National Parks make us think of the most beautiful nature scenes America has to offer. Many have their own histories of human development along with vast biological and geological features. Zion National Park in Utah is rich in both.
Sometimes, visiting these National Parks can be a pain if you’re not an experienced outdoorsman or don’t have the time or money for a vacation in the wilderness. Don’t cross Zion off your list, though – you can see it by car!
Even though Zion National Park is known especially for its backcountry adventures in hiking, canyoneering, and climbing, you don’t have to be Bear Grylls to enjoy the unparalleled views.
Zion is not far from the Arizona border and the northwest corner of the park conveniently lies along Interstate 15.
It’s also accessible by several state routes and highways to the south of the Park. Good news is that Zion has plenty of parking – and not just at the visitor’s center.
The National Parks’ people know that visitors flock to Zion for the views, so many roads have places to pull off, out of traffic’s way, to see the sights.
Four-wheeled access doesn’t end at the parking lot. There are many roads throughout the park lands, the majority of which are paved.
It’s encouraged to take these routes in order to appreciate Zion. Some are necessary to get to certain trail heads, if you want to go on a hike, while others are designed for day trips, helping you get the Zion experience on a tight schedule.
Essentially, the National Park isn’t off-limits to anyone. It’s possible to plan the ideal visit to suit your needs, from backpacking across the wild canyons to riding a park shuttle, to driving to the best views.
Here’s everything you need to know about the routes it’s possible to drive in your own car:
Mount Carmel Highway
(photo by Ken Lund)
Mount Carmel Highway spans from the town of Springdale in the west towards the Mt. Carmel Junction with Highway 89 in the east.
Officially starting at the toll booths just north of Springdale, the total length of the route is 24.3 miles. On average, it takes just over 40 minutes to drive.
Near the west end of the route is the Mount Carmel Tunnel which is a 5,000 ft-long (almost 1 mile) tunnel. It doesn’t detract from the views, though. There are windows placed regularly throughout the length of the tunnel to give glimpses of the outside beauty – just don’t stop your car in the tunnel.
(photo by fabian.kron)
There’s plenty to see when you’re driving back outside!
One of the first sites of wonder you’ll pass is the Pine Creek Waterfall, near which are budding views of the Great Arch … which isn’t really an arch yet!
What you expect to be a land bridge looks more like an alcove right now. It’s still forming, but scientists estimate that the Great Arch will be a fully-formed natural bridge in only a couple millennia …
The whole route is punctuated with stunning views and offers several pull-offs in order to safely park up and enjoy the sights.
Driving the tunnel is limited to passenger cars. As it was built in 1920, the subterranean passage was not carved with RVs in mind.
It is possible to drive through, however, if you get a tunnel permit for your vehicle that’s over 7’10” wide and 11’4” tall.
The permit costs $15 (on top of the park entrance fee of $35) and Park Rangers will control the traffic to allow only one-way larger vehicles to pass through.
There are limited hours you’re able to drive the Highway with a tunnel permit, so be sure to double check what they are before attempting the route. The hours are posted on the NPS website, based on season. Good news is that a tunnel permit is valid for two goes within seven days, almost like a round-trip ticket.
Zion Canyon Scenic Dr
Floor of the Valley Road
This route’s name speaks to the timeless beauty of the National Park, giving the impression of ancient rock formations.
The drive begins at the same point as the Mount Carmel Highway. Once you pay to enter the park, drive along Route 9 and turn left across the Canyon Junction Bridge instead of continuing on ahead.
The Floor of the Valley Road runs north for 6.2 miles along the Virgin River and takes around 15 minutes to drive.
It’s the route the Zion Canyon Shuttle – the Park’s shuttle service for visitors without cars – takes, so private cars are actually not allowed on the route when the Shuttle is operating (6am – 5pm).
If you’re driving out-of-hours, you can get to the Zion National Park Lodge and even a couple restaurants.
Some people show up very early to get a parking spot down the Floor of the Valley Road and spend the day hiking one of the many trails branching off of the road which span in almost every direction and lead deep into the interior of Zion.
If you’re wanting a drive-based visit of Zion, then it’s unlikely that this route will be your best bet. Although, you could always park in Springdale and hop on the shuttle!
If you go along the Floor of the Valley (by any transportation means), you’ll have access to the Court of the Patriarchs, the Emerald Pools, and the Temple of Sinawava. These all sound like fantastical locations you wouldn’t expect in Utah, but are all great examples of the beauty of Zion.
