Mount Carmel Tunnel & Zion’s East Side in Winter

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Zion’s east side is often underappreciated and unvisited by many of the park’s visitors. That’s a shame because it’s a downright amazing jumble of all the stuff that makes Zion so impressive. But I’d suggest, there’s no better time than wintertime to appreciate the scenery that awaits beyond the big tunnel.  You see, the east side is at a higher elevation than the valley and Springdale, which means if you’re getting soaked with rain in town, there’s a good chance you’ll see some snow up here.

Location

Zion National Park is located in southwest Utah, about an hour east of St. George.  From Interstate 15, take exit 16 (or exit 27, if you are approaching from the north).  Follow Utah Route 9 into the park.  To visit the east side, pass the turn into the canyon, and continue on Route 9, up the switchbacks, and through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel.

My Visit

Both my first and second full day in Zion began in a similar fashion.  It was cold, cloudy, and foggy.  It was tough to see the tops of the mountains.  And down in Springdale, everything was somewhat drab.  It’s not exactly the weather that I was hoping for, but I had a hunch that snow was nearby.  So, I headed up to the east side.

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Route 9 makes several big switchbacks as it climbs towards the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. After a couple of those switchbacks, I was starting to see some snow – not just on the rocks, but on the road itself.  On one corner, despite driving cautiously, I lost traction and slid a few feet sideways into the parking area.  Frantically, I tried to figure out how to enable 4-wheel-drive on my monstrously big SUV that I had rented in Las Vegas.  Then, I discovered that I had rented a monstrously big 2-wheel-drive vehicle.  Even worse, it was a rear-wheel-drive vehicle – probably the worst kind of car for driving in the snow.

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Stopping on that corner allowed me to enjoy a nice view.  Here, you’re looking towards the western rim of Zion Canyon.  Route 9 passes the entrance to the main canyon, then continues up Pine Creek Canyon towards the tunnel.  In the picture above, you’re looking down Pine Creek Canyon.

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You’re not allowed to walk up to, or through, the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, which is a shame.

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But, my roof-mounted Drivelapse cameras caught a few good pictures of it.  The 1.1-mile tunnel skirts the edge of the mountain…

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… and has several windows, allowing very brief glimpses of what’s outside.  It’s a shame that you’re not allowed to stop here, but it would obviously be a big safety hazard.

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In one spot, there’s a double window…

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… and on the return trip, I captured this glimpse out one of the windows.

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On the east end of the tunnel, you cross a bridge, and then pass the trailhead for the Canyon Overlook Trail.

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Beyond the tunnel, the wonders of Zion’s east side begin.  Somehow, the road twists and turns through an out-of-this-world arrangement of sandstone, sculpted by water, wind, and time.

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A fresh layer of snow on these hills and mountains highlights every ripple in the sandstone, every crevice and crack.

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I’ve seen this side of the park several times in the summer months, but I never could have imagined it looking like this.

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There is a second tunnel on this side of the park, but as you can see, this one is much shorter.

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There’s one particular spot where I stopped along the side of the road.  I couldn’t tell you exactly where it is — but it’s a place where some skinny evergreens were growing up against a red rock cliff.

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I spent quite a bit of time walking along the road in this area, enjoying the scenery.

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Making it even better, when I returned to my car, I found a couple of bighorn mountain sheep munching on vegetation, right beside my parking spot.

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This lady was quite photogenic and didn’t seem to mind me clicking away, just a few feet from her.  Of course, these are still wild animals, so you shouldn’t bother them or expect them to always be friendly.  But, because they live in such a highly visited park, they’re quite accustomed to humans.

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Keep rounding countless, slippery, breathtaking curves…

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… and eventually, you’ll reach the east end.  I decided to turn around at this spot, just before hitting the eastern guard booth.  Looking west (beyond the understated ICY sign) you’ll see Checkerboard Mesa.  When not covered in snow, the rounded cliff sports a criss-cross pattern that looks a little like a checkerboard.

When it’s snowy, there’s not a lot of hiking to do on the east side.  It’s more of a scenic drive, coupled with some roadside stops.  You can hike Canyon Overlook trail in the winter (I did it twice on this trip), but the east side’s less-frequented trails are much harder to access and follow.

I would have liked to have hiked a trail that I found in this area a few years ago, called the Many Pools Trail — but I couldn’t even see the entrance to this area, because of the snow cover.  Like many of the trails on the east side, it’s not an official trail, but in the warmer months, it’s fairly easy to follow the drainage route uphill.  Under a blanket of snow, it would be much more challenging.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a look at the drive from the valley floor up to the east side of the park, on the rear-view reverse Drivelapse camera:

The Bottom Line

If you’re prepared for winter driving conditions, you’ll find a wonderland of snowy rocks and slippery curves along Route 9 on the east side of Zion National Park — even when it’s foggy and rainy in the canyon. Take it slow and enjoy the wonder out your windshield, or stop at some roadside parking areas to see what you can see.

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