Zion National Park, Utah

With more than 2 1/2 million visitors a year, Zion National Park is easily Utah's most visited natural landmark.

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Photo by: Warren Price Photography / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Warren Price Photography / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Zion in the Wilderness
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With more than 2.5 million visitors a year, Zion National Park is easily Utah's most visited natural landmark. Yet the park's 229 square miles encompass such a rugged, twisting and cavernous terrain that there is always someplace new to explore, a cave or a trail barely touched by human hands.

The colorful canyons and rock formations that have made Zion so attractive to tourists were shaped over time by the Virgin River, which can appear deceptively tranquil at times. As one of the last mostly free-flowing river systems on the Colorado Plateau, the Virgin, with its explosive, erosive power, shaped these looming sandstone walls, scarring them with waterlines and carbon deposits. The majesty of the landscape is truly awesome, and was once home to the ancestral Puebloans, known as the Anasazi, who appeared in the area some 2,000 years ago, long before Mormon settlers arrived in the 1860s.

Exploration of Zion National Park will unearth the richest diversity of plant life in Utah - nearly 800 species are fostered by "microenvironments" created by variances in elevations, water, temperature and sunlight. Also calling the park home are 400-plus species of mammals, reptiles, fish and birds, including the endangered peregrine falcon and the Mexican spotted owl.

Extraordinarily visitor-friendly, the park offers a shuttle system stopping at various trail heads, including the Temple of Sinawava at the edge of the infamous Narrows - a looming cavernous stretch along the Virgin River, narrowing to widths of less than 30 feet and heights of more than 2,000 feet. Leaving any of the park's 30 miles of paved trails, hikers will be greeted by grottos, natural springs and sandstone walls striped with pinks and oranges. Zion's backcountry is a perfect venue for climbing, canyoneering or bouldering.

Geological History
For hundreds of millions of years, the enormous power of water, wind and the freeze-thaw cycle has worn down the beds of sedimentary rock in Zion National Park. Zion is located along the edge of a region called the Colorado Plateau. Over time, the rock layers in this area have been uplifted, tilted and eroded, creating canyons, hoodoos, towers and domes.

Park Activities
Visitors should begin their explorations at either Zion Canyon or Kolob Canyons visitor centers, both of which offer orientation videos, books, maps and backcountry permits. Zion Canyon is also the starting point for the park loop of the Zion Canyon Shuttle, which stops at eight main trail heads. Scenic drives include Zion Canyon, Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and Kolob Terrace Road. Popular day hikes include Zion Narrows, Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, Angels Landing and Hidden Canyon. Other popular activities include climbing, canyoneering and bouldering, which require permits available through the visitor centers.

Where to Stay
Unique, homey lodging near a national park is often a rarity, but O'Toole's Under the Eaves B&B sets the standard. Built in the 1930s, the main house is intimate in size, and with its pointed eaves could have been transported from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Partially constructed of sandstone blocks from the walls of nearby canyons, landscaped with terraced gardens and decorated with the owner's personally handcrafted Adirondack furniture, this inn is the perfect place to unwind and soak in views of the park's looming canyons.

Side Trips
Gain an unforgettable perspective of southern Utah's carved and rugged landscape with a chartered aerial tour from Aero West. Located just 45 miles from the park in St. George, Utah, Aero West allows patrons to charter flights at almost any time and, if intrigued by the land viewed from above, stop at certain locations to hike. The sprawling vistas of the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion are all within an hour's flight.

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