Mt. Carmel Junction Mile
By Mike Smith
Over the past 30 years, I’ve had the occasion to visit the US southwest more than a dozen times, landing in Las Vegas, then venturing into the southwest section of Utah, home of Zion, Bryce and Escalante National parks. With the goal being exploring the many slot canyons, so small that a human can barely sneak through sideways.
Since my first visit I’ve found myself enamored by the soaring canyon walls of red, orange and tan sandstone, hinting of a past as a shallow sea before the formation of North America. Now distinctively desert, it’s magical as the days light leaks away and the walls reflect back brilliant gold, coral and vermillion. I’ve always traveled to this region in February, often with the peaks and valleys blanketed in snow providing beautiful contrast to the soaring peaks and canyon walls. Not to mention as a geology buff, I’m always amazed by the power of the earth, the strength of its rivers and the unending changes of its surface features.
On every trip, we’ve always traveled northeast from Las Vegas to Escalante, passing through Zion and Bryce National parks. To get to Bryce from the Zion valley, you climb more than 2500 feet in four and a half miles on the Zion-Mt. Carmel Scenic Drive. This road climbs the canyon wall through a series of switchbacks that snake back and forth up an erosional slope until it runs out of slope. At that point it goes into a tunnel in the smooth sandstone and climbs for 1.1 miles before popping out near the canyon rim. The tunnel took 3 years to build and is a marvel of human persistence, especially when you realize it was completed in the 1920s.
With cars being smaller back then, vehicles are restricted by size in order to pass through the tunnels. As the main access to Bryce and the other National Parks to the east, the National Park Service wants nothing to impede the flow of traffic from the valley floor to the canyon rim. So that means no bicycles or pedestrians are allowed through the tunnels.
So herein lies the plan for the one and only Mt Carmel Junction Mile. It’s not that I want to break the rules, or at least, not exactly. The fact that the tunnel is pretty cool, but has to be observed in the confines of a car draws me to want to have a first hand view of what Mother Nature and man have created. Again, as a student of geology, it just seems like a no lose situation.
The beauty of the plan is that by having traveled to Utah before, and copping a room in nearby Springdale, an early morning foray up the canyon wall to the Canyon Overlook parking lot is a pretty easy do. The biggest issue might be finding an accomplice willing to drop me off that early in the morning. But if I get going early enough, I should hopefully avoid any traffic (as well as the park rangers!) and have the tunnels all to myself.
In the early morning hours, as the light of the day is just leaking down the canyon walls, searching for the valley floor, I hope to spend six minutes give or take, running a downhill mile within the crust of the earth! Good stuff!
Reflecting back now 24 hours out from the run, I recognize how close this run came to not happening. You know when you have an image of how something in the future is going to go and then when the rubber hits the road it’s not the way you envisioned it? I recognized right away that was going to be the case with my tunnel run.
In a canyon, made famous by the way that light plays off the canyon walls, emphasizing the play between the reds, oranges, pinks and tans that make up the various sandstone constituents of the valley, the majesty is created by the balance between light and dark. In our recon mission, I realized there is no balance between light and dark, there’s just dark. I mean, really dark. And in an early morning run before the sun has fully come up, it was going to be even darker still.
Over the next three days we would be exploring the slot canyons of Bryce and Escalante prior to returning to Zion for our last night in Utah. With 30 miles of hiking and running in sandy washes and tricky canyon trails, my legs weren’t feeling too up to a stealth attack of the tunnel set for our last day in Zion. While hiking and running use the same muscles, they don’t use them in the same way, so there was a certain amount of stiffness and soreness as we finished our hike of Angel’s Landing.
As we drove out of Zion for the day, I glanced up at the Mt. Carmel Highway where it disappeared into the canyon wall, I realized if I didn’t do the run I’d be regretting it more and more as the days passed. We had been waking up early, being used to New England time, and Johnny said he was more than willing to drive the car so that I could get my run in.
So the stage was set. We settled on a 5:30am leave time with the plan that the sun was rising at 6:18. We’d get to the starting point of the run, just about 400 meters outside the tunnel by 6am. The run would be better with a later start, but a later start would insure the chance Park Rangers could interfere with the run being completed. As it stood, the sun should be just coming out and displaying the beautiful scenery with early morning light.
Or at least that was the plan. Everything went like clockwork in the morning. Pre run wake up and coffee, a little hotel stretching and not a soul passed on our 10 mile drive to the start. The temperature on the trip had been a little colder than average but the 28 degrees and no wind meant I could lose the pants and wear the gloves. I had brought a headlamp for canyoneering but this would be the first time on the trip I would need it. Just after 6, I began the run.
I had hoped for this experience to be more than simply a bootleg run through a tunnel you’re not supposed to traverse by foot. I thought that by running through the sandstone walls it would be like running back through time. As I descended through the canyon and the millions of years of present in the sandstone, I’d feel like I was experiencing what drives Earth’s cycles and life on the planet as we know it.
I was wrong. Once I entered the tunnel, everything was black. My headlamp illuminated the area ten feet in front of me and little else. The tunnel sucked all light into it’s blackness and other than those ten feet in front of me, I didn’t recognize or experience much else. My footsteps, breathing and those ten feet of road were all my senses could take in.
Until the car entered the tunnel. While the tunnel stole light, it gave back sound 10 fold. As the vehicle approached it sounded like I was being chased by a jumbo jet with no place to go. The lane left only room for a car and not much else, so I hoped the driver was aware enough to recognize that what’s not supposed to be in the tunnel certainly was. They did, and once passed I was left again to my breathing and my footsteps being the only sounds I was experiencing.
And this would last another two minutes. Then I heard another vehicle approaching. I had no idea how much more running I had, whether I’d be out of the tunnel and able to step out of the lane before the vehicle passed. I certainly kept my cadence up hoping the reflectivity sewn into my shirt would let them know something different lay ahead.
I heard the vehicle come off the gas when it recognized I was there, then the brakes when they recognized it was a runner and the movement into the other lane to go around me. I don’t think I had spidey senses, but you can imagine I was listening hard to try to decipher what was happening behind me. I looked to my left a bit as they passed only to recognize the Parks logo on the side of the truck!
I half expected to exit the tunnel with a Park Ranger waiting for me. I turned off my headlamp with the thought that maybe with all the darkness, if I exited in the dark they might not even see me. As I ran closer and closer to the tunnel exit, without my headlamp on the stars in the sky became more exposed with every step. When I finally exited the tunnel I was greeted by the sky full of stars and the faint outline of the canyon walls around me.
And no ranger.
As I jogged the last half mile to the car where Johnny was waiting for me, I could see the lights from the Ranger’s truck descend the switchbacks below me. He either felt it wasn’t worth his time to charge me, or he recognized the value in what I was out there, at 6am in the morning, trying to achieve. Either way it wasn’t worth his time at this time to press the rules.
And while I didn’t get the enriching experience I had in mind, I got an experience that nobody, or at least very few, ever have. For those 7 minutes and 6 seconds I was in the tunnel, even with the two cars that passed me, I felt very much alone and very much in the darkness, and there’s some value in that.