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American Roads: Site Map > Auto Trails > Auto Trail Articles > American Motorist, August 1 1916

A Visit to Little Zion Canyon

Utah’s Scenic Wonder

by Albert Gill Waddell

― from American Motorist, August 1 1916, page 7.


The road over the hills betweem St. Thomas and Bunkerville.

California boasts her enchanting Yosemite and Arizona vaunts her indescribably beautiful Grand Canyon; but Utah claims the greatest scenic wonder of them all. This is Little Zion Canyon, located near the historic Mormon city of St. George, in southern Utah.
Little Zion Canyon is less known than any of the famous natural beauty spots of the West. Only a very few of those who have traveled the Old Mormon Trail, the connecting link between Utah and the outside states on the south, have turned aside to visit Little Zion. But the beautiful gorge is soon to be popularized with the huge army of transcontinental motor tourists.
The Arrowhead Trail, a passable highway which connects the National Old Trails and Lincoln Highways and is also a short cut from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles and other southern California points, is being improved. More than half the distance between Los Angeles and Salt Lake is now covered by excellent roads. More work is being done and soon the Arrowhead Trail is to be one of the most popular motor trails of the Southwest.
Federal aid, as well as that of the State of Utah, is being sought for the improvement of the twenty-eight miles of road between the Arrowhead Trail and Little Zion Canyon. When made accessible to motor travel, the wonderful sandstone canyon on the headwaters of the beautiful Rio Virgin will become one of America's most popular playgrounds for motor tourists.
Recently the Federal Government declared the canyon a National Monument and the good roads boosters are making strenuous efforts to impress upon their Congressmen the importance of making it more accessible to motor travel. It is generally believed throughout southern Utah that the Federal Government will aid in the road building of Little Zion as it has in the road work of Yellowstone and numerous other of our incomparable national parks and national monuments.
The official name of Little Zion is after the old Indian title, Mukuntuweap National Monument.
St. George is the nearest city of importance to the portals of the canyon and is the natural point for the Arrowhead Trail motorist to make the side trip to Mukuntuweap. St. George is in itself one of the most interesting spots in the Southwest, and the entire Arrowhead Trail finds its way through a veritable wonderland.

Map of the Arrowhead Trail and green alfalfa fields in Utah.

Scene of Early Achievements

It was in St. George that the first Mormon temple was dedicated in Utah. The material used in the building of this temple was hauled a distance of 350 miles by ox teams. Fifteen years were required to complete the structure and the material alone cost $250,000 in round figures. The building of this great temple, back in the early “Seventies,” when the population was even smaller than it is today, was one of the innumerable great achievements of the early Mormon settlers.
East of St. George about twenty miles, the motorist turns to the south over a good dirt road through Toqueville, to within less than a mile of Laverkin, where a branch road leads to Virgin City. This road is much rougher than the first cut-off from the Arrowhead Trail. This stretch is to receive the first assistance from the Government for the improving of the roads from the trail to the heart of the canyon.
Rockville and Springdale are tiny settlements along the Rio Virgin. The latter is located at the very entrance to the wonderful canyon. The little fields of grain and alfalfa stretch through the portals of Little Zion, almost to the very base of the 3,000 foot walls of rock.
The motorist is greeted by an indescribable burst of scenery upon entering the canyon, yet farther in, between the massive red sandstone walls there are more impressive sights in store for the tourist.
In one place the walls of the canyon narrow to less than 300 feet. This spot is called the “Courtroom.” There is a sharp turn in the canyon which locks the visitor in between the walls of stone stretching 3,000 feet toward the clouds above. On the top of this wonderful sandstone court massive trees look like potted plants on shelves in a flower store.
Gurgling water-falls leap out along the canyon walls at irregular intervals and race down to join the main current of the Rio Virgin, turning to an impalpable mist before reaching the foaming stream at the base of the cliffs in the canyon bed. Mukuntuweap surpasses the Yosemite for grandeur of scenery and there are many who claim that its coloring is far more wonderful than that of the Grand Canyon. The reds and purples of the Zion sandstone make the most gorgeous hues Nature has yet produced. When the sun spreads over the canyon and drops behind the massive walls, leaving the Utah sky tinted in that golden light of “Western Sunset,” the tourist feels like one in a strange dream.
The soft lights of the fading day blend with the tints of the sandstone and for beauty there is nothing that will compare with Little Zion.
Then as the golden light fades to silver and the mantle of night begins to settle over the jagged peaks, there is another picture that holds one en raptured in its strangely impelling beauty.
During the night as the wind whines through the rugged spires of the sandstone mountains and the stars, brighter than ever from the floor of the deep canyon, shimmer like the jewels in a coronet at a moonlight ball, the visitor must realize that America possesses wonders superior to those of any other country.

