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    UT-9 and Mount Carmel Highway: Adventurous scenic byway from Zion towards Bryce

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    Joel Fulleda

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    In Utah there is no shortage of scenic roads to talk about, and the UT-9 it can easily be counted among these not only for the beauty of the views that can be seen around it, but also for the driving experience itself, different from the classic straights typical of desert areas. Are you curious to find out more? Well, suffice it to say that a segment of this scenic byway, called Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, is an integral part of the Zion National Park, winding dizzyingly through the reddish-white mountains of the park.

    But where does this road go? When do you happen to go along it? What should you expect when driving? Let's answer these questions, focusing on both Zion Mt. Carmel Highway than about the things to see in the stretch of UT-9 that does not belong to Zion.


    • Length, travel times and other info
    • When and why to take it?
      • From Las Vegas to Page
      • Give Vegas to the Bryce
      • Can I visit Zion and Bryce in one day?
    • Map of attractions
    • What to see on UT-9
      • Fort Zion
      • Kolob Terrace Road e Smith Mesa Road
      • Grafton Ghost Town
      • Zion National Park
      • Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway
      • Detour to East Mesa Trail
    • Where to sleep?

    Length, travel times and other info

    Here are some important things to know:

    • UT-9 is a paved road located in Utah and colleague La Verkin and Mt. Carmel Junctions, important junction for those heading to Bryce Canyon or to Page.
    • The distance to be covered is 72 km. The travel time is around 1.10 hours not to mention any stops, detours or busy passages.
    • The tourist reference point for finding accommodation along this road is the pretty town of Springdale, practically the gateway to Zion National Park, which is the main attraction along the way.
    • The stretch of UT-9 which is located within the park boundaries is paid but it is free for those who own the parks card. In fact, those who want to travel the road in its entirety cannot avoid passing through the park toll booth.
    • The Zion Mount Carmel Highway is part of Zion yes, but not to be confused with the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which is the main street in the park.
    • Along the way you will find the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, a rather narrow tunnel that can create some delays on the roadmap if you cross a motorhome or a large vehicle.

    When and why to take it?

    The first case is the easiest: anyone who wants to go to the Zion National Park it's practically forced to travel the UT-9, wherever it comes from (Las Vegas, Bryce, Page…): there is no escape.

    But it is not the only option: there are also other cases in which it is possible to take this path, and in that case it will be up to you to make the fateful choice between the fastest and the most beautiful road. In our case, the "direct competitors" of the UT-9 there are two: the I-15 for those going from Las Vegas to Bryce (or vice versa) and the combination UT-59 S is AZ-389 for those going from Las Vegas directly to Page (or vice versa).

    From Las Vegas to Page

    This is a rather rare case, but there are those who - for reasons of time or because maybe they are on their second trip there - go gives Las Vegas to Page without visiting Bryce or Zion. In this case, the UT-9 stands as an alternative to the two roads UT-59 S is AZ-389, which connect Hurricane and Kanab more directly.

    • The fastest way: from Las Vegas to Page - via I-15, UT-59 S, AZ-389 and US-89 S - it takes 4.20 hours.
    • The panoramic road: Las Vegas to Page - via I-15, U-9 and US-89 S - takes approx 5 hours without breaks and without considering the traffic.
    The fastest way
    The scenic route

    Give Vegas to the Bryce

    As you can read in our article dedicated to traveling from Las Vegas to Bryce, la UT-9 stands as an extremely scenic alternative to I-15. If you want to follow it, you will need to take it after passing St. George, leaving the highway via exit 16 towards Hurricane. Before arriving at Bryce you will also meet the Red Canyon (Utah), right at the beginning of another beautiful panorama: the UT-12.

    • The fastest way: from Las Vegas to Bryce - via I-15 and then UT-20 E and US-89 S - it takes around 4 hours.
    • The scenic route: from Las Vegas to Bryce - via I-15 and UT-9 - it takes 4.30 hours without breaks and without considering the traffic, a factor not to be underestimated in various sections of the UT-9.
    The fastest way
    The scenic route

    About this itinerary, let's open a parenthesis to answer once and for all one of the most frequently asked questions:

    Can I visit Zion and Bryce in one day?

    At least from our point of view, the answer is no, such a choice is strongly discouraged, not only for those coming from Las Vegas (even worse, given the distances!), but for anyone who wants to do a complete experience of both parks. They are very different from each other and challenging (above all Zion) and the relatively short distance is not enough to encourage a combined day visit. My first time in the West, I too had this temptation: although I was already convinced that it was indeed possible, I still asked for advice from a gentleman from St. George, who advised me not to do so. He told me: “They are two completely different parks and each one deserves a day to visit”. Well, he was right!