Kolob Terrace Road (Northwest Zion)
Rising a total of 8,000 feet in height, Kolob Terrace Road runs north up from the town of Virgin and ends just north of the Kolob Reservoir before continuing another 10 miles up as Kolob Road.
The backcountry routes above can eventually lead you to Cedar City, but we’re focused on the route through Zion.
Starting at the official line of Zion National Park (just next to the Right Fork Trail Head), Kolob Terrace Road continues for 17.2 miles up to the Reservoir, the length of which has a speed limit of 25 to 35 mph, depending on the section.
The drive takes between 30 and 45 minutes. Do note that the Park road is not plowed in the winter, so caution is highly recommending in planning trips late/early in the year.
The same caution pertains to the road around the reservoir, as it’s not fully paved and sometimes hard to navigate, especially without all-terrain vehicles.
The route isn’t impossible, as there’s even a Market Place and Community Center higher up, and a store at the campgrounds at the reservoir.
If you are pulling off down Lava Point Road for an extra adventure, note that parts are impassable when wet and vehicles longer than 19 ft are not allowed down there.
All routes east from Lava Point eventually finish in dead ends, so you don’t have to decide between continuing north or exploring east. Just have a little 15 minute detour through more awe-inspiring sights!
Along the drive you’ll see the iconic red rocky mountains of Zion, mingled with some white-topped peaks higher up.
There are five trail heads that break off from the road (Right Fork, Grapevine, Left Fork, Hop Valley, and Wildcat Canyon Trailheads) for hiking into the wilds of Zion.
Note that the Left Fork Trailhead has limited parking based on permits. But if your goal is just to enjoy a scenic drive there are still plenty of pull-offs to park up at for taking in the views without the sweaty hike.
Reviews claim that Kolob Terrace Road is a less-touristy but still jaw-dropping Zion experience. We should probably note that this route is FREE, with no park entrance fees.
Kolob Canyons Road (North Northwest Zion)
Kolob Canyons Road is the shortest adventure by car in Zion National Park.
Starting at the Visitor’s Center off of Veterans Memorial Highway (Interstate 15), the road winds eastward before curling down south and ending at the Timber Creek Overlook Trailhead and Kolob Viewpoint – with plenty of parking.
There are also pull-offs along the five mile route for views along the way.
Though this route is so short (about a 10 minute drive), you still need to pay a park entrance fee.
Don’t worry: if you’ve already bought a pass at another location in the park, you don’t have to pay twice!
This little path will give views of some great peaks. Buck Pasture Mountain, Nagunt Mesa, Gregory Butte, Timber Top Mountain, Shuntavi Butte, and Pace Knoll can all be viewed from the road as well as the Kolob Viewpoint.
From the parking and picnic area stretches the Timber Creek Overlook Trail, an easy 15 minute hike. What isn’t, unfortunately, viewable from this point is the eponymous Kolob Arch.
Can you see most of Zion National Park by car?
Most of central Zion is inaccessible by car. It’s simply the fact that the terrain doesn’t allow for easy roads (and the fact that they want to protect the nature, of course). There are also no roads in the southeast corner of the Park below the Mount Carmel Highway. There aren’t even any marked hiking trails!
Depending on the landscape around the routes you can drive, you may see some incredible views.
However, you are unable to get into the interior (and thus uninterrupted wilderness) of the park by car.
Many short trails branch off of the driveable routes, so if you park up and have a little wander you’ll be able to see more than if you stayed in the passenger seat.
The beauty of Zion is its highs and lows of mesas and mountains, buttes and archways.
This variety in the landscape means that some views will not be accessible to you because it’ll be blocked by a large, albeit beautiful, rock formation.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing denied to day-trippers wanting to experience Zion by car is the fact that you can not see the famous Kolob Arch from driveable paths!
One of the most famous elements of the National Park is only to be found on foot, down one of the many hiking trails.
Another site that’s impossible to view from a car is the Narrows, a narrow stretch of Zion Canyon that runs 1,000 ft deep.
This is a strictly on-foot experience that you wouldn’t want to be driving for anyway as you’d be too busy looking at everything around you.
Since the park spans over 147,000 acres, it’s not surprising that the roads only let you access such a small portion.
Zion is definitely a place you can go to if you want to view the Park from your car. There are several roads across the Park, allowing you access to and views of almost every corner of Zion.
They are exhaustible, though, and once you’ve driven them there’s still hundreds of thousands of acres to explore.