Zion National Park – UT – Uniformitarianism and Time

If there is place to understand the geological theory of uniformitarianism, it’s Zion National Park. You are suspended in time. The distant past erodes into the future as hundred-million-year-old sandstone cliffs are washed away. Individual grains, one at a time, are pulled by erosional forces. Sometimes, they are pulled by gravity and water in great torrents. Watch the rain erode sediments and send them into the Virgin River to be carried away to a place where they will again form magnificent geological layers. Observe the boulders strewn in valleys, and sometimes roads, having tumbled there with tremendous force.

The theory of uniformitarianism abounds here. The earth continues to change in uniform ways, the present forces explain the past. The majestic sandstones of the Navajo and Kayenta geologic formations are the primary visual. Jurassic in age, they tell the story of the ancient Navajo Desert where a huge dune field (Saharan in size) overtook a vast flood plain. Let your imagination create worlds a time apart.

Stand and look at time, watch it flow backward disappearing in units of unconformity, and reappear with evidence of life and a world so different than the one in which we now stand. Then watch again as it flows away into the future. Then, imagine all these things simultaneously happening here, all in the same place. It’s impossible not to feel the weight of that, which is what I believe contributes to the beckoning of the multitude of visitors to this park every year.

Southern Utah is a place of multifaceted explanations for our human existence. Creation stories of tribes who’ve long called this place home move forward in time to the current prevailing religion of LDS. The mysticism of Zion allows all theories to be true at once. Even the greatest atheist can look upon the majesty and wonder of this place and feel the eternity of spirit.

While in Zion, I contemplated how different people interact with the same wild places I do. Uniformitarianism does not apply to human behavior. Human use of this place has changed over time. There are so many people in the main canyon, it’s hard to find a moment of stillness. For me, stillness is the thing I love most about our national parks. Human wants and needs differ – many people journey here to experience this place in different ways. These wild places call to us, in continually growing numbers. While they feed our souls, they are also home to protected biological systems. The more we visit, the more pressure our wildlife endures, and the less biodiversity there will be.  At park entrances, tourism infrastructure develops to support visitors. We need to protect 30% of our lands by 2030, for us and other life forms that call this planet home. Let’s do our part to make sure this adorable Zion porcupine, resting in a tree, always has a place to call home. Consider donating to the Nature Conservancy to offset your travel to National Parks.

The lure of Angels Landing pulled us too, but that amusement park-like thrill ride was not for us. The hike up Angels Landing Trailhead is…busy. The narrow, plummeting ascent to Angels Landing is…busy too. We disengaged within the first 100 feet. My family is too precious to become a death statistic in Zion National Park. I’m also not keen on traumatizing our Park Rangers. They work hard enough here, without having to retrieve a dead body from the depths below. I seriously question why this trail is still open. It’s unnecessary to experience the majesty of this place. A chain is NOT on every stretch of the trail.

We sought our solace on a lonely, snow-covered, wet, and rainy trail on the east side of the park. There, we found the contemplative silence and wonder that my family has come to expect, to crave, in our wondrous national parks. There, time slipped over waterfalls. The bond between the four of us, individuals but a whole family, strengthened in quiet wonderment. We felt the cold wet seep into our boots and underneath our rain jackets. Still, we went on. The wild tugged as the feeling of eyes from a sure, or imagined, mountain lion kept watch in a quiet narrow canyon. The Jolley Gulch waterfall was incredible to behold, gushing water plummeting down the sheer cliff face. Time marched forward, and water rushed in rivulets, sheet flows, and streams until it combined into a single river rushing away into the future. My children are near adults, they will have families of their own one day. Our time together will be different, but together, we flow as one – part of the past, present, and future.

Junior Ranger Badge:

Animal Tracks

Geology – This park is an incredible place to learn about geology. There are some really excellent geology reference guides for this park. My favorite was ‘Water, Rock, & Time: The Geologic Story of Zion National Park’ by R. Eves. I consider our vacations to be learning expeditions. By the time we finished our trip, we could all identify key geological formations, and we understood the climates in which they were formed. The Zion Junior Ranger Book does contain basic information about the rock formations.

Petroglyphs and Pictographs

Zion Poetry

Extra Tips: There are many websites and YouTube videos about Zion National Park that offer more expertise than I can provide. Take your time and do your research. I suggest 9-12 months of advanced planning for this park if you are truly eager to make this trip terrific. Start with the Zion National Park Service website. You will need permits for back country camping, and for certain hikes, and these permits require advanced planning.

Angels Landing is one hike for which you will need a permit. The most popular of Zion, it is not a hiking adventure, as more of a near-death experience. It is not for young children, or for people who have loved ones that rely on them. You can visit the Zion National Park website for more information on obtaining an Angels Landing permit. In icy conditions, you will need crampon ice cleats. In normal conditions, you will need sturdy hiking boots. If you can’t or don’t want to attempt, there are many equally astounding ways to enjoy the park. I recommend upon reaching Scout Lookout, instead of going right to Angels Landing, go left. The view from the top is equally beautiful, and it’s much safer. You can also get a wonderful view of Angels Landing.

You will also need a permit for any backpacking. My family all agreed this would be an incredible experience, and one we hope to do in the future. Backpacking and sleeping under the stars in this park would be unforgettable.

My favorite Zion advice: “If you want to go where there are no people, don’t go where the people are”.

I have found rangers to be less inclined to point out areas of the park you should visit in recent years. You need to be willing to explore on your own. I always purchase National Geographic Trails Illustrated Park Maps while planning our trips. I’m not affiliated with them or trying to get you to buy this product for a kickback of any kind. I have just found them to be very useful while planning hiking excursions in national parks.


This is a very busy park, and the main canyon is very small. Over 5 million people visit each year!

BE NICE TO THE RANGERS! Smile, be kind, be respectful, and follow the rules. There are too many people in this park to not be courteous and listen to your park ranger. They are trying their best to protect this place for future generations while managing an extremely large number of visitors.

YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND THE ZION CANYON SHUTTLE SYSTEM. From March – November, vehicles are not allowed in the main canyon. To access the most popular hiking areas and stops in the main canyon, you will take a shuttle. The shuttle system is efficient, but there were already long lines at peak times to board the shuttles in early March. Patience is required.

Where to Eat:

There are plenty of opportunities to catch a meal in Zion National Park, and just outside in Springdale – depending on how long you want to wait in line. If you can’t pack a lunch with you or bring snacks, I recommend going to food establishments at off-peak times.

When to Go:

Summer months are extraordinarily busy and are going to make sun-exposed hiking trails challenging in the heat. Winter and Spring conditions may limit accessible areas because of snow. Fall is supposed to be a particularly nice time to visit, according to the park ranger.

Where to Stay:

You will need advanced reservations wherever you stay! For a mid-March trip, I made my reservations at Zion Canyon Campground and RV Resort in January. This campground is not within the national park, but just outside and within walking distance of the main park entrance. In addition to RV camping spots, they also have cabins for rent. Their amenities, including a covered picnic area and laundry facilities, were exceptionally nice. The Virgin River runs just behind the facility, and it was fun to watch the muddy spring waters. The campground hosts were exceptional.

Posted by Kristi L. Brister on April 2023

Visited in March 2023

Zion is located in Southern Utah


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