Whether approaching from the west through Springdale or from the east, you should hit the ten-mile stretch from the Zion entrance to Mt. Carmel, where it hooks up with Federal Hwy. 89. With switchbacks, slickrock and sweeping views with seasonal waterfalls, the approach has numerous spots where you can pull off the road for a better view or to take a short hike, encapsulating many of the highlights seen elsewhere in this most scenic of areas.
Domes of slickrock shimmer with icy snow during the winter and visitors can easily distinguish the frozen north side of cliffs from the dry southern exposures. Hoodoos along the way look like giant mud people. Look for Checkerboard Mesa on the south side of the road at the eastern boundary of the park along Hwy. 9. Eons of freezing and thawing created vertical cracks, while erosion by wind and rain accentuated the horizontal bedding planes of this distinctive petrified Navajo sandstone mountain so that over time a pattern of irregular crosshatches emerged, creating the checkerboard effect.
Be cautious when driving, because despite the pull off areas, drivers invariably become distracted by the stunning views and many stop right in the road (illegally) to gaze adoringly at the scenery. Two tunnels were dug through deep stone mountains and are lit within by windows cut through to the face of the cliffs. One is 1.1 miles long and cost a fortune, at the time, to build. The half-million-dollar tunnel took three years to build. But it’s worth it. Although there aren’t pull-off points within the tunnels and there are no walking or biking paths through them, the “windows” seem to beg drivers to slow down to take in the view. Off the record, if there is no traffic, then do slow down to peer through the openings, but if you see car lights, refrain; you don’t want to be rear-ended, so keep going and just imprint that flash of image onto your brain. In winter, spring and fall, watch out for unexpected ice.
The tunnels were built in the 1920s when cars were smaller and no one envisioned a car in every driveway. Large motor homes and buses were yet to be invented, so the tunnels and bridges do not accommodate all vehicles. If your vehicle is more than 7”10” high or 11”4” high, but less than 13’1” tall, you must get an escort to go through the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, as traffic needs to be stopped in order for your vehicle to go through by taking up both lanes. You must – must – arrange an escort in order to go through the tunnel. The $15 fee, in addition to the park entrance fee, can be arranged by phoning 435-772-3256 or be picked up at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, the Zion Human History Museum or the Zion Lodge. RVs, buses, trailers, dual-wheel pickups, 5th wheelers, campers, and boats all require an escort.
Visiting national parks during the summer and winter months can be an incredible family vacation. If you are coming from the southwest look to check your new or used cars at a dealership in Phoenix before you hit the road.