Our arrival at Zion National Park via the historic Zion Mt Carmel Highway was magnificent. I wish I could say it was intentional and great planning, but luck seemed to be on our side. I love it when amazing things happen!
We considered looping around to the South Entrance because everything we read indicated the action was all on the South Side. From our Campground in Dixie National Forest the East Entrance to Zion appeared to be only slightly closer.
The East entrance has a humble beginning. First you see your standard Zion National Park sign with requisite gorgeous view in the background. Then Highway 9 quietly approaches 2 simple stone block huts, built in the 1930s, that serve as the check in station. We later learned that entering from the South side can best describe as a Disneyland type entry rather than a beautiful journey into nature (more on that later).
A Bit Of Zion Mt Carmel Highway History
The Zion Mount Carmel Highway is 12 miles of beautiful Utah scenery connecting the South and East Entrances of Zion National Park. This route takes you through the historic Zion Mt Carmel tunnel and weaves through steep switchbacks. In many ways it is much more interesting than the official Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. The views are truly inspiring
When the area now known as Zion National Park was originally set aside as public lands, there was only one way in and out. That was through the town of Springdale, where the South Entrance to the park lies. To encourage visitors, the vision of creating a “Grand Circle Tour” of Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon National Park became a reality in 1930. The completion of the Zion Mt. Carmel Highway opened the door to the East.
This highway is described by the National Park Service as “A road designed to go where no road had gone before, the Zion Mt Carmel Highway and Tunnel went up Pine Creek Canyon, through the Navajo sandstone cliffs to the eastern plateau, then across slickrock country.”
Following the Zion Mt Carmel Highway Scenic Drive
The first 4 miles we wound through the Canyon with every twist and turn revealing another close up view of wonderful colors and shapes in the stone. A couple miles in, you will pass through a short tunnel in the rocks. This is not THE tunnel but it is pretty cool to come out the other side to the amazing scenery
Just before arriving at the tunnel there is a sweet little hike: Canyon Overlook Trail. I sorry that we didn’t have time to explore but Joe Braun does a great job of describing in his guide to Zion National Park. After you take a look at his pictures, you’ll want to add this to your “to do” list.
The Zion Mt Carmel Tunnel
And then you arrive at the engineering masterpiece, the mile long Zion Mt Carmel tunnel through the mountain. Opened in 1930 this was the longest tunnel of its kind. It’s reported that it took 146 tons of dynamite to create the tunnel that made this road possible. There were originally 6 windows within the tunnel to provide views into Zion Canyon, but today only 2 remain open due to rock slide and erosion damage. For a great overview of the construction of the tunnel on the Zion Mount Carmel Highway check out this article in the Deseret News.
Although a tunnel is always fun, what I loved most about this one was the emergence into the light where we were greeted by spectacular shades of reds and pinks in the mountain canyon walls.
The Switchbacks along this Utah Scenic Drive are Beautiful!
We quickly found ourselves descending the six steep switchbacks into the canyon. In 3 ½ miles we dropped 800 feet. Once again I was thrilled that Brad isn’t fazed by driving highways with sheer drop offs. I’m a great passenger, but totally fail in the driver’s seat on scary roads.
I’m glad we came in from the East because the views looking down into the canyon in the Switchbacks are definitely better on the downhill ride.
It was a quick ride down the mountain and then suddenly we met up with the original Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. The turn to the right, deeper into Zion National Park, is closed to car traffic most of the year. The park runs shuttle buses along this route to reduce the impact. Turning to the left takes you to the South Entrance and to those Shuttle Buses. Read our post on the Shuttle Buses (and explain my Disneyland reference) before you head to Zion. The drive from entrance to entrance was about 50 minutes. That was without any stops and moderate traffic.
Unlike many Utah scenic drives there are not many pull offs or trail heads along the Zion Mt Carmel Highway. If you drive it in and out you should consider swapping drivers to share the viewing opportunity. It is a truly beautiful, not to be missed drive.
Check out More Utah Scenic Drives
Zion Mt Carmel Highway is only one of many amazing Scenic Drives in Utah.
- In Bryce Canyon National Park we found the pull offs presented amazing, camera ready views of massive hoodoos almost right from your car.
- With just a short hike from each stop along Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky you will find the most unusual views.
- Or discover the land of outlaws and cowboys along the scenic drive in Capitol Reef National Park.
Utah is a state full of intriguing views, some that you will never see anywhere else.
You’ll Love Zion Mt Carmel Highway
Even if you come into Zion National Park through the South entrance at Springdale, plan some time to drive out along the Zion Mt Carmel Highway. It’s a great way to relax and take in views of the park you won’t see from the heart of Zion.
If you are dreaming of a Zion National Park vacation, make sure you Pin this to your travel board! And please share your thoughts in the comments below. We’d love to hear about your experiences on this amazing scenic drive!