Zion National Park

Environment
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The valley floor in Zion National Park
The valley floor in Zion National Park (Nathan Borchelt)

Zion has the richest diversity of plants in Utah—almost 800 native species. Differences in elevation, sunlight, water, and temperature create "microenvironments," like hanging gardens, forested side canyons, and isolated mesas. Spring wildflower displays can be magnificent; look for sand buttercup, Indian paintbrush, and chorispora in March and April. The lowlands are austere, with beavertail cactus growing in the dry areas and box elder, willow, ash, and cottonwood cropping up where water lies close to the surface. In the higher elevations, the climate is moister and a mixed conifer forest predominates, with birch and aspen growing in pockets.

As for fauna, countless species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, and fish make Zion their home. Commonly seen animals are mule deer, rock squirrels, lizards, and various songbirds. Rare or endangered creatures include peregrine falcons, Mexican spotted owls, and mountain lions. Some species, like the Zion Snail, are found nowhere else on earth.

Bighorn sheep were an important member of the environment until poachers wiped them out. In 1973, eight bighorns were reintroduced into Zion. The estimated herd size of their descendants now stands at more than 70. A lucky few visitors to Zion actually spot these shy denizens of the highlands. The entrance to the tunnel is one place to keep your eyes peeled: In the winter of 1996 there were six reported sightings of bighorns.

Current environmental concerns are automobile congestion, noise pollution, damage to vegetation near roads, litter, human waste, impacts on solitude, and increasing area development.

Today, well over two million people visit Zion National Park every year. On a typical summer day, 4,000 to 5,000 vehicles enter the park. Two thousand or so drive the six-mile scenic drive up Zion Canyon, for which there are only 400 designated parking spaces. The canyon walls act like an echo chamber, reverberating the sound of traffic that disrupts the tranquil grandeur so central to the national park experience.

The park has taken positive steps to make visiting the area the soul-filling experience it should be. Already in place is the first part of a greenway trail, the Pa'rus, which shields bicyclists and hikers from traffic. Since May 2000, the Zion Canyon has been closed to private automobiles. Visitors can catch a shuttle from the nearby town of Springdale for a spin through the canyon, and the shuttle stops at all trailheads and scenic viewpoints.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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