Zion National Park started out as Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909 but it became a national park in 1919. It is located in the southwestern corner of Utah near the Nevada and Arizona borders. It is a convenient trip from Las Vegas, Salt Lake City or from the Grand Canyon National Park.
The highlight of Zion National Park is its sprawling canyon that averages 2,000 feet deep. Hiking in the canyon is a popular activity and there are hiking trails that are easy, moderate and strenuous. The easy hikes range from 0.4 miles to 3.5 miles with less than 100 feet in elevation gain. Strenuous hikes range from 2.5 miles to 9.4 miles and have elevation gains up to 2,148 feet in elevation gain.
A free park shuttle is required to view the canyon or to hike the trails during the peak tourist season (spring through fall and holiday season), during this time private vehicles are not allowed to enter the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.
If you are not interested in hiking the trails or using the hop-on-hop-off shuttle there is still an option to see some of Zion National Parks beautiful scenery. Visitors can drive through the park in their own vehicle on the Zion National Park Scenic Byway that goes from Highway 9 to Mt. Carmel Junction.
This post is focused on the Scenic Byway drive showing the views that can be seen and what to expect along the way.
The scenic byway covers a distance of 54 miles and takes about 1.5 hours of travel time but it will probably take longer depending how many times you stop and how long you stay.
Shortly after passing the visitor’s center the byway veers to the right and up a winding road with lots of switchbacks. Most of the scenery in this portion of the drive is red rock outcroppings and cliffs with small green bushes as seen in the following photos.
Near the end of the byway and close to the exit of the park the outcroppings become white and there are taller trees which can be seen in the following photos.
Most of the photos are taken without including the road but I thought it would be nice to show the driver’s view of the scenic byway. The passengers have the best view but it is a nice drive even if you are doing the driving.
Obviously, the road is built to be a scenic drive but there are many places with roadside pullover areas. These place are large enough for a few cars to pull over and everyone can get out to enjoy the area.
Along the drive, there are three tunnels to pass through. Two tunnels are very short but the “Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel” is one mile in length. The tunnel is only 13’-1” tall and no hikers or bikers are allowed to enter the tunnel.
Checkerboard Mesa is located near the eastern edge of the park on the scenic byway road. There is a large roadside parking lot that allows many cars to stop and enjoy the view of the mesa and the surrounding area. The mesa towers around 900 feet above the road and has an unusual pattern of crosshatched cracks which it earns the name, Checkerboard Mesa.
The rear view mirror
Many times when I am hiking on a trail or driving along a road, I will glace back and see an amazing view that I would have completely missed if I only kept my eyes looking forward. The following photos were taken at roadside pullover locations of the scenery that I might have missed if I didn’t glance back at the area I had just past.
Many of the national parks in the United States are so large that it is impossible to see the entire park. Naturally, each park has some unique highlights that should not be missed but most parks can easily be enjoyed without trying to see all of the “best” sites.
This is the case with Zion National Park. The highlight of the park is the canyon but during the tourist season the canyon access is limited to crowded shuttle buses. The scenic byway is an alternative that allows visitors to enjoy the park in the comfort of their own vehicle and to see it at their own pace.
When I planned my trip to Zion National Park, I didn’t want to spend my time getting on and off crowded shuttle buses and trying to schedule how much time I could spend at each stop. While I may have missed the “best” sites of the park, I felt like I was still able to see some nice sites and I did it in a relaxed environment where I could stop when I wanted to and go again without waiting for the next shuttle.
Sometimes seeing the best sites might be worth the extra effort but many times there are nice sites that can be equally enjoyable with little or no hassles.