    In summary: as mentioned above, it is possible "Go to the Zion" to go to Bryce along the UT-9 but, if the goal is also to visit Bryce or Page on the same day, it is not advisable to deepen the visit of the park entering the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.

    Map of attractions

    What to see on UT-9

    Here are the stages that I recommend you do along the way da La Verkin a Mount Carmel Junction (most frequent on West Coast tours).

    Fort Zion

    Framed in the distance by a mesa with the typical colors of the area, Fort Zion (1000 W. Hwy 9, Virgin) is by far the most fun and curious of the attractions on the route. This strange place is located in the small and remote village of Virgin, and do not be afraid to skip it, because it is practically impossible not to notice its quirks: a fake western town with cartoon-like buildings, a military fort complete with a wooden fence, a shabby zoo: this is what you will see from the outside when you stop your car in the parking lot in front.

    Well, if you think the surprises are over here, take half an hour to explore the interior as well: you will find a gift shop who wants to mimic the old trading posts a bit, with furnishings in the Far West style, decorations and various goods for sale, some decidedly kitschy. In the adjacent room, there is also a restaurant-saloon where you can eat foods that are nothing short of unusual, including rattlesnake meat burger and Jackalope, an animal that… does not exist. In one corner of the saloon there is a chastity belt hanging (!), In another it sounds good vintage automatic piano: you can't shoot the pianist because the pianist isn't there!

    As mentioned, the western town can be viewed for free from the parking lot, but at the cost of $1 a person you can enter the "main street" and take some pictures inside the buildings: the prison, the bank, the hotel, the sheriff's office, the caravan, etc. Behind the town there is a small zoo with llamas, goats, donkeys and ponies: to the delight of children you can buy them 3 carots at $1 to feed the animals.

    Kolob Terrace Road e Smith Mesa Road

    Kolob Terrace Road
    Smith Mesa Road

    For those who want to off road and has a lot of time available, I also point out the existence of two secondary scenic roads: Kolob Terrace Road e 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 the section of Kolob Canyon from a new perspective, “from the outside”.

    • Kolob Terrace Road it is a paved road with little traffic that takes you to Virgin, more precisely here. It is usually traveled for about 38 km to the lake of the Kolob Reservoir, but it is also possible to just get to the junction with Lava Road (32 km from Virgin), turn right and reach the Lava Point Overlook after 3 km. A good part of the on the road takes place right inside the park boundaries, but it is totally free to go along it. The road is not a loop, so take your time to return to UT-9, or combine the route with Smith Mesa Road.
    • Smith Mesa Road: this is a wild scenic road, even less traveled by tourists, but truly remarkable. We are talking about a dirt road in good condition that climbs over a mesa and pastures (watch out for the animals in the middle of the road) and fields surrounded by the red peaks of Kolob Canyon and Zion National Park in the distance. The Smith Mesa Road is to be traveled preferably with a 4 × 4 vehicle (especially if the road is made impassable by rain or ice), if you want to do it all, I recommend you take it here, near Fort Zion, driving east. The first 5.5 km are breathtaking: they take place on a rather narrow, steep and unprotected asphalt road, to be traveled with great caution to 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: follow it for 30 km (it will take almost an hour) to the junction with Kolob Terrace Road, enjoying the view (to the north the peaks of Kolob Canyon, to the east those of Zion Canyon). From the fork you can return to UT-9 by turning right and driving for another 12 km.

    Grafton Ghost Town

    If the fake town of Fort Zion has made you want to feast your eyes on a real ghost town, in Rockville, consider a detour to reach Grafton, a remote Mormon ghost town founded in the distant 1859 by a group of families from nearby Virgin. The town became a ghost town for the first time in 1866, when it was abandoned after a massacre of Mormons by Navajo bandits. In 1868 some farmers returned to Grafton and built one there school, which still stands in the center of the town. As the larger towns around (Rockville, Hurricane, Virgin) gradually grew, Grafton gradually began to empty until in 1945 it did not become a ghost town for the second time in its history.

    How to reach it? Be careful why it is not very well indicated! It can be reached by turning from UT-9 into Bridge Road, crossing the beautiful iron bridge over the Virgin River and following the main road keeping to the right for 5 km. You will find only one fork, but there is a small signpost for Grafton that will remove all doubts.

