Some people say that visiting Zion National Park is like stepping foot into the prehistoric past, a land of unimagined history and possibility. Once upon a time, the Zion landscape was covered by water that eventually gave way to powerful rivers. The rivers dried and desert sand dunes formed, ultimately hardening into Zion’s breathtaking sandstone cliffs. Over millions of years, rock layers were uplifted, tilted and eroded, exposing a series of colorful cliffs known as the Grand Staircase. Today, the most notable exposed formations in Zion National Park represent 150 million years of geologic history.
Located on the Colorado Plateau between Kolob Terrace and the Pine Valley Mountains, Zion National Park offers 229 miles of towering cliffs, narrow canyons and unbelievably beautiful scenery. Here are 10 cool facts you didn’t know about Zion National Park’s geology.
1. Zion’s elevation varies by 5,000 feet
Zion National Park’s elevation ranges from 3,666 feet at Coalpits Wash to 8,726 feet at Horse Ranch Mountain in the Kolob Canyon section of the park.
2. Zion National Park’s geology features some of the tallest sandstone monoliths in the world
Zion’s rock formations range from 500 feet to over 2,000 feet high. Navajo sandstone dating to the lower to mid-Jurassic period is the most prominent in Zion Canyon, with Checkerboard Mesa being one of the highest exposures.
3. Checkerboard Mesa’s distinct crosshatch pattern is due to wind and weathering.
The north-south cracks are due to wind, while the vertical cracks are the result of the freeze-thaw cycle. As one of the most recognizable landmarks in Zion National Park, this iconic white sandstone formation is viewable from a parking area near the East Entrance, which provides a great vantage point for viewing and photography. It’s not uncommon to see baby bighorn sheep frolicking on Checkerboard Mesa in late spring and summer.
4. The north face of the Great White Throne rim rises 2,350 feet from the Zion canyon floor.
This Navajo sandstone formation is one of the most iconic in Zion National Park, and can be seen from most locations along the scenic drive that runs through the main canyon.
“Never have I seen such a sight before. It is by all odds America’s masterpiece.”
–Frederick Vining Fisher, 1916
5. Angels Landing is of the most daring hikes in the world
Once known as the Temple of Aeolus, Angels Landing peaks at 1,488 feet above the Zion canyon floor. A challenging 2.5-mile trail, cut into the solid rock in 1926, leads to the peak (elevation 5,790 feet). This epic hike features a 1,500-foot elevation gain. Hikers who brave the last half-mile of the strenuous, narrow trail with sharp drop-offs on both sides are rewarded with stunning views of Zion Canyon.
6. The Watchman is a climber’s paradise
This spectacular formation stands guards at the south entrance of Zion National Park. The massive 1/2-mile wide west face is a climber’s dream, with at least 15 established routes. The west face of The Watchman varies in height from 1,000 to 1,500 feet high.
7. Cliffs of biblical proportions
The three sandstone cliffs that make up the Court of the Patriarchs in Zion National Park are named for Old Testament figures Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Abraham Peak is the tallest at 6,890 feet.
8. Zion Canyon is the park’s main attraction — and always changing
Carved by the Virgin River, Zion Canyon is the most prominent feature Zion National Park, nearly 15 miles long and up to 2,640 feet deep. The river is a powerful force, continuously carving, shaping and widening the sheer vertical Navajo sandstone walls.
9. The sheer vertical sandstone walls are 2,000 feet high inside The Narrows
Situated on the North Fork of the Virgin River, upstream of the main Zion Canyon, The Narrows is one of the premier hikes in Zion National Park. The Narrows can be tackled as a bottom-up hike from the Temple of Sinawava (at the end of Riverside Walk) to Big Springs, or a 16-mile top-down hike from Chamberlain’s Ranch.
10. Zion has one of the longest freestanding arches in the world.
Spanning 287 feet, Kolob Arch is believed to be one of the longest arches in the world, second only to Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, Utah. The arch is located in remote backcountry near La Verkin Creek in the lesser-visited Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park.
Discover Zion National Park’s geology, history and hidden beauty with a Zion Ponderosa guided hike.