Zion National Park Scenic Byway
From Canyon Junction to Mount Carmel Junction on Utah Highway 9.
The drive heads up and east, paralleling Pine Creek, then switchbacks up to Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. The tunnel is a monumental engineering feat, especially since it was constructed in 1930 and at the cost of half a million dollars and the lives of two men. Bore out of solid mountain rock, the tunnel climbs upward, passing several openings which look out into the canyon. Just past the tunnel is a small parking lot and a trail which leads to Canyon Overlook Trail. It’s a short half-mile hike, threading a narrow course along the lip of the canyon and then ends with a stunning view of Zion Canyon. This also marks the transition into Zion East.
Beyond the tunnel, the plateaus of Zion East appear other-worldly compared to the areas found in the canyon. Ancient sand dunes, now turned rock, rise up to sheer cliffs, while other formations roll into waves of rock. Thank goodness for frequent pullouts along this road, because I need to stop, gawk in awe, and say “wow!” so many times that it makes me sound stupid; not that I notice, I’m just too giddy to be here.
We park and wander down to the areas near Pine Creek, the main dry streambed that follows Route 9 throughout the East Canyon. I try to ignore the occasional vehicle sounds from above. Every turn and twist in this small side canyon leads to a beautiful vignette. Some sections loop away from the road, so I can get a small sense of tranquility. Much of Pine Creek is swollen with water since it rained pretty heavily a few days before we came here. This means we can’t travel too far and are impeded by water too wide to cross.
I do find a small slot canyon carved out by the water. Hitch finds a tunnel which lets the creek flow from the other side of the highway. I approach the slot canyon and find myself sinking down into the sand and quickly back-pedal out. I think this is my first encounter of quicksand. I skirt the wet sand keeping to rocks to see how close I can get. I can get a few pictures, but that’s all and I have to turn back. Meanwhile, Hitch has returned from his tunnel exploration and reports that the creek has less water in that direction. The park has issued a flash flood warning for the park and we decide it’s time to head back to the truck and explore the rest Zion East on Highway 9.
There’s one stop along Highway 9 I’ve been wanting to visit where the sandstone crests like a wave. The Slickrock is just west of Keyhole Canyon, the site of the saddest and deadliest canyoneering incident in Zion’s History. Slickrock is buffed smooth by water and wind. It undulates for miles in rounded waves of varying size. I find its shape very pleasing and I feel lucky that it’s just us out here today.
We move on our drive, stopping at various picturesque locations. One, in particular, is called Checkerboard Mesa, with its distinctive cross-hatching patterns on a cone-shaped White Cliff formation. White Cliff rock, also known as the White Layer, was red long ago, but alkaline water washed the iron coatings from the rock turning the stone a brilliant white.
Beyond Checkerboard Mesa there are several trailheads to backcountry hikes. We drive past the east entrance and through high pastures and to Mount Carmel Junction before turning around. Overall, a lovely drive and wholely worth stopping to absorb some stunning scenery.