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Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and Highway 9 in Utah: A Scenic Road from Zion to Bryce Canyon

February 1, 2021 /
Zion-Mount Carmel Highway Scenic Drive

Warning: Due to COVID 19 some information in this article (e.g. operating hours) may not be up-to-date.

In Utah, there is no shortage of scenic roads, and Scenic Byway 9 (SR-9) can easily be counted among them not only because of the beauty of the views that can be seen along the road, but also because the experience of driving it is different from the classic straight roads of desert areas. Are you curious to know more? Well, it might interest you to know that this scenic byway, called Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, is a major road of the Zion National Park…winding through the reddish-white mountains of the park.

But where does the road begin? What is the best time to explore this road? What can you expect? Let’s answer these questions, focusing on the things to see on the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and on the rest of Utah Route 9 that is not within the boundaries of Zion.

Route 9 Utah: Lenght, Toll Price and Other Travel Information

Zion Mount Carmel Highway tunnelHere are some important things you should know:

  • Scenic Byway 9 is a paved road in Utah that connects La Verkin to Mt. Carmel Junction, an important junction for those heading towards Bryce Canyon or Page.
  • It is 45 miles long. The journey to travel the road from start to finish is about 70 minutes, not counting any stops, detours or traffic jams.
  • Tourists may find accommodations along this road in the pretty town of Springdale, located practically at the entrance to Zion National Park, which is the biggest attraction along Highway 9.
  • To drive the section of SR-9 that is located within the boundaries of the park, there is an entrance fee, but is free for those who already have a national park pass. Unfortunately, those who want to travel the entire road cannot avoid going through the park’s toll booth.
  • Zion-Mount Carmel Highway is part of Zion National Park, but should not be confused with Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which is the main road in the park.
  • Along the way, there is the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, a rather narrow tunnel. If an RV or other large vehicle passes through the tunnel, there could be a delay.

Reasons to Drive Highway 9

route 9 utahThis is easy to answer. Anyone who wants to go to Zion National Park typically has to take Hwy 9 Utah, wherever they come from (Las Vegas, Bryce, Page…). It’s hard to avoid it.

But it’s not the only way to get there. Although you may have the option to go down this road, you must make the call between taking the fastest route and the most beautiful route. In our case, there are two “direct competitors”: I-15 for those going from Las Vegas to Bryce Canyon (or vice versa) and SR-59 S and AZ-389 for those going from Las Vegas directly to Page (or vice versa).

From Las Vegas to Page

This is a rather rare occurrence, but there are those who – may have limited time or they may be on their second trip in the Southwest – go from Las Vegas to Page without visiting either Bryce Canyon or Zion. In that case, Route 9 is an alternative to taking UT-59 S and AZ-389, which would be the quickest route from Hurricane to Kanab.

  • The fastest way: From Las Vegas to Page – via I-15, ST-59 S, AZ-389 and US-89 S – it takes 4 hours 20 minutes.
  • The scenic route: From Las Vegas to Page – via I-15, SR-9 and US-89 S – it takes about 5 hours without a break and without traffic.

From Las Vegas to Bryce

As may have read in our article about the roadtrip from Las Vegas to Bryce, Scenic Drive 9 is much more scenic compared to I-15. If you want to drive it, you’ll get on it after you pass St. George and get off the highway via Exit 16 to Hurricane. Before you get to Bryce, you’ll also come across the Red Canyon (Utah), right at the start of SR-12, another scenic route.

  • The fastest route: From Las Vegas to Bryce – via I-15 and then UT-20 E and US-89 S – it takes about 4 hours.
  • The scenic route: From Las Vegas to Bryce – via I-15 and UT-9 – it takes 4.5 hours without a break and without traffic, a factor not to be underestimated on Scenic Route 9.

We will dedicate this section to answer once and for all one of the most frequently asked questions about this itinerary:

Can You Visit Zion and Bryce Canyon in One Day?

highway 9 utahAt least from our point of view, the answer is… no. We do not recommend it, not only for those coming from Las Vegas  (for whom it would be even worse, given the distance!), but also to anyone who wants to have a complete experience of both parks. They are very different and challenging (especially Zion) and the relatively short distance is not enough to justify visiting both the same day. During my first trip in the Southwest, I was also tempted to do it. Although I was certain that it was impossible. I asked a gentleman from St. George what would suggest and he advised against it. He said, “They are two completely different parks and each deserves a day’s visit.” Well, he was right!

In conclusion, as I mentioned above, you can “pass through Zion” on the way to Bryce Canyon on SR-9, but if your goal is to visit Bryce Canyon or Page the same day, you should not venture deeper into the park by driving on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.

