monolith, nevertheless gigantic, is called Angel's Landing. A natural bridge which is still in Nature's workshop is one of the interesting spectacles of this vicinity. Its splendid arch is fully formed, but the wall against which it rests its full length remains, broken through in one spot only.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 30-Oct-2009