Traveling Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway

Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway.

Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway.

This is part of a series on Zion National Park by Kelly Monaghan and Sally Scanlon. Check out other articles here and here.

Twelve miles of State Route 9 cut through the southeastern corner of the park, connecting the park’s south and east entrances (and requiring payment of Zion’s entry fee). The stretch is designated a scenic highway, and it more than lives up to that name. The road climbs steeply from the canyon floor, passing through Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel on its way to Checkerboard Mesa and the park’s east entrance.

The 1.1-mile tunnel was the longest in the U.S. when it was completed in 1930. Its two lanes were plenty wide enough for two-way traffic back then, but a single lane can’t accommodate vehicles 11’4” tall or taller or 7’10” wide or wider.  As a result, most RVs, campers, trailers, and the like require “one-lane traffic control,” which means rangers at either end allow only one-way traffic until the large vehicle passes through. Visitors requiring that service in 2014 pay a $15 fee per vehicle in addition to their entry fee. The fee is good for two trips through the tunnel (for the same vehicle) in a 7-day period.

Sliprock along Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway.

Sliprock along Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway.

Once through the tunnel, the landscape changes dramatically. The drive showcases sliprock and “checkerboard” rock formations you don’t see on the Zion Canyon trails we hiked. Unless you are traveling on to Bryce Canyon National Park, you will turn around just before you reach the park’s east entrance.

Checkerboard mesa.

Checkerboard Mesa.

In addition to enjoying spectacular views from the many observation turnouts along the road, you can take a “moderate” hike on the rocky, mile-long (round trip) Canyon Overlook Trail. Accessed from near the east end of the Tunnel, the trail offers yet more views and lets you get up close and personal with the canyon flora. From its end, visitors can look down on the twisty road that brought them up from Zion Canyon. The Canyon itself lies ahead and far below them. Careful! The trail is sometimes steep and narrow with long drops to the floor below; not advised for those who have a fear of heights.

Canyon Overlook: View at end of trail.

Canyon Overlook: View at end of trail.

This drive can be done as part of a day in Zion Canyon.

Continue to explore Zion National Park

Intro to Zion National Park

Exploring Zion Canyon

Traveling Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway (You Are Here)

Along Kolob Terrace Road

Exploring Kolob Canyons

Exploring Zion Canyon

Along Pa'rus Trail.

Along Pa’rus Trail.

This is another in a series of articles by Kelly Monaghan and Sally Scanlon about Zion National Park. Other articles include: Exploring Zion National Park, Along Kolob Terrace Road, Traveling Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, and Exploring Kolob Canyons.

First stop: The lanes where you pay your entrance fee ($25 per passenger vehicle in summer 2014 and $12 for pedestrians) and pick up your glossy full-color park map and very useful newspaper-style guide. Your entrance pass is good for seven days. Older adults get a great break: $10 for a lifetime national park pass if you can prove you are 60 or older. You need only one pass per private vehicle. Most entry and exit lanes moved surprisingly quickly on the three mid-June days we visited.

Next stop: The parking lot if you’re visiting April through October. Use of canyon shuttle buses is mandatory and included in your admission. The parking lot has special sections for RVs and other oversize vehicles. Onsite campers and guests of Zion Lodge can drive to their respective sites by showing the required permit. As noted above, Zion offers free shuttle service between Springdale and the park. Shuttles run from early morning to around sunset.

Exploring Zion Canyon

Zion Canyon, the 229-square-mile park’s biggest draw, boasts 13 trails, ranging from 0.4 to 9.4 miles in length round trip and in difficulty from “easy” to “moderate” to “strenuous.” We chose to skip the “strenuous” trails, among them the hike to Angel’s Landing, one of the park’s most popular (and thus crowded by mid-morning). Instead we explored several “easy,” “easy-moderate,” and “moderate” trails.

By far the easiest is the Pa’rus Trail, a 1.7-mile walk (one way) on a paved path between the Visitor Center and the second stop on the up-canyon shuttle. Walking south toward the Visitor Center, you can stop at the park’s Human History Museum (the shuttle’s first up-canyon stop). It screens a film about the park and its geology as well as some background on the indigenous populations, early explorers, the Mormon settlers who named the area Zion (because it promised them a peaceful life after persecution elsewhere), and the area’s 1909 designation as a national park by President William Taft. The Pa’rus is the only trail in the park that’s open to bicycles and pets; the latter must be on a leash less than 6 feet long.

Virgin River from Pa'rus Trail.

Virgin River from Pa’rus Trail.

Truth to tell, the trail segment from the Museum past the South Campground to the Visitor Center isn’t particularly interesting in itself, but it provides views of both the Virgin River, the area’s life-giving waterway, and the canyon’s stunning sandstone walls. Park rangers say it also offers an especially lovely view of the walls at sunset.

The waterfall at lower Emerald Pool.

The waterfall at lower Emerald Pool.

The trail to the lower Emerald Pool from Zion Lodge (the fifth of eight up-canyon shuttle stops) is an easy walk of well under two miles round trip on a paved path. It provides views of the river, vegetation, cliff walls, waterfalls that vary from wispy to spectacular depending on the season and rainfall, and the eponymous pool, as well as access to the river from several points for those wanting closer views or a chance to wade. The path was crowded in midafternoon, but appealing nonetheless.

Hanging gardens along Riverside Walk.

Hanging gardens along Riverside Walk.

 

Zion Canyon -- Zion National Park

Rock squirrel at Riverside Walk.

