Zion Mt Carmel Highway – A Magnificent Entry to Zion

Road into Zion National Park with bluffs and slick rock on the side.

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).

Map of route 9 with red line tracing Zion Mt. Carmel Highway through Zion National Park
Map from Zion National Park Newspaper

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

Short Tunnel with cars coming out on Zion Mt. Carmel Highway
The Eastern short tunnel. Look at the beautiful red in that rock!

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

Exiting the Zion Mt Carmel Tunnel to a wall of red and pink rock
This is what greets you when you exit the Zion Mt Carmel Tunnel. Breathtaking!

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.

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!

highway switchback with red rocks
There are 6 of these incredible switchbacks as you descend into the canyon. Pretty amazing!

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.

Don’t miss the full story of our Visit to 5 Utah National Parks in 5 Days. Were we Crazy? Would you do it?

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.

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! Travel the Zion Mt. Carmel Highway for magnificent views of Zion National Park #WalkingTheParks


  • Ladona Stork

    The Authors: Hey, we are Ladona and Brad, avid campers and hikers. We are crazy about getting outdoors at every possible moment and have decades of experience exploring nature. Our current goal is to visit all 63 US National Parks and just completed #42. WooHoo! Our mission is to help you plan your own adventures and create memories beyond your imagination!