Zion is getting a new visitor center. The price to get in may surprise you.

Tourists won’t need to enter the park to access it, and the land is being donated by private owners including Zion Mountain Ranch.

Artist renderings for Zion National Park Discovery Center

Zion National Park • A Zion National Park Discovery Center will be built on private land on the east side of the park and visitors can explore it without paying to enter the park.

Federal, state and local dignitaries gathered Tuesday to plant indigenous seeds they hope will help future visitors reap a more immersive experience.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Tourism Director Vicki Varela Zion National Park superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox plant indigenous plants to celebrate the beginning of construction of the Zion National Park Discovery Center. Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox joined Zion National Park superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh, Utah Tourism Director Vicki Varela, Paiute tribal leaders and others in planting. The act symbolized their hopes that the center in the East Zion area will blossom, help safeguard the land and transform how visitors experience the park and its surroundings.

“We know that growth is inevitable, but sustainable growth is imperative,” said Natalie Britt, president and CEO of the nonprofit Zion Forever Project. “Conservation means that we protect this corridor from development that is not compatible here. Good stewardship means that we protect wildlife that does not recognize the boundaries of the park and private land. Good conservation means that we protect our scenic view sheds and essential watersheds.”

Artist renderings for Zion National Park Discovery Center

When construction of the Discovery Center – which will be situated on 19 acres a few miles outside the east entrance of Zion National Park – is completed in 2025, officials hope it will lure away some of the five million visitors who now cram the park and its west entrance in Springdale. They estimate 452 jobs will be created with the opening of the center, which will offer tourists a more informative, hands-on experience, and which will be free to visit.

“This space …,” Britt added, “will set a national precedent for experiential and immersive learning – a place where children are going to be able to feel the freedom of climbing on a rock and getting their hands and feet in the dirt … We are going to get them away from the digital world as devices and the pressures of social media.”

Artist renderings for Zion National Park Discovery Center

The 22,000 square-foot Discovery Center, which will be staffed by the Zion Forever Project, is being designed by Overland Partners, a San Antonio, Texas, firm that is incorporating locally sourced stone, reclaimed wood and other local materials in the design of the building.

It will include educational areas, a cafe and gift store, a parking lot and eventually provide access to 70 miles of new trails around the national park’s perimeter. In addition, it will feature a transit hub, where visitors can park and ride shuttles into the east part of Zion. There will also be play spaces and a landscape designed to showcase the environment.

The center is being billed as a collaborative effort that highlights the public-private partnerships that make Utah so unique. Kevin McLaws, CEO of Zion Mountain Ranch on the east side of the park, and other local property owners donated land for the center.

Artist renderings for Zion National Park Discovery Center

The state is contributing $15 million derived from the Utah Department of Workforce Services’ Permanent Community Impact Fund Board. And the Utah Department of Transportation is pitching in $10 million to construct new roads.

Zachary Almaguer, Zion Forever Project communications manager, said Native American representatives and National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service rangers will all have a prominent role in educational efforts at the Discovery Center. That’s good news to Autumn Gillard, cultural resource manager for the Paiute Indian tribe of Utah.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Karma Grayman of the Shivwits Band of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah blesses the land where the Zion National Park Discovery Center will be located. Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023.

“It is super important to have indigenous people in these positions to educate and to teach others outside of our culture, and … to assume we are not just good for singing and dancing,” said Gillard, adding the center will help people engage with the natural environment by getting their hands dirty, reaching into the soil and talking with the stars.

The Discovery Center, Superintendent Bradybaugh and others said, is aimed at extending the park experience beyond its borders and by educating visitors – especially youth – about the area’s history, ecology, cultural traditions and agriculture.

Artist renderings for Zion National Park Discovery Center

“Young people are America’s future, and we all have an important role in developing them as well-rounded and knowledgeable citizens steeped in the cultural history of our country and in the value of public lands,” Bradybaugh said. “Overarching all, we must assure the integrity of cultural, natural and recreation resources in perpetuity.”

Zion National Park generates $947 million per year in overall economic output in 2021, according to National Park Services. By comparison, the Grand Canyon’s annual economic output is nearly $1 billion and Arches National Park generates $294 million.

Varela said the new center is an integral part of the state’s Red Emerald Strategic Plan, which is aimed at more educational and responsible tourism – something officials at Tuesday’s celebration said has been a challenge over the past several years.

Gov. Cox said he often tells people that “when God created Utah, he was showing off.” Nonetheless, he acknowledged the overcrowding at Utah’s national parks and the need to showcase the state’s beauty in a more environmentally sustainable way.

“We hate it because they are not our parks anymore, and we feel like we have lost something,” he said about overcrowding. “But the good news is there is so much more we can do here to share with each other, to share locally, to teach our kids and to share with the rest of the world.”

Cox said the Discovery Center will help tourists to Zion National Park have a more valuable experience and go home changed as a result of what they saw and learned during their visit.

Artist renderings for Zion National Park Discovery Center

“I can’t wait to come back when the [seeds] we planted have grown up and we get to see the results of all this sacrifice and hard work …,” the governor said. “I truly believe that 100 years from now, people will look back on this vision and they will celebrate what you accomplished.”