The Virgin River got its name from Spanish explorers, in honor of Mary, virgin mother of Jesus. (There is a 1936 NPS history of Zion National Park that attributes the name to a mountain man named Thomas Virgin, who traveled with fur-trader Jedidiah Smith.
The first Anglo-European settlers, Mormon pioneers, arrived in the area in the late 1800s. They named the area Zion, which is ancient Hebrew for sanctuary or refuge. The first Mormon resident of Zion Canyon was Isaac Behunin — his cabin was near today’s Zions Lodge site.
In 1872, after settlement by Mormon pioneers, Major John Wesley Powell visited Zion on the first scientific exploration of southern Utah. Mukuntuweap is the name originally given to Zion
Canyon by Powell. The name was believed to be a Paiute name meaning straight canyon.
In 1872, he named the highest point in the region as West Temple, at 7,810 feet. Powell named a neighboring formation East Temple, at 7,110 feet.
Few outsiders visited the region until a federal land survey in 1908 first exposed the area to the general public. The natural splendor of the region so struck the surveyors, that they encouraged President Taft to protect this area. In 1909, Taft set aside approximately 16,000 acres for Mukuntuweap National Monument. In 1918 Munkutuweap National Monument became Zion National Monument and in 1919 the named changed again to Zion National Park.
The towering cliffs stirred feelings of awe among visitors, but it took a Methodist preacher named Frederick Fisher to come up with some of the most prominent place names of Zion National Park, such as the Great White Throne, Angels Landing and The Watchman formation at the entrance to Zion Canyon.
Fisher and three companions explored Zion in 1916. The Organ, is believed to have been named by Claud
Hirschi and Ethelbert Bingham, residents of Rockville, on their trip with Rev. Fisher.
The Three Patriarchs were also named by Fisher, so named for the three patriarchs of the Old Testament, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Cathedral Mountain was named by Stephen S. Johnson in 1922 because of formations at its top resembling a cathedral.
Temple of Sinawava was named by Douglas White, a publicity agent for the Union Pacific Railroad, to honor Sinawava, the Paiute’s Coyote god or spirit.
Kolob Canyon, Towers of the Virgins, Prodigal Son and Tabernacle Dome, all were inspired by “The Book of Mormon.”
The Narrows was named for the narrowest section of canyon of the North Fork of the Virgin River.
Geologist Grove K. Gilbert named this section on an 1872 expedition of southern Utah.
Kolob Arch, is the second longest natural arch in the world. In 2006, the Natural Arch and Bridge Society measured the span at 287.4 ± 2 feet. The name Kolob comes from Mormon theology meaning a heavenly place close to God
Checkerboard Mesa was named by one of Zion’s superintendents, Preston Patraw about 1938. It has distinctive horizontal and vertical lines created by sedimentation and vertical fracturing, respectively.