Water wheel on the Rio Virgin River. The Thraldom of Beauty

Like the early rays of the summer sun dancing on the famous Tower of Jewels at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the first shafts of sunlight glitter on the colorful spires of Little Zion's peaks, surpassing even that great sight that held thousands spellbound during the days of San Francisco's great exposition. Man's most successful efforts at wonder building fall far below the standard set by Nature, when compared to Little Zion's, unequaled offerings of dazzling grandeur.
No human foot has ever been set on the summits of most of the peaks that fringe the dizzy rims of the canyon. These towering spindles of sandstone will remain unscalable, in all probability, for all time.
Near the mouth of the canyon the beautiful peak known as the Temple of the Virgin stands like a giant sentinel to impress the tourist with the wondrous beauties of the Mukuntuweap. It was on this peak that the Piutes believed the Great Spirit had his dwelling place.
At the base of the Temple of the Virgin lives F. D. Gifford, who for more than fifty years has been a resident of the canyon. According to Gifford, no Indian would ever remain in Little Zion after sundown. Whenever an Indian killed a deer in the canyon, or any other species of game for that matter, he would always drop a piece of the choicest meat at the foot of the magnificent peak as an offering to the Great Spirit.

One of the World's Wonder Spots

As soon as its wonders become better known and the road is improved it is practically assured that Little Zion will annually attract thousands of American motorists. Little Zion Canyon is today one of the world's greatest wonder-spots and it will be visited by the American motorist as soon as the average car can get there and the motorist knows the route.
The Arrowhead Trail, connecting with the National Old Trails Highway at Goffs and with the Lincoln Highway at Salt Lake City, is certain to play an important part in the development of the great Southwest. From Salt Lake, east over the National Old Trails route or into the Pacific Coast over the southern route, this trail will be of wonderful value.
The Arrowhead Trail is now open to travel but there is great room for improvement. Several stretches of this connecting link between the two great national highways are now under construction and the states and counties all along the route are working for the improvements that will mean so much to their country.

Sandstone dyke in the Big Muddy Valley.

The Arrowhead Trail is a combination of the Utah State highway, which was the original Old Mormon Trail, California State highway, National Old Trails route and desert roads built by county, district and private road makers. From Salt Lake to the southern boundary of Utah it follows the Old Mormon trail and is now an excellent highway. From the end of the Utah State highway there is a short stretch across a corner of Arizona which has been one of the worst pieces of the entire route. Arizona would not improve this for fear of encouraging some of the motor tourist travel north to the Lincoln highway by way of Salt Lake City. Nevada could not go over into another state and spend her road funds, belonging to her own people, and Utah soon discovered herself in practically the identical position.
From the Nevada line to Las Vegas the road is under construction and being rapidly worked into excellent condition for a dirt road. At Las Vegas there is a live good roads club which is now planning to affiliate with the American Automobile Association for the benefits of the national affiliation and the assistance to be had from the Association in good roads and legislative matters. This Las Vegas organization has done some excellent work already and all the way from Las Vegas to Searchlight the roads are very good.
At the busy little town of Searchlight, Nevada, there is another good roads organization which is making plans for national affiliation. The Searchlight citizens have built many miles of highways and paid for the work out of the county funds when such funds were available and out of their own pockets when such county funds were not available. The Searchlight–Las Vegas section is one of the richest in the West as well as the richest in Nevada, minerally speaking. The rich mineral ores must be transported to the railroad and to the mills and good roads are an absolute necessity. The Nevada roads are being rushed into shape for transcontinental travel and that State's share in the work on the Arrowhead is being well done.

Course of the Arrowhead

From near Goffs, California, the Arrowhead Trail continues west over the National Old Trails and east over the same highway; but there is a stretch of California territory covered by the road from the National Old Trails route across to the Nevada line. This twenty-mile piece has been improved and is now in perfect condition. The supervisors of San Bernardino county, California, are working on the improvement of the Old Trails National Highway from the intersection of the Arrowhead Trail to the State road just west of San Bernardino.

Sandstone dyke in the Big Muddy Valley.


Copyright © S. Varner 2006