Scenic Driving Overview: Zion National Park

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The main park road in Zion National Park.
The main park road in Zion National Park. (Robert Glusic/Photodisc/Getty)

Zion National Park Scenic Drives Travel Tips

  • Zion National Park is accessible from the west, south, and east entrances. From UT 9 you can enter through Springdale and Virgin from the south and from Mount Carmel from the east. The entrance fee for cars is $20 per vehicle and is valid for seven days, fees for bikes and pedestrians is $10 and is also valid for seven days. There are tunnel restrictions in the park. Vehicles that cannot meet the 11-foot, 4-inch criteria must pay a $10 escort fee. A representative will close both sides of the tunnel and escort you through the center of the tunnel.
  • The Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, also known as Zion Park Scenic Byway, is the stretch of road (UT 9) between Mount Carmel and the south entrance of Zion National Park. If coming from Mount Carmel, enter the park by the east entrance and stop at the Checkerboard Mesa pull-off for a classic view of weathered sandstone with cross hatching. At the Canyon Overlook parking area there is trail access for a short one-mile jaunt to stretch your legs. Continue on the road and you'll pass through the narrow Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel and then close to the 400-foot Great Arch. Further on UT 9 you will reach the visitor center and the south entrance.
  • At the south entrance, you can catch the 6.6-mile shuttle from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center into the canyon on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. On the route you can stop at such places as Court of the Patriarchs, Emerald Pools, Zion Lodge, Angels Landing, and Weeping Rock. The trailheads at most of these stops offer some nice hikes of all levels ranging from one to five miles round trip.
  • Beginning in Virgin on UT 9, you can head north to Kolob Terrace Road. This road climbs nearly 4,500 feet as it takes you on a scenic drive past trailheads such as Right Fork, Grapevine, Left Fork, Hop Valley, Wildcat Canyon, and Lava Point. Ultimately the road ends at Kolob Reservoir. You can either plan to stay the night at Lava Point Campground or turn around and head back down the road back to Virgin.
  • At the northwest part of Zion National Park is Kolob Canyons Road. Enter Kolob Canyons by way of US 15 and turn past the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center onto Kolob Canyons Road. On the route you will see some nice scenery and views. At Lees Pass is the trailhead into the 14-mile round trip hike to Kolob Arch. At the end of the road is Kolob Canyons Viewpoint, a great place for photos.

The roads of Zion introduce you to the park's spectacular cliff-and-canyon landscape. You can cycle the roads or take a free shuttle, but since 2000, you can no longer drive a car anywhere you want in the park. While the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway (UT Highway 9) and the Kolob Canyons Road remain open to car traffic, Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is now served only by shuttles that run throughout the day; parking is at the visitor center near Springdale.

Zion Canyon Scenic Drive - Whether on a bike or in a shuttle bus, you'll be blown away by the sheer, vividly colored cliffs that tower above you along this road hewn into the floor of Zion Canyon. This narrow, deep canyon is the centerpiece of the park. It awed early visitors like Frederick Vining Fisher, a Methodist minister who named the Great White Throne, Angels Landing, and many other massive cliffs. Today the canyon continues to spark a sense of wonder and disbelief in those who come and stand beneath its 2,000- to 3,000-foot-high walls.

Along the bottom of the canyon flows the Virgin River. It is a river with the looks of a creek and the muscle of the Colorado. This small river almost single-handedly carved the profound rock gorge of Zion Canyon. It began its downcutting more than 13 million years ago and continues its work today. You may witness the river's power during a flash flood when it turns muddy and violent, carrying cottonwoods and boulders like twigs and pebbles.

On most days, though, the Virgin winds through the canyon peacefully. Fremont cottonwoods, willows, and velvet ashes along its banks provide shady spots for a picnic or a short walk. Mule deer and many birds seek refuge from the extreme midday heat of summer beneath this canopy. Other wildlife including ringtail cats, bobcats, foxes, rock squirrels, and cottontails rest under rocky ledges. The best times to see animals along the road are early morning, evening, and at night when they are most active. These are also ideal times to see the conspicuous white trumpet-shaped flowers of the sacred datura. This common roadside plant is also called moonlily because its blossoms open in the cooler hours of evening and wilt with the rising heat of the day.

Anasazi and Paiute Indians may have lived in Zion Canyon year-round. Mormon settlers once did. They were here in summer when dramatic thunderstorms sent dozens of waterfalls, large and small, cascading off the cliffs; in autumn when the green canyon trees turn gold; in winter when light snow dusts the rocks; and in spring when wildflowers, fed by melting snows, bloom.

Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway - Outstanding works of man and nature compete for attention along this route. The road, still open to auto traffic, was completed in 1930 and was considered an almost impossible project, an engineering marvel of its time. Built across rough up-and-down terrain, it connects lower Zion Canyon with the high plateaus of the east. Two narrow tunnels, including one 1.1 miles long, were drilled and blasted through the cliffs to finish the construction job.

As you travel from one side of the long tunnel to the other, the landscape changes dramatically. On one side lies Zion Canyon with its massive cliff walls. The colossal size of the canyon is matched by one of the most striking attractions along this road—the Great Arch of Zion, a blind arch carved high in a vertical cliff wall. Be sure to stop at the Canyon Overlook, reached via a moderately difficult, rocky and uneven one-mile trail that ends at a spectacular viewpoint of lower Zion Canyon.

On the other side of the tunnel is slickrock country. Here rocks colored in white and pastels of orange and red have been eroded into hundreds of fantastic shapes etched through time with odd patterns of cracks and grooves. The mountain of sandstone known as Checkerboard Mesa stands as the most prominent example of this naturally sculptured rock art. Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway is open year-round.

Roads to the Kolob - Two roads lead into the northwestern corner of the park where streams have carved spectacular canyons at the edge of the Kolob Terrace. The Kolob Canyons Road (open year-round) enters the park from I-15 at exit 40 and penetrates 5 1/2 miles into the red rock perpendicular-walled Finger Canyons, ending at a high viewpoint. The Kolob Terrace Road (usually closed by snow from late November to May) overlooks the white and salmon-colored cliffs of the Left and Right Forks of the North Creek. Both routes climb into forests of pinyon and juniper; ponderosa pine, fir, and quaking aspen are found at Lava Point. In the summer there is often a feel of mountain coolness to the air atop the Kolob's highcountry plateaus, and in early spring the Kolob is buried under a thick snowpack. The sparkling white of the snow heightens the colors of this already colorful landscape.

Practicalities
If you are driving remember the roads are designed for sightseeing, not speed. They are narrow, winding, and sometimes steep. Obey posted speed limits. If you want to stop, use a roadside parking area. Be alert for hazards, particularly pedestrians, bicyclists, wildlife, fallen rocks, and other motorists. Bicycles must be carried through the long tunnel in a vehicle.

All buses and many recreational vehicles are too large to pass safely through the long tunnel in two-way traffic. A fee is charged for the escort required for large vehicles to use the tunnel. During the busier seasons, large vehicles are restricted in where they may park.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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