ZION NATIONAL PARK — It is a place of spectacular, towering cliffs, shimmering Navajo sandstone formations and the roar and rush of the Virgin River, which painstakingly carves a masterpiece of geologic formations duplicated nowhere else in the world.

As the park gears up this summer to mark the official centennial of its designation first as a national monument back in 1909, it also prepares to do what it does best — play host to the nearly 3 million visitors who come each year to experience its wonders.

And come they do.

They walk as fathers with babies strapped to their chests and backs or as old men with canes determined not to let the confines of age trap their appreciation for nature.

They come in wheelchairs, in strollers, or walk briskly with hiker's walking sticks, or they walk with prosthetic limbs.

Older visitors play chess at the historic Zion Lodge or lick ice-cream cones in the shade while young families picnic on the expanse of the hotel's front lawn.

Muscled-up mountaineers dangling climbing ropes and carabineers have descended from their rocky conquests, swilling bottled water, wiping sweat and talking about their next big adventure.

Zion is admittedly a place for all ages, all outdoor experience levels and all people from everywhere, because nearly everyone will tell you Zion is more than just a place, more than Utah's first national park and more than a destination vacation spot.

More than anything, Zion is an experience, a state of being.

"What I see and feel myself is that people who come here, even if they are not religious, there is something spiritual about the grandeur of the park," said park superintendent Jock Whitworth.

The park's names certainly support that idea.

Zion is Hebrew for sanctuary or refuge, and Kolob — the name given to the water-carved canyons on the north side of the park — is a term for the residence closest to God.

Other geologic landmarks take on spiritual names: the Great White Throne where God is believed to reside; Angels Landing, the park's most famously intimidating hike; the Court of the Patriarch, with peaks Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and the Temple of Sinawava.

But those who know the park best or even first-time visitors say the spiritual essence of Zion goes well beyond the man-given monikers.

"Zion has that spiritual thing about it. I don't care what religion you are, all you have to do is take a look around you at those cliffs, those formations, the scenery, and you realize life isn't that bad," said Dean Cook, president of the Zion Canyon Visitors Bureau.

Perhaps it is that spiritual appeal of the park that not only draws hiking, climbing and backpacking recreationists but inspires artists and photographers to pause, take notice and go to work.

This year, as part of the park's ongoing centennial celebrations, tourists could watch the brilliant colors of the park take shape on the canvases of 21 artists, who painted for four days from dawn to dusk. For a recent exhibit in honor of the centennial, more than 500 pieces of work were submitted for display, with 70 winnowed for final selection.

Just as man can't resist the often dangerous temptation to conquer Zion's cliffs or the waters of the Narrows, artists can't resist the urge to try to portray, duplicate or interpret its natural wonders.

It was those efforts that brought Florida residents Dominick and Gale Isola to Zion National Park last week for the first time.

Gale Isola said she saw the photographs and the pictures, which convinced her to make Zion the first national park she and her husband have visited.

"Beautiful, beautiful pictures, but you really have to be here to believe it," she said. "It's awesome. Breathtaking. Surreal. Like a fantasy land. I don't think there are words that describe it well enough."

The Isolas are taking their own inspiration from Zion and say it is now on their "bucket list" to visit as many national parks as they can.

"Everything about this park is exciting and beautiful," he said.

The Isolas had just finished a trail ride in the park led by multiple guides, including wrangler Mark Stanley, who has conducted similar equine adventures for 42 years all around the country.

This is his first season at the park, which he describes as "phenomenal — and I've been all over the country — Montana, Colorado, Idaho, Washington. It's incredible here. I love it."

A tourist from Manhattan who was in Utah for the first time said his experience at the park was "spectacular … everything is so beautiful. Can you find anyone that wouldn't like this, who wouldn't be impressed?"

But the very thing that drew people to the park — its solitude and majestic, scenic wonders — had begun to ruin the experience and environment of the park, as its popularity had skyrocketed over the last several decades.

Limited parking and the narrow constraints of Zion's scenic drive combined to create a 12-mile-long traffic jam. The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, built in the 1920s, can't accommodate many of today's larger recreational vehicles or heavy truck traffic.

Visitors desperate to find a parking spot made their own on ecologically sensitive ground, tearing up native plants with the crush of their vehicles' tires. The rumbling engines of those cars, trucks, campers and motor coaches drowned out the music of the Virgin River waters, the melodies of the hundreds of species of birds who live there and vanquished the whistle and moans of wind in the trees. And the doors. The endless slamming of car doors.

"Someone who has made the effort to make the climb to the top of a cliff doesn't want to hear the sounds of the people below them, getting out of their cars, slamming a door here, slamming a door there because they forgot to get the camera out. They didn't come here to hear that," said Tom Haraden, the park's assistant chief of interpretation and visitor services.

The idea of a seasonal shuttle service was born, and in 2000, it began operations, prohibiting access by private vehicle along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive — and the park's most heavily traveled destinations — during peak visitation months from April to October.

Resisted early on, the free shuttle is now described universally as an exceptional success story, with each propane-powered bus taking the equivalent of 28 vehicles off the road and logging 12.1 million shuttle passenger miles each year.

The service accommodates tourists by extending through the length of Zion's gateway community of Springdale, home to 550 residents.

With shuttles running every six to eight minutes and leaving the park as late as 11 p.m., tourists can linger at Zion without the fear of long lines and make convenient stops in town for dinner, shopping and back to their own hotel.

The impact to the park is every bit as profound, because not only are carbon-dioxide emissions reduced, but vehicles are not scrambling for a spot to park and tearing up the terrain.

Perhaps most important to the visitor — and to the caretakers of the park — is that it is quieter, more of a place of solitude and reflection and wonder and awe. It is, people say, more of what it is meant to be: a state of being, Zion, that sanctuary and refuge.

email: amyjoi@desnews.com