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Concrete To Canyons: Kids Experience Zion National Park For The First Time

by Carolyn Hill
Zion National Park - NPS Photo / Dawn Kish

One of the great joys of working at the National Park Foundation is being able to see first-hand the amazing work of the National Park Service and the positive impact they are able to make with our support. In my role as Grants and Programs Director, I recently had the incredible opportunity to travel to Zion National Park to take part in an “America’s Best Idea” program that brought students from the urban, concrete jungle of Las Vegas to the great outdoors to experience a three-day wilderness adventure.

Setting out into the wilderness at Zion National Park (NPF Photo / Dawn Kish)

This pilot program, conducted by Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Las Vegas, and Zion National Park in remote southern Utah, engaged more than 50 urban fifth graders and family members in their first wilderness experience. Through a progressive series of activities, the “Concrete to Canyons” project introduced participants to camping, wilderness hiking, outdoor education, and stewardship of natural resources. This partnership project involved not only the two national parks, but also Rainbow Bridge Academy, Clark County Parks and Recreation, Winchester Cultural Center, Families in Nature, and Zion Natural History Association.

To kick-off the program, NPS rangers conducted curriculum-based classroom activities covering wilderness and stewardship concepts, followed by an outdoor event at a local park in Las Vegas to teach camping skills including hiking safety, campsite construction, food planning and preparation, and “Leave No Trace” concepts. Next, a learning day was conducted at Lake Mead NRA where students experienced and reflected on the meaning of wilderness in their lives and the impact of humans on wild lands. The culminating event was a three-day camping experience in Zion NP that made quite an impression.

Day 1

Three young park visitors pose in a tent
Setting up camp at Zion National Park (NPF Photo / Dawn Kish)

“Look! A squirrel!” squealed the excited youth as they hopped off the bus that brought them 3½ hours from Las Vegas to Zion National Park - the land of massive sandstone cliffs of cream, pink, and red that soar into a brilliant blue sky. “Are there scorpions here?” “What about snakes?” “Where are our tents?” “Do bats sleep during the day?” An endless barrage of excited and anxious questions from youth whose concepts of the outdoors were based on what they had seen on television or in movies.

Students with a Ranger at Zion National Park (NPF Photo / Dawn Kish)

Everything about this experience was new for the youth – squirrels, hurricane beetles, mountains, camping, hiking, drinking lots of water all day long, bighorn sheep, learning in an outdoor setting, seeing the planet Venus, swimming and hiking in a river, and eating s’mores! After lunch it was time to set up the tents. With a little finessing of some poles, and a little help from the rangers, voila! Tents were set up!

Then it was time for the afternoon hike to learn about watersheds, aquatic insects, and the health of the Virgin River that flows through the heart of the canyon. After Ranger Brianna introduced the Zion watershed and explained how it impacts Las Vegas, the rangers and the adult chaperones pitched in to help the kids build canyons in the sand and find out what happens to a “watershed” when it gets flooded.

Day 2

Two kids color as they sit and look at the colors of the park around them
Young Hikers on the East Rim of Zion National Park (NPF Photo / Dawn Kish)

This was an action-packed day during which small groups of kids and chaperones took turns hiking three different hikes, each of which held many educational and fun surprises along the way.

1. Wilderness Hike Location: Petroglyphs

“One of the petroglyphs looked like a monkey. One looked like a person walking a dog.”

“We threw a spear and I hit the target!”

“We saw lizards and learned how to make baskets and shoes out of yucca.”

Two students on a wilderness hike

2. Wilderness Hike Location: Canyon Quilts

“We saw bighorn sheep – the mama, dad, grandma, grandpa, brother, sister and cousins.”

“When animals come out in the dark - are they sleeping?”

3. Wilderness Hike Location: East Rim

“I hear the wind and it sounds like a waterfall.”

“The mountains look like a big bowl of ice cream.”

“I never knew a mountain could be red.”

Day 3

A young park visitor holds up an illustration of a cougar
Identifying wildlife at Zion National Park (NPF Photo / Dawn Kish)

The highlight of the final day was a hike along the Temple of Sinawava Trail. We trekked through the Virgin River and up the slot canyon to a waterfall. Hiking in a river through a slot canyon was a first for everyone on the trip and you could hear the squeals of surprise and laughter echoing off the canyon walls from kids both big and small.

One student remarked, “I want to be a park ranger when I grow up ‘cause they are fun and happy and get to discover stuff they never knew - like more about plants and animals.”

Through three days of interactive exploration and learning, these students experienced a once-in-a-lifetime adventure amongst the beauty and wild of our national parks.

Thanks to the generous support of L.L. Bean, NPF’s “America’s Best Idea” program is expected to engage nearly 60,000 youth over two years—many of whom are first time visitors to national parks—in activities that provide meaningful opportunities for recreation, learning, and skill-building.

“We share the National Park Foundation’s mission to inspire generations of national park enthusiasts. The photos and videos from the kids who have participated in these programs “say” it all. You can see the excitement, energy, and joy in their faces. This first wilderness experience may make all the difference in terms of their enjoying the outdoors and leading a healthier, active lifestyle. We are grateful to educators, volunteers, and National Park staff for making this possible.” – Janet Wyper, Community Relations Manager, L.L. Bean, Inc.

NPF is proud to partner with L.L. Bean to encourage all individuals to connect to the outdoors in active healthy ways, and provide opportunities for underserved youth to do so. To learn more about our Youth Engagement & Education programs and how you can support national parks, visit us here.