Cedar City is the Gateway to the Parks

Published: February 19, 2016 | Read Time: 5 minutes

Cedar City is the Gateway to the ParksAs we celebrate the first 100 years of the National Park Service, enjoy a look back at the vital role Cedar City, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Utah Parks Company played in the early years of the first established national parks and how these organizations built the foundations for visitors to enjoy the parks both then and now.

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service, a new federal bureau in the Department of the Interior. The act establishing the National Park Service clearly states that the purpose of parks and monuments established by the National Park Service “is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

In addition to its founding mission of conservation, the National Park Service quickly began to promote visitation to the areas within its domain. In May 1917, Stephen Mather became the first director of the agency and set out to promote the existing national parks as tourist destinations. More than 1,050 magazine articles about the parks were published between 1917 and 1919.

By the 1920s, the natural wonders of southern Utah and their tourist potential had been identified. Two brothers from Cedar City, Gronway and Chauncey Parry, were already providing transportation and tours to tourists from Cedar City to Zion National Park and on to the Grand Canyon. But the National Park Service thought that a large railroad organization was necessary to build and operate lodges, restaurants, and transport the large numbers of tourists who would ride trains into the area. Union Pacific was the natural choice as it ran through Utah from north to south and on to Los Angeles.

To facilitate its ultimate goal of promoting tourism to the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon, in March of 1923 the Union Pacific Railroad Company formed a subsidiary company, the Utah Parks Company. The Utah Parks Company built magnificent lodges and roads to those lodges, then hired students from the Branch Agricultural College (now known as Southern Utah University) as tour drivers, hospitality staff and entertainers for nightly programs and other attractions. It has been estimated that some 40,000 young men and women, most of them students, worked for the Utah Parks Company between 1923 and 1973.

The Utah Parks Company spent nearly $2 million on infrastructure in the first two years of operation, including the construction of a bus garage in Cedar City in order to support a fleet of 65 passenger vehicles at the apex of the operation.

After arriving at the Cedar City rail depot, tourists crossed the street to the Hotel El Escalante. From there travelers were escorted on an all-expense tour of the parks via specially designed buses with convertible tops. The five-day tour included overnight stays at Zion, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Canyon National Parks and included stops at the Kaibab National Forest and Cedar Breaks. Over time, this multi-day excursion became known as the “Grand Circle Tour.”

Throughout the 1930s, publicity for the new monuments and national parks in Utah continued to be a joint effort. 1934 was declared the “National Park Year” and Superintendent P.P. Patraw of Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks noted that, in 1934, Utah parks “are now enjoying the heaviest visitation in their history.” 

After World War II, more Americans were able to afford automobiles and began to travel to the different national parks on highways. Cedar City shifted its focus to capture these tourists and begin to brand Cedar City as the “Gateway to the National Parks.” The hope was that tourists would stay in motels, eat at restaurants, buy gas for their cars, and shop in the local stores. In publicity brochures published at this time it states: “Cedar City’s strategic location makes it the logical gate-way to the most magnificent and spectacular awe-inspiring scenery on the American continent…including the startling grandeur of Zion National Park…the bright-hued massive rock formations of Cedar Breaks National Monument…the colorful, ever-changing panorama of Bryce Canyon National Park…the placid Navajo Lake, which rests intriguingly high-up in a circle of pine-girded mountains…and the breath taking Grand Canyon, one of the most wonderful sights in the world…all in close proximity to Cedar City and linked by good highways.”

Decades later, the national parks in our area continue to draw millions of visitors from around the world each year; the surreal scenery and extraordinary events are unforgettable. In the shadow of these parks are hidden treasures, amazing opportunities for adventure and a completely new world to explore. The new Explore Five More initiative is here to help visitors find the local gems, adventures and events within a short distance of larger parks.

Below is the framework for a “Grand Circle Tour,” in the Explore Five More style. Offering a glimpse into the hidden gems located just beyond what would be considered the “Grand Circle Tour,” feel free to add the National Parks to the journey, or stick to the unknown. This trip can be done easily over a long weekend, flying in and out of Las Vegas, or as part of a longer road trip.

Stop #1: Snow Canyon State Park (Overnight stay in St George, UT)

Stop #2: Pipe Spring National Monument

Stop #3: Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Stop #4: Horseshoe Bend, AZ (Overnight stay in Page, AZ)

Stop #5: Red Canyon, Dixie National Forest

Stop #6: Parowan Gap Petroglyphs (Overnight stay in Cedar City, UT)

Stop #5: Cathedral Gorge State Park (End in Las Vegas to fly home)

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This article was published more than 5 years ago and might contain outdated information or broken links. As a result, its accuracy cannot be guaranteed.