It is also a fun experience. It’s hard not to resist the desire to honk at least once as you wind your way through the 1.1 mile-long tunnel .
Historically, access in and out of what would become Zion National Park was difficult for both Anasazi and Paiute Indians as well as for 19th century pioneers and early 20th century motorists.
Ever since Nephi Johnson, a young Mormon missionary working among the Virgin River Indians discovered Zion Canyon in September 1858, many people would push for a road into Zion Canyon and on to Mt. Carmel Junction, which connects to Highway 89.
Shortly after Leo A. Snow, a deputy U.S. surveyor from St. George made a report to the Secretary of Interior of a detailed survey of Southern Utah that included Zion Canyon, President Taft signed a proclamation creating Mukuntuweap National Monument on July 31, 1909, according to local historian J.L. Crawford’s unpublished manuscript An Abbreviated History of Zion National Park.
The park’s name was changed in 1919 to Zion National Park. During the 1920s, people began lobbying state of Utah officials to build a road leading out of Zion Canyon toward Mt. Carmel Junction. In 1923, Utah Chief Engineer Howard Means and B.J. Finch, a U.S. government engineer, were sent to determine if such a road could be built, according to author Donald Garate’s book, The Zion Tunnel; From Slickrock to Switchback .
They were introduced to Springdale livestockman John Winder who showed them where a road could go up Pine Creek Canyon. After surveying the route, they determined the road was feasible, but getting Congress to fund such a project would be a challenging task.
On Sept. 27, 1927, construction by Nevada Contracting Company of Fallon, Nev., began on the building of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, according to Garate. The project was divided into four sections. Section No. 1 was the 3.6 miles of switchbacks between the Virgin River and the west entrance to the tunnel. Section No. 2 was the tunnel itself, and Section No. 3 was the roadway from the east tunnel entrance to the park boundary. Section No. 4 was outside the park linking to Mt. Carmel and would be paid for by the State of Utah. Raleigh-Lang Construction Company of Springville, Utah, was granted the contract for building that section of road.
Since it was impractical to start the tunnel at either end, tunnel work began inbetween, according to Dr. Dena S. Markoff of the Western Heritage Conservation, Inc., Arvada, Colo., who wrote The Dudes are Always Right: The Utah Parks Company in Zion National Park 1923-1972 for the Zion Natural History Association in September 1980.
“Crews erected a scaffold and started drilling in. When they reached the point where the tunnel was to be, as determined by the survey from the footpath, they began boring in either direction from that point, on the tunnel itself,” Markoff stated.
At the time of the awarding of the contract, Dr. L. I. Hewes, deputy chief engineer of the Bureau of Public Roads, was in charge of road construction in national parks in 11 western states. He referred to the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel as the biggest single job the Bureau had ever undertaken, as quoted in the Aug. 31, 1927 Deseret News and the Sept. 1, 1927 Salt Lake Tribune. The quote is also cited by Markoff in her publication.
Since ventilation would be a problem in the tunnel, five windows or galleries were planned. Eventually, a sixth gallery was included in the project, Garate states.
By Feb. 9, 1928, a rough preliminary road was constructed at the west portal of the tunnel. Meanwhile, retaining walls had to be built along much of the road to secure it to the mountain side, Garate states. Construction of the switchbacks leading to the tunnel resulted in two fatalities during the three years the route was under construction. Construction workers Mac McClain and Johnny Morrison were killed in separate incidents.
On Sunday, Sept. 16, 1928, a pilot crew drilled their way through the east entrance and by Oct. 20, drilling and blasting of the tunnel was completed, a task that took 11 months and 12 days, according to Garate.
“As soon as a temporary bridge was built across Pine Creek at the east entrance, power shovels and dump trucks were moved out through the tunnel,” Garate stated. “Work was begun building the road toward the Park’s east boundary to meet the Raleigh-Lang Company whose workers were nearing the boundary from the west… A short road tunnel and four water tunnels to carry water under the road were built. Many rock culverts and retaining walls also had to be created.”
By December 1929, the road was nearly completed, with the last rock work being completed by July 10, 1930. Formal dedication of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel took place on July 4, 1930.
“On that day,” says historian J.L. Crawford in his unpublished manuscript, A History of Zion, “the Zion Lodge was decked out in bunting in observance of Independence Day, but the people who jammed the lodge to capacity had come to witness the opening of the mile-long tunnel which would open up a new section of Zion and appreciably shorten the distance to neighboring towns and parks. John Winder, of all the pioneers, who had probably done the most to ‘talk up’ the project, as well as guide the engineers over the slick rock and up the crevices to do the surveying, lived to enjoy the convenience of a new highway to his ranch. “
Utah Gov. George H. Dern dedicated the highway in front of a crowd of over 1,000 people who included National Park Director Horace M. Albright, 15 governors, top state and national highway personnel, Utah state officials, a dozen Union Pacific Railroad officials, representatives of numerous state and national newspapers, LDS President Heber J. Grant and his counselor , Anthony W. Ivins, according to Markoff.
Crawford said the completion of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway was of special interest to the Utah Parks Company since it shortened the distance to Bryce Canyon National Park by nearly 70 miles and to Grand Canyon by 20 miles. It also eliminated two difficult and hazardous sections of road. For six years prior to the completion of the tunnel, the Union Pacific busses had to negotiate a very steep hill and dugway out of Rockville.
Angus M. Woodbury, a Zion National Park naturalist from 1925 to 1933, in his book, A History of Southern Utah and Its National Parks described the highway route in Zion Canyon as follows: “From the canyon floor the road turns to the east up Pine Creek Canyon and spirals upward on a four-mile roadway to a tunnel paralleling the face of the vertical cliffs for 5,613 feet. Five galleries cut from the tunnel to the canyon wall offer the motorist vantage points for viewing the awe-inspiring scenery. Construction within the National Park cost $2 million; from the Park to Mt. Carmel a state and federal project, also cut in great part from solid rock cost in excess of $500,000.”
Markoff states that “without the pressure exerted by the Utah Parks Company for improved roads linking southern Utah and northern Arizona parks, the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway might have taken another generation to build. Indeed, the project might never have been accomplished without the combination of needs and influence that existed in the 1920s. Ironically,” he says, “the highway promoted by the Utah Parks Company facilitated increased automobile traffic which eventually supplanted travel by rail to the parks.”
“The building of the new road and tunnel brought some side benefits to the area, according to Crawford. Besides providing needed employment, it was responsible for the commercial power line which also brought electricity to the communities along the Virgin River. “
While the tunnel is basically the same as it was upon its completion, because of the softness of the sandstone which it passes through, much reinforcing has been done and concrete ribs now give added support to the tunnel’s entire length, Garate states. Since the collapse of a sandstone pillar west of Gallery No. 3 in 1958, the tunnel is now monitored electronically 24 hours a day to warn of any other potential collapses. Visitors are also no longer allowed to pull off at the galleries to view the magnificent scenery.
Also, before 1989, large vehicles, including tour buses, motor homes and trailers, were involved in numerous accidents and near misses in the tunnel due to a large increase in volume of traffic and the size of vehicles passing through the tunnel . To ensure safer passage of vehicles, the National Park Service began traffic control escorts at the tunnel .
This service, for which a $15 tunnel permit fee is charged, was provided for over 27,874 oversized vehicles in calendar year 2011, according to a National Park Service website.