Map of Attractions

What to see on Utah State Route 9

ut 9 scenic byway zionHere are the stops I recommend you make on the way from La Verkin to Mount Carmel Junction (the most frequent route on West Coast tours).

Fort Zion

fort zion virgin utahFort Zion (1000 W. Hwy 9, Virgin), which has a rust-colored mesa,  is by far the most fun and interesting attraction on the route. This strange place is located in a small and remote town called Virgin, and don’t be afraid to accidentally miss it, because it’s almost impossible not to notice its peculiar features. It is a fake western town with cartoon-like buildings, a military fort with a wooden fence, and a petting zoo. That’s what you’ll first see when you park your car.

Well, if you think that the surprises are over here, think again and take 30 minutes to explore the interior. You’ll find a gift shop that is a replica of an old trading post, with an interior design evoking the Far West and a variety of items, some of which are definitely touristy. In the adjacent saloon restaurant, you can eat unusual food, including hamburgers made from rattlesnake meat and jackalope, an animal that… you know, does not exist. In one corner of the saloon there is a chastity belt (!), in another corner there is a nice vintage self-playing piano playing music. You can’t shoot the pianist because there isn’t one!

You can view the western town for free from the parking lot, but if you pay $ 1 per person, you can enter the “main street” and take some pictures inside the buildings, which include the prison, the bank, the hotel, the sheriff’s office and the caravan. Behind the town, there is a small zoo with llamas, goats, donkeys and ponies. You can buy 3 carrots for $1, to feed the animals, something the children will certainly enjoy.

Kolob Terrace Road and Smith Mesa Road

For those who want to venture off-road and have a lot of time on their hands, I also want to mention two secondary scenic roads: Kolob Terrace Road and Smith Mesa Road. The main feature of these little-known roads is that they allow you to see the peaks of Zion National Park and a section of Kolob Canyons from a new perspective, “from the outside”.

  • Kolob Terrace Road is a paved road with little traffic that leads to Virgin, more precisely, here. Usually you will drive about 24 miles to the Kolob Reservoir Lake, but you can also just get to the junction with Lava Road (20 miles from Virgin), turn right and reach Lava Point Overlook after 1.86 miles. A good part of the road trip takes place within the boundaries of the park, but there is no fee to drive here. The road is not a loop, so plan accordingly in order to return to Route 9, or combine the route with Smith Mesa Road.
  • Smith Mesa Road: This is a wild scenic road, with even less traffic, but also really remarkable. We are talking about a dirt road in good condition that climbs up a mesa and pastures (watch out for the animals that may cross the road) and fields surrounded by the red peaks of Kolob Canyons and Zion National Park in the distance. The Smith Mesa Road is best traveled in a 4×4 (especially if the road there is rain or ice, which would otherwise make the road impassable). If you want to drive the entire length of Smith Mesa Road, I suggest you take it here, near Fort Zion, driving east. The first 3.4 miles are breathtaking and in this part, the paved road is rather narrow, steep, and does not have guardrails, so you should drive with great caution until you reach the top of the mesa (watch the video to get an idea). When you have finished the climb, turn right where the dirt road begins and follow it for 18.6 miles (it will take almost an hour) until the fork with Kolob Terrace Road and enjoy the view (to the north the peaks of Kolob Canyons, to the east those of Zion Canyon). From the junction, you can return to SR-9 by turning right and driving another 7.5 miles.

Grafton Ghost Town

grafton ghost townIf after visiting the fake town of Fort Zion you want to feast your eyes on a real ghost town, in Rockville you can take a detour to Grafton, a remote Mormon ghost town founded back in 1859 by a group of families from nearby Virgin. The town first became a ghost town in 1866, when it was abandoned after a massacre of Mormons by Navajo bandits. In 1868, some farmers returned to Grafton and built a school there, which still stands today in the center of the town. As the larger towns in the surrounding area (Rockville, Hurricane, Virgin) gradually grew, Grafton slowly began to empty out until in 1945 it became a ghost town for the second time in its history.

How do you get there? Be careful because it is not clearly marked! You can reach it by driving on SR-9 and then turning onto Bridge Road. You will cross the beautiful iron bridge over the Virgin River and following the main road keeping right for 1.86 miles. There is only one fork in the road, but there is a small sign for Grafton that will show you the way.

Visiting Grafton, which is situated in a fantastic natural setting, among cultivated fields and the pink mountain peaks in the background, will be like taking a trip back in time. Admission to the site is free and there is no visitor center. Instead, there is only a box from which you can pick up a map to get an idea of what the town used to look like. Of the 33 original buildings, only 6 have been restored, including the old school/church, a farm and three houses, two of which belonged to the Russell family, the city’s musicians. At the time of our visit (October 2019), it was not possible to enter the school and the Russell’s largest house (which has a nice porch). On the outskirts of Grafton is the small cemetery, which in my opinion is worth a visit. Looking at the gravestones you can see that the Mormons and Native Americans coexisted and that 1866 was a cursed year for Grafton.

