Zion National Park

Christmas 2018: Mukuntuweap to Zion: Exploring the History of Zion National Park

“Road trips are the equivalent of human wings. Ask me to go on one, anywhere. We’ll stop in every small town and learn the history and stories, feel the ground, and capture the spirit. Then we’ll turn it into our own story that will live inside our history to carry with us, always. Because stories are more important than things.” – Victoria Erickson

Zion National Park is in the Southwestern United States, near Springdale, Utah. Mormon pioneers arrived there in the early 1850s. Though strikingly beautiful, this was a harsh environment, and it belonged to the Southern Paiute Indians. In 1863, a Mormon settler named Isaac Behunin built a one-room log cabin (near the Zion Lodge site) and farmed tobacco and fruit trees. It was Behunin who called the place Zion Canyon. He said: “These are the Temples of God, built without the use of human hands. A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church – this is Zion.”

Zion is a biblical word meaning a place of peace and sanctuary. It is an important word to Mormons because it symbolizes a concept central to their heritage as refugees and pioneers in the western United States. Persecuted in the eastern states, the early Mormons fled to the west beginning in the late 1840s. They wanted to establish an independent Mormon realm and are said to have “gathered to Zion.” Of course, as an Israeli, I am biased towards the name Zion; after all, it’s the Jerusalem hill on which the city of David was built and later the Temple Mount, though I will not call it a place of peace and sanctuary; maybe, hopefully, one day.

Interestingly, when the area was first declared a National Park in 1909, it was named: Mukuntuweap National Monument, the way Indians called the place. This was considered a blunt insult to the Mormon heritage of Zion Canyon and, by extension, an insult to the Mormon Church. They complained loudly and bitterly, and in 1918 the acting Director of the newly created National Park Service, Horace Albright, took matters into his own hands and changed the park’s name to Zion National Monument. That settled that. 

In 2015 President Obama officially changed the name of the highest mountain in North America from Mount McKinley to Denali to reflect the native Alaskan name. Hard to imagine calling Zion National Park anything else but Zion. 

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” – Pat Conroy