The easy and very popular two-mile round trip Riverside Walk begins at the Temple of Sinawava, last stop for the up-canyon shuttle. An early-morning start put us ahead of the crowds. Bird song filled the forest. The river ran below us. Lizards and a rock squirrel scuttled near the path and interpretive signs offered information about the many varieties of plants growing beside the trail.

Best of all, as we turned a corner, we spotted three young mule deer bucks relaxing in the high vegetation beside the trail, the intensely colored canyon wall providing a spectacular backdrop. The trio seemed unbothered by the humans who stopped to photograph them. They were still there, and grazing, when we passed by an hour later on our return.

Riverside Walk -- Zion National Park

Mule deer graze beside Riverside Walk.

Riverside Walk ends at the river. From there, the more intrepid can hike The Narrows, a 9.4-mile, moderate-strenuous “trail” through the Virgin River into the upper reaches of Zion Canyon, where the walls narrow to just 20 feet apart in some places.

Entrance to the Narrows.

Entrance to the Narrows.

Signs warn Narrows’ hikers to equip themselves with a hiking stick, hard-toed shoes, and a fleece or windbreaker (among other things) and to be prepared to swim in places. Returnees we met later said it was a wonderful experience.

The canyon walls at sunset from the Watchman Trail.

The canyon walls at sunset from the Watchman Trail.

We hit the steep, “moderate,” 2.7-mile round trip Watchman Trail an hour or so before sunset. The trail, which starts near the visitor center and the river, climbs rapidly in a series of switchbacks. The 0.9-mile loop at its end, high above the canyon floor, offers views into the far distance. We watched the last rays of sunlight climb the canyon walls to the top of the Watchman formation before heading back down in the dimming light.

Tip: If you plan to linger much past sunset, bring a flashlight to ensure a safe return hike. It’s a long way down if you should fall from the trail.

Another view of the Watchman at sunset.

Another view of the Watchman at sunset.

Continue to explore Zion National Park

Intro to Zion National Park

Exploring Zion Canyon (You Are Here)

Traveling Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway

Along Kolob Terrace Road

Exploring Kolob Canyons

An Introduction to Zion National Park

The Watchman from Pa'rus Trail

The Watchman from Pa’rus Trail.

Cactus flowers.

Cactus flowers.

By Kelly Monaghan & Sally Scanlon

Tucked into Utah’s southwestern corner, not far from the Arizona and Nevada borders, Zion National Park draws over two million visitors a year, a testament to the spectacular beauty of the park’s Zion and Kolob Canyons, its many hiking trails, and other opportunities for outdoor adventure.

Don’t let those visitor numbers discourage you. Arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon and you’ll find popular trails fairly quiet, even in summer. You won’t have them to yourself, but there’ll be few enough people on them that you’ll often feel as though you do.

Canyoneering, rock climbing, and multi-day backcountry hiking opportunities also abound—some of them in Zion and Kolob Canyons and others scattered around the park. Visitors looking for less strenuous options can drive three scenic routes through and adjacent to the park—though not up Zion Canyon Scenic Drive itself for seven months of the year. To minimize traffic and carbon emissions, the canyon road is closed to private vehicles and serviced by complimentary shuttle buses April 1 through most of October. The shuttle ride from Zion Canyon Visitor Center at the South Entrance to the end of the drive and back takes about 80 minutes. Buses stop at the park’s museum, Zion Lodge, and trailheads.

View from Kolob Terrace Road.

View from Kolob Canyons Road in the northeast corner of Zion National Park.

Lodging & eating: The park offers accommodations in Zion Canyon (in Zion Lodge and two campgrounds with a total of 309 campsites but no showers or laundry facilities) as well as in six campsites on the upper Kolob Plateau off Kolob Terrace Road. Its only food service is in the lodge. Wilderness camping is allowed but requires a permit and payment of a fee.

Zion Lodge, Zion National Park

Bridge near Zion Lodge connects visitors to trails.

We did not stay in the lodge, but the buzz is that the place is all about location, location, location. Accommodations are somewhat dated and the walls can prove distressingly thin. The restaurant, however, gets high marks.

For those who prefer softer beds, hot showers, and a variety of restaurants, art galleries, and shops within walking distance, Springdale, Utah, located just south of the park’s Zion Canyon entrance, has plenty to offer—plus frequent, free shuttle buses April through October to take you to and from Zion Canyon Visitor Center.

Springdale is also a great place to refuel after a strenuous day of hiking and exploring Zion, and many eateries get rave reviews. We were so taken by Café Oscar (948 Zion Park Blvd, 435-772-3232) on our first visit that we never bothered to sample other fare. Their Southwestern dishes like Chili Verde Tamales and Pork Chili Verde Burritos are addictive and the Murder Burger is, to coin a phrase, to die for. Wash it all down with a hearty pint of Polygamy Porter. Then come back for breakfast and try the Pork Verde Breakfast Burrito. Why mess with success?

Getting there: Las Vegas, 163 miles to the southwest, and Salt Lake City, 307 miles to the north, offer the nearest major airports. We chose Vegas.

Driving east from the Nevada border, we were greeted by mostly gray hills with interesting rock formations. Then, a few miles from the entrance to Zion Canyon, the sandstone hills take on varying shades of red, russet and pink, which blossom into a spectacular array of colors and shapes as you turn north to enter the park.

Zion Canyon wall, Zion National Park

One of Zion Canyon’s colorful walls.

Continue to explore Zion National Park

Intro to Zion National Park (You Are Here)

Exploring Zion Canyon

Traveling Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway

Along Kolob Terrace Road

Exploring Kolob Canyons