The Zion Mount Carmel Tunnel
It is just hitting 5 o’clock; The sun is about to land on the tips of the Zion mountains and I am climbing a series of hairpins high above the Canyon floor.
I am headed to Bryce Canyon, a 1 and a half hour drive from Zion along the Mount Carmel highway in what is supposed to be one of the most brilliant drives. I have left it until the evening to begin my drive- not just because it was hard to detach myself from Zion, but I wanted to enjoy the landscapes at their most brilliant best-when the sun is low and illuminates the ambers of the inflamed sandstone.
Apart from the obvious beauty of the surrounding, towering Zion Canyons, the first real landmark is the Zion Mount Carmel Tunnel.
The 1.1 mile tunnel slices through the very heart of one of Zions Mesa sandstone peaks. It’s an absolutely astonishing feat of engineering that took over 2 years to sculpt.
I am forced to wait for about 10 minutes before I can enter the tunnel as there is a large coach approaching from the other end-doing the Zion-Bryce trip in reverse. The width inside the carved capillary is understandably limited, but I hold no grudges as it allows me one last time to snap up the surrounding Zion landscape.
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Light at the End of the Tunnel
The tunnel is, as expected, pitch black with just the occasional chiseled opening that reveal glimpses of the progress being made through the interior of the huge rock.
Once I re-emerge on the other side, I am out of the main Zion valley and I was surprised at how different the landscape appears.
Yes it is still sandstone, but the texture and colours are much different to that inside the canyon.
The stone adopts a more subtle, softer, sepia tinge contrasting the harsher, bolder and vivid colours from within Zion.
The rock is also much smoother, creating waves and ripples that replicate the Vermilion Cliffs and Valley of Fire State province.
Its as if this stone as been carved by soft ripples and trickles of streams and water run-off- whereas the stone inside the canyon has been brutally hacked at by a much more powerful, relentless torrent of flooding.
I pull over at a wave shaped crescent, almost immediately at the exit of the tunnel. Many people do the same and strike various poses and generally have fun on the ‘wave’. It is here I also meet a group of 4, all clothed with the general cayoneering apparatus and soaking wet. They show me the pot-hole that they have just abseiled 30ft down. It is no wider than 8 ft, but apparently opens up to a whole underground cave network and hidden river slot-bed. This serves as another reminder that I must return to Zion, to explore such gems.
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The Open Road
My eyes are on full alert. This is partly because I want to digest every pixel of the morphing landscape, but it is dusk and from my experience of driving around the natural parks of San Francisco and through Yosemite this is the period when animals are most active- darting across roads to settle into their homes for the night.
This time however it is not deer that are here to greet me, but mountain goats.
Ahead of me I see some rocks tumble as a small family braves the sharp cliff slide in order to cross the road and hide in the bushes below. I’ve never seen wild mountain goats like this before, so its quite a cool site, albeit unnerving that at any time some more goats may brave the cliff-peaks ahead of me and come hurtling down to the roadside. They don’t.
After about 45 minutes of driving the mesa peaks begin to dry up and it appears I have breached the top of the canyon as everything seems to flatten. The road and the landscape widens, with forests becoming denser to fill the open void. It takes me a while to get used to everything being flat and so ordinary- it doesn’t quite seem right.
As the light fades there are very few other cars on the road and the forest transforms into more of a dried up desert. The landscape is now a desolate, martian atmosphere and I am half expecting to see Roadrunner and Coyote race up and down the flats.
Ahead there is the distant carvings of more canyons and rocky desert peaks, but they are far in the distance.
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Red Rock Canyon
About 30 minutes from Bryce canyon, just as I turn on to Highway 12, lies the very small park of Red Rock Canyon- I actually missed the turn-off to begin with as it isn’t exactly a distinguished park figurehead like Zion or Bryce.
By now the sun was shining its very last rays and the moon was beginning to start its night shift.
Living up to its name, this park definitely does have the reddest rocks of all the parks. The wine soaked hoodos stand as small family clusters, like gangs, scattered across the small trailheads. I climb to the top of one of these hoodos (only 20ft or so) where I get a glimpse of the silhouetted figure of Bryce Canyon in the distance.
Unlike the smooth, sanded rock in Zion this rock is very crumbly and patchy- similar to sprayed concrete or pebble dashing.
After viewing one of the natural, rainbow arches, under very dim light conditions, I head back to my truck and continue to my destination- Bryce Canyon.
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I turn off the 12 and onto Highway 89N- the entrance road to Bryce. By now its pitch black and seeing an entire population of people, cars, campervans and motorbikes parked outside the Bryce Superstore I also park up to get some dinner.
The building is the size of a large hotel and accommodates all needs- restaurants, markets, gas station, adventure tours, photography shops, general information, swimming pool, arcade and indeed a hotel itself. I stock up on general supplies for my trip tomorrow and take my time to familiarize myself with the trails and hikes across Bryce.
There are plenty of day tours and trips, even in the winter, giving Bryce a very family orientated, fun holiday camp.
I take the map routes and information I need and head to Sunrise Point.
I park up in the pitch black parking lot and sleep in the back of my truck in anticipation of a full days hiking tomorrow.