Zion National Park: Through the Tunnel to Zion Canyon

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The Great Arch of Zion

It was already 4pm on Monday, September 12 by the time we drove out of Bryce Canyon National Park and into the gateway town of Bryce, Utah, where we got hotdogs and kombucha at the massive tchotchke-laden store at Ruby’s Inn. Sitting in the Jeep afterward, we made the appropriate decision that it was too late to go to Cedar Breaks National Monument and that we should continue on to Zion National Park and set up camp. We decided that we could drive out to Cedar Breaks from Zion in the morning.

We drove off the Paunsaugunt Plateau and south on Highway 9 toward Zion’s east entrance. The drive through rolling scrubland took about an hour and a quarter, and we arrived at the east entrance a little after 5:30pm. From the 8,000-feet elevation of the rim of Bryce Canyon, we’d dropped to 5,700 feet at the eastern entrance of Zion. And we would drop another 1,700 feet by the time we reached the canyon floor.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

Zion National Park was first protected as Mukuntuweap National Monument, established in 1909 by President William Howard Taft. The National Monument designation was due in no small part to the efforts of writer and painter, Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, whose works depicting the canyon of the Virgin River in southwestern Utah were exhibited at the 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis. Dellenbaugh’s interest in the canyons in the Virgin River area followed their exploration by John Wesley Powell (who had earlier led the first successful boat trip through the Grand Canyon by white men) in 1869 and 1872. It was Powell who had named the canyon Mukuntuweap thinking that it was the Paiute name for the canyon. In 1917, the Monument’s name was changed to Zion, which was how the canyon was known to the local Mormon population, centered in Springdale at the canyon’s mouth.

In 1919, Congress upgraded Zion to National Park status and added more land to the Park. In 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared a new Zion National Monument in the Kolob Canyons area northwest of the main Zion Canyon. In 1956, more land was added and the Monument was incorporated into the Park.

Today, Zion National Park protects over 146,000 acres of canyons, mountains, dramatic cliffs, and expansive plateaus. In 2016, it was visited by over 4.2 million people, two of whom were Sean and me. It was the fifth most visited of the fifty-nine National Parks in 2016.

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After the entrance station, we pulled over at the parking area for Checkerboard Mesa in the White Cliffs section of the Grand Staircase.

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Checkerboard Mesa

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We continued heading west on the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, which was built between 1927 and 1930 to connect Zion Canyon more readily with the eastern portion of the park.

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We stopped again to get some photos of the White Cliffs.

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After this stop, the road became very winding as it twisted and turned through ever-more-dramatic canyons and cliffs, gradually dropping six-hundred feet as it ran toward the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

At the entrance to the tunnel, we were only held briefly before being waved through by a ranger.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

The tunnel is 1.1 miles long and runs parallel to the sheer cliff face of Zion Canyon above Pine Creek.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

Galleries cut into the cliff face provide the first dramatic views of Zion Canyon for motorists approaching from the east. Sean was able to snap some images of the views.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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The East Temple from the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. Image: Sean M. Santos

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The west portal of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. Image: Sean. M. Santos

Emerging from the tunnel, the most dramatic immediate sight was the hulking East Temple opposite to the north.

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The East Temple. Image: Sean M. Santos

The road immediately began its final descent of 1,100 feet to the canyon floor in a series of six long switchbacks carved into the cliffs on the southern side. It’s difficult to overstate the experience of first entering Zion from the tunnel. It is literally overwhelming, especially if you are trying to drive and take it all in at the same time.

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The Great Arch of Zion

We stopped at a turnout at the curve of the easternmost switchback so we could get out of the Jeep and take it all in. We were still 600 feet up. East of us the Great Arch of Zion glowed in the late afternoon light.

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Above us we could see the galleries of the tunnel in the cliff face.

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We were now lower than the White Cliffs and were surrounded by the beautiful Navajo Sandstone of Zion Canyon.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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The East Temple

Across from us the East Temple also glowed.

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The Towers of the Virgin

And to the west, the Towers of the Virgin stood in silhouette against the slowly setting sun.

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Mount Spry

We continued on. I was driving, and Sean snapped more photos as we continued down and down and down to the floor of the canyon.

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The Sentinel (right). Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

The main Zion Canyon trends north-south. It is a relatively small place, and to protect the Park, private vehicles are prohibited from driving the Park Road north of the junction with the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway (the only exception is guests staying at the lodge about halfway up the canyon).

Our campsite reservation was in Watchman Campground, just inside the park boundary on the edge of the gateway town of Springdale. We drove past the campground entrance and the Visitor Center and drove clear on out of the Park and into Springdale to pick up some firewood and more jugs of water.

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Bridge Mountain

Springdale, Utah, population 556, is a classic tourist town (complete with restaurants, lodging, an outfitter, etc.) nestled at the lower end of Zion Canyon between Mount Kinesava and the Watchman. It is surrounded by the Park on three sides.

After picking up our supplies, we headed back into the Park and into Watchman Campground. Back in March, as the Zion campground registrations opened on Recreation.gov, I’d selected a site on the outer part of the tents-only loop that appeared to have a view of the Watchman.

Boy did it ever:

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The Watchman

Now for the second time in an hour we about lost our damn minds. The campsites on either side of us had views blocked by trees and shrubs. Our site was shady and very nice, but we were the only site with a completely clear and unobstructed view of the Watchman, just absolutely on fire in the light of the setting sun, to the southeast.

Yes, we were car camping in a completely full campground in one of the busiest (if not the busiest per capita per square foot of main Park area) National Parks, but there was nothing beyond our campsite but a stretch of scrubby brush and grassland and then the cliffs of the southern reaches of Zion Canyon. The bottom of the cliffs also marked the federally designated wilderness boundary.

This campsite would be our home for the next three nights, so we settled in. Although this trip was one night shorter than our trip to the Dakotas two years previous, that trip had a stay in an A-frame in Wyoming at the middle point. The eight nights of camping on this trip comprised our longest continuous run of camping. Sean had invested in a packet of bathing wipes to get us through. Usually we didn’t avail ourselves of shower facilities when we were car camping. In fact, we never had. But on this trip Sean was thinking that one of the Zion nights he’d shower. But…there are no showers in the campgrounds at Zion National Park.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

After we set up camp, we built a nice campfire and cooked dinner.

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The Watchman

Then we watched as the moon rose over the cliffs to the left of the Watchman.

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The Watchman

As the darkness deepened, the moon slid behind the Watchman. Our evening’s entertainment became sitting at our campfire, backs to the campground, watching the waxing moon travel across the sky behind the Watchman.

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The Watchman

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And I practiced shooting the moon with my telephoto lens.

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The Watchman

Next morning, we took it slow as the sun rose behind the Watchman. We enjoyed the ritual of camping. Lying in bed and reading or listening to birds, followed by my getting up and making strong camp coffee and sipping it until Sean got up, then making breakfast, preferably Mountain House Breakfast Skillet, and then getting ready for the day’s adventures.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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The Watchman

The adventure for this Tuesday would be a visit to Cedar Breaks National Monument.

 

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