A gingerbread house?

field of dreams ut 9

If you keep driving on Highway 9, shortly after Rockville, you’ll suddenly feel as if you’re going from the set of a western film to the forest of Hansel and Gretel’s fairytale. At this address, you’ll find the charming bed & breakfast called Field of Dreams (perhaps inspired by the film with Kevin Costner), framed by red rocks. It is definitely worth it to stay in this house with a country chic design that resembles a dollhouse. You must absolutely take a picture of this place that you wouldn’t expect to find in Utah!

Zion National Park

Zion Mount Carmel Highway zion scenicWhen you arrive in Springdale, you’ll be amazed. This charming town – full of restaurants, art galleries and rustic saloons – is surrounded by a landscape that words cannot describe. If you’ve come this way mainly to visit Zion National Park, you have arrived! There are a lot of things to know before venturing into the park, for example, you won’t be able to drive along Zion Scenic Drive (unless you go from November to March), and in order to reach the best viewpoints, you’ll have to walk quite a bit. If you plan to walk the famous The Narrows in Zion you need to wear clothes suitable for walking in the water… There is a lot of information, so I suggest you read our article dedicated to Zion National Park.

Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway

how long is zion mount carmel highway
View from Canyon Overlook

From Springdale onwards, for about 12 miles, is the most remarkable stretch of SR-9. This section of Utah State Route 9 is called Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and, as I mentioned earlier, it is a main road of Zion National Park, which is why you’ll have to pay admission even if you’re just passing through and don’t want to enter the park (Zion Scenic Drive). The route from Springdale to Mt. Carmel Junction is about 22 miles long, but the scenic drive itself covers a distance of 11 miles to the park’s East Entrance. It is a very narrow and winding road with striking views at every turn, as you pass rock tunnels, overhangs, cliffs and gorges.

As soon as you find some parking spaces (it won’t be easy), stop to take some pictures and enjoy the surrounding panorama. You can also venture along the trails that start at the side of the road. There are short hikes that lead to see exceptional overlooks, such as Canyon Overlook (you’ll find the trailhead just after the exit of the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, coming from Springdale). Almost at the end of the road, you will come across the Checkerboard Mesa, the symbol of Utah State Route 9. It is a huge, pale, streaked sandstone rock formation. The whole area is a natural habitat for bighorn, deer and other animals. You may be able to spot many of them, especially in the fall.

Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel
At the heart of Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway is the tunnel of the same name, built between 1927 and 1930. At the time, it was considered a masterpiece, not only because of the remarkable feat to construction in this area, but also because at the time it was the longest non-urban tunnel in the United States. Designed for vehicles no taller than 11 ft and no wider than 8 ft, the tunnel today sees more vehicles passing through it that are larger than one might have imagined at the time. This can create some challenges when a vehicle that is too wide (for example, an RV, which is what we were driving) has to pass through, the traffic in the opposite direction must stop until it has gone through the whole tunnel. In this regard, at the two entrances to the tunnel, there are rangers, who charge an additional fee to the vehicles that exceed certain dimensions, forcing the traffic to be blocked. At certain times, transit for certain vehicles is prohibited. Read this to learn more.

Detour to the East Mesa Trail

Observation Point Zion
Observation Point – Zion

After passing the East Entrance toll gate, the road to Mt. Carmel Junction becomes less interesting, and there isn’t much to comment on. The only detour worth mentioning is 2.4 miles after the tollbooth, when you will turn left on North Fork Country Road, a road that leads to the beautiful Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort. If you have some time, you can take the East Mesa Trail, a path that will lead you to Zion Observation Point, an incredible viewpoint over the entire Zion Canyon.

Where to Stay Overnight

Scenic route 9 utahThe best places to stay overnight are Springdale (for those who want to take their time as they visit Zion) and St. George, located to the west, which is strategic for those who want to take the whole SR-9 in the direction of Bryce Canyon or are coming from that direction.

The eastern end of the road is Mt. Carmel Junction, where there are a handful of facilities. If you do not find a place to stay there, look for accommodations in Kanab, or in the area around Bryce Canyon.

For an excellent overnight stay on a ranch, I definitely recommend the aforementioned Zion Ponderosa Ranch…immersed in the silence of the mountains just a stone’s throw from Zion National Park.

For more tips on where to sleep along the way, check out our in-depth guide on accommodations in Zion.

Where to stay near Zion

Bernardo Pacini
Bernardo Pacini

I am an editor and copywriter and have published some poetry. Besides traveling, my interests include literature, experimental music and good food

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