Walking Through History At Zion National Park A tunnel, carved into a canyon wall, opened up Zion to visitors in the 1920s. An engineering marvel, it became nearly as much of an attraction as the park itself. As part of the park's centennial celebration, the tunnel was opened to nighttime explorers.
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Walking Through History At Zion National Park

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Walking Through History At Zion National Park

Walking Through History At Zion National Park

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Now a story about trading in your car for walking shoes. Something extraordinary happened in Utah's Zion National Park before sunset last night. As part of a centennial celebration, rangers closed the only road through the park. That allowed 300 people to walk through a narrow historic tunnel. It sits 800 feet above the canyon floor and, as tunnels go, offers some pretty spectacular views.

NPR's Howard Berkes takes us there.

HOWARD BERKES: This is a story - how a man-made feature in a national park became as important as some of the natural features of the park. And I'm driving right into that man-made feature right now, it's the Zion Tunnel.

(Soundbite of car)

BERKES: And as I go into the tunnel, it gets pitch black. If it wasn't for the lights on the dashboard of my car, I wouldn't be able to see my hand in front of me. Now, about to come to one of the windows blasted into the side but I can't stop. There's a barrier there, I could see quickly - oh, there, it's gone, it's gone - really spectacular scenery of Zion. But I can't stop, it's too narrow, there's no way to pull over, the traffic's steady.

(Soundbite of car)

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. JOCK WHITWORTH (Superintendent, Zion National Park): You used to be able to stop at the galleries in your Model-Ts and Model-As and take a look, and get out and take pictures. With our visitation, that cannot happen anymore. The only you can go through now is by automobile or illegally.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHITWORTH: Today, we decided to make it legal for those who could get the first 300 spots to walk through the tunnel and look out those galleries that were built for that reason, for our pleasure.

BERKES: That's Jock Whitworth, the superintendent of Zion National Park, speaking at the east end of the mile-long tunnel last night. Almost 80 years ago at the dawn of the Depression, the federal government spent close to $2 million to mine and blast through this skyscraping sandstone cliff. It was the longest tunnel and most expensive stretch of road at the time, says Donald Garate, a national park historian.

Mr. DONALD GARATE (National Park Historian): There had been a number of engineers that came in and tried to figure it out and said that it's impossible. It just would, you know, it'd bankrupt the national treasury to try to build a road out. And so, it was known before they even really started extensively looking into it that it was going to be a horrendously expensive venture.

BERKES: But there were powerful interests with big incentives. The Union Pacific Railroad, the National Park Service and the automobile industry, all wanted to get more people to more national parks. A road and tunnel crossing Zion made for easier excursions including Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon national parks.

Unidentified Man: So be safe, have fun. Thanks for coming.

(Soundbite of applause)

BERKES: Some of the people in the crowd admitted to running through the tunnel naked in illegal rites of passage for summer park workers. But on this night, all were fully clothed and many were serious. Furniture maker Mike Crawford(ph) brought a homemade flute.

(Soundbite of flute)

(Soundbite of song "Amazing Grace")

Mr. MIKE CRAWFORD: That song is - the reverence involved in it, it just -it's a good spiritual song and the echoes and the sounds that come out of this tunnel and all the canyons in the park are spiritual. And I think it fits.

BERKES: Painter Roland Lee(ph) brought his sketchbook.

Mr. ROLAND LEE (Painter): This is the first time I've had the chance to actually stop here, look out these windows and look at the vista, you know, from this vantage point, which is different than anywhere else.

BERKES: And he sketched furiously; walkers had the tunnel for just 90 minutes. Lyman Hafen(ph) brought his sense of wonder.

Mr. LYMAN HAFEN: There's just something mythical about this tunnel. How you pass out of this beautiful brightness into a dark hole and then emerge again into a bright, wonderful new world as you come out of it. It's almost like being reborn.

BERKES: Twenty-two-year-old Colton Winder(ph) and a vast, extended family were the last people out of the tunnel. Winder's great-great grandfather forged his own rugged trails out of Zion Canyon before guiding engineers to this spot for the tunnel.

Mr. COLTON WINDER: For me, I almost kind of think of it as the completion of my great-great grandfather's dream because he was always seeking to unite Zion with the area outside of Zion, to open this area up to the outside world. And this tunnel is what made that possible.

BERKES: And with that, rangers urged the last stragglers onto buses for the trip back down the canyon. Holding back traffic was such a logistical challenge, park officials say they don't think they'll ever do this again.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Zion National Park.

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