Earth Notes: The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel

Jan 1, 2020

Zion National Park has become one of the busiest, most popular parks in the country. But that wasn’t the case in 1919 when it became Utah’s first national park. Back then, the challenge was how to promote tourism in the remote area.

The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, circa 1928
Credit Getty Images


One of the biggest efforts was road construction, in particular, the completion of the Grand Loop connecting Zion with Bryce Canyon and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. That meant linking the west side of the park to the east side via the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and Tunnel.

Crews began digging into the sandstone in 1927. The first step was blasting five gallery windows into the cliff face above Pine Creek Canyon. Narrow-gauge railcars were loaded with rock debris that was dumped out through the window openings, letting in light and air as the workers continued to widen and lengthen the tunnel. Eventually, it was extended in both directions, connecting the east and west ends of the new road. At just over a mile long, the tunnel was - and still is - the longest vehicle tunnel in the national park system.

At a dedication ceremony on July 4th, 1930, Utah Governor George Dern said, “I take off my hat to the men who conceived this almost impossible project and carried it through…”

Now each year millions of travelers pass through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel and emerge on the far end to marvel at the engineering feat and at Zion’s dazzling scenery, glimpsed through the carefully placed windows.