    Located in a fantastic natural setting, among the cultivated fields framed by the pink peaks of the mountains, Grafton will give you the opportunity to take a trip back in time. Admission to the site is free, there is no visitor center but only a box from which you can pick up a map to get an idea of ​​what the extension of the city was. Of the 33 original buildings, only 6 have been restored, including theancient school / church, a farm e very home including two of the Russell family, the town musicians. At the time of our visit (October 2019), it was not possible to enter the school and the largest house of the Russells (which has a nice porch). At the gates of Grafton is the little one cemetery, which in my opinion is worth a visit: browsing through the tombstones you can see how the Mormons lived with the Indians, and how 1866 was a cursed year for Grafton.

    A gingerbread house? In this area?

    Driving on UT-9, shortly after Rockville, you will feel like you are suddenly passing from the set of a western film to the woods of Hansel and Gretel's fairytale: this is where you will find the charming bed & breakfast Field of Dreams (possibly inspired by the movie with Kevin Costner), framed by the red rocks of the area. The country chic house is reminiscent of a gingerbread house and deserves a stop: you absolutely must take a photo of the most decontextualized attraction in all of Utah!

    Zion National Park

    When you get to Springdale, you will be amazed: the pretty town - full of restaurants, art galleries and rustic-far west style bars - is immersed in a natural spectacle impossible to describe with words. If you have traveled this route primarily to visit Zion, now is the time! There are many things to know before venturing into the park, such as that you will not be able to use your car along the park Zion Scenic Drive (unless you go from November to March), that to reach the best observation points you will have to hike a lot, that to walk the famous The Narrows in Zion you need clothing suitable for walking in the water ... in short, I recommend you to read well our article dedicated to Zion National Park.

    Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway

    Vista da Canyon Overlook

    From Springdale on for about 20km there UT-9 shows the best part of himself. This piece of the road is called Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and, as anticipated, it is an integral part of Zion National Park, which is why you will have to pay the entrance to go along it even if you are just passing through and do not want to enter the park (Zion Scenic Drive). The drive from Springdale to Mt. Carmel Junction is about 35km long, but the scenic drive itself covers a distance of 17km, to the park's East Entrance proper. It is a road in some cases very narrow and winding that offers dizzying views at every bend, rock tunnels, overhangs, cliffs and gorges of incredible visual impact.

    As soon as you find some pitches where you can park your car (it won't be that frequent), stop to take some photos and enjoy the surrounding landscape. You can also venture along the paths that start from the edge of the road: with short hikes it is possible to reach exceptional points of view, such as Canyon Overlook (You will find the start of the trail just after exiting the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, coming from Springdale). Almost at the end of the journey you will meet the Checkerboard Mesa, the symbol of UT-9: a huge, pale-colored streaked sandstone rock formation. The whole area is a natural habitat for bighorn sheep, deer and other typical animals of the area: we have met several of them, especially in autumn.

    Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel The heart of the Zion - Mt. Carmel Highway is the eponymous tunnel, built between 1927 and 1930. At the time, it was considered an engineering masterpiece, not only for the remarkable feat of building in a territory that was anything but easy, but also because it was then the longest non-urban tunnel in the entire United States. Designed for vehicles no higher than 3.45 meters and no wider than 2.39 meters, the tunnel today sees a large number of larger vehicles passing through than could have been imagined at the time. This can create some discomfort: in case a vehicle that is too wide must pass (for example a camper, as happened to us), traffic in the opposite direction must be blocked until it has traveled the entire tunnel. In this regard, at the two entrances of the tunnel there is a control service by the rangers, which charge an additional fee to vehicles that exceed a certain size, effectively blocking traffic. At certain times, transit for some vehicles is prohibited: to find out more, read here.

    Detour to East Mesa Trail

    Observation Point – Zion

    After passing the East Entrance toll booth, the road up to Mt. Carmel Junction becomes less thrilling, and there's not much to report. The only noteworthy detour you will find 3.8 km after the toll booth, when you can take it on the left North Fork Country Road, a road that leads to the beautiful Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort. If you have some time to spare, you can walk the East Mesa Trail, a trail that will lead you to Zion Observation Point, an incredible viewpoint over the whole of Zion Canyon.

    Where to sleep?

    The most suitable solutions are Springdale (for those who want to visit Zion calmly) e St. George, excellent strategic point a ovest for those who want to travel the entire UT-9 towards Bryce, or come from.

    The eastern end of the street is Mt. Carmel Junction, where a handful of structures are located. If you do not find availability, please take into consideration Kanab, or look for a accommodation around Bryce.

    For an upscale overnight stay in a ranch, it is worth recommending the already mentioned Zion Ponderosa Ranch, immersed in the silence of the mountains, a stone's throw from the national park.

    For more tips on where to sleep along the way, I refer you to our study about accommodation in Zion.

    Where to sleep near Zion

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