Utah State History

How Zion National Park helped put Utah at ‘center of scenic America’ 100 years ago

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com’s Historic section.

SPRINGDALE, Washington County — On Nov. 19, 1919, Congress approved a measure that created Zion National Park, Utah’s first national park.

While the landscape hasn’t changed much over the past century, its popularity has drastically changed since it became a national park. In fact, newspaper reports from the time state only a few hundred visitors came to the area before the designation. It’s since become one of the most beloved national parks and attracts millions of visitors from across the world every year.

Here’s how the park’s change in designation sparked a change in visitation and put Utah’s natural beauty on the map.

Before Zion National Park

To state the obvious, the story of the park begins well before it was actually a park. The land was formed ages ago, and humans have been tied to the landscape since at least 6000 B.C. In fact, the land is filled with artifacts and petroglyphs from four cultural periods, as noted by ZionNationalPark.com.

The United States established its first national park in 1872, as Yellowstone was designated by Congress. By November 1919, there were few more than a dozen national parks across the country. Acadia in Maine and the Grand Canyon in Arizona had been established as national parks earlier in the year.

The path to Zion National Park began when some of its current land was designated as Mukuntuweap National Monument by President William Howard Taft in 1909, following a federal land survey the prior year. The name came from what the Southern Paiute tribe word for the region, which translates to “straight canyon,” according to a history of the park compiled by the National Park Service.

As the agency noted, Taft’s proclamation set 16,000 acres aside to preserve the land’s “many natural features of unusual archaeologic, geologic, and geographic interest” and because of its “labyrinth of remarkable canyons with highly ornate and beautifully colored walls, in which are plainly recorded the geological events of past ages.”

In 1918, nearly a decade after it was established, the park was renamed Zion National Monument, but it still wasn’t as popular as it is today. A Salt Lake Herald article republished in the Washington County News in early November 1919 pointed out that about 450 people visited the canyon in 1918. However, it added: “Next year, (National Park Association) predicts thousands will see this wonderful canyon as a result of recent advertising.”

Utah’s first national park

Congress designated Zion National Park on Nov. 19, 1919. The bill stated the land “is hereby declared to be a national park and dedicated as such for the benefit and enjoyment of the people, under the name of the Zion National Park.”

Several newspaper reports from the time indicate President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill three days later and there was a gala in Salt Lake City celebrating the designation on Nov. 24, 1919. It was also well-publicized that Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, and a photographer and lecturer named Herbert Gleason, made a trip to the park for the first time about the same time it was designated.

Paraphrasing comments Mather and Gleason made to the press after the trip, the Deseret News wrote the men had said, “the people of Utah are blind, if they do not develop and advertise to the world the wonders of Zion and Bryce’s canyons,” in a Nov. 24, 1919, edition of the newspaper. Bryce Canyon would later become the state’s second national park in 1928.

“Nowhere in the world could a more picturesque sight be seen, said Mr. Gleason, and the pity of it is that many people who live in the vicinity of these natural wonders do not pay a visit to them occasionally,” the story continued.

According to a Nov. 25, 1919, edition of the Salt Lake Telegram, more than 250 top regional business figures attended a Salt Lake City gala for the park. There, a slogan “Utah, the center of the scenic America” was celebrated.

“Utah can well adopt the slogan, according to Howard H. Hays, general manager of the Yellowstone Park Camping company, who was one of the speakers,” the newspaper reported at the time. “He said that the great scenic section of western America begins at Denver on the east and ends at Yosemite on the west; with Glacier National Park on the north and Grand Canyon National Park on the south — and Salt Lake is the center of all of it.”

Growth in size and popularity

Zion National Park is more than 230 square miles of red rock and other natural splendor, but not all of the current park was covered by the original designation. A map that was given to newspapers at the time shows that popular features like Towers of the Virgin and The Narrows were a part of the original park.

In 1937, a separate Zion National Monument was designated to protect the Kolob Canyons to the northwest of the original park. The monument was later absorbed into the park in 1956.

Today, it’s obvious that the state took heed to Mather’s comments. The “Mighty Five” campaign launched in 2013 to advertise the state’s five traditional national parks. Since then, park visitation has skyrocketed from 2.8 million in 2013 to an average of more than 4 million visitors every year since 2016. Zion reached that mark again this year after more than 400,000 people visited it in October.

The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah released a report last week noting that in 2018, 10 million people visited national parks in Utah alone, pumping $9.75 billion into the state economy.

One hundred years after becoming a national park, the slogan from the Zion National Park inaugural celebration appears as fitting as ever as more and more people come to visit Utah’s picturesque landscape. Utah and Zion seem to remain in the center of scenic America.