Accessing the National Parks

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Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway. Photo: Devin Carothers

By Luke Carothers

The concept of national parks has existed for the better part of the last 150 years since Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872.  These parks, which in all forms encompass nearly 400 separate areas, provide people with a space to reflect on the immense beauty and importance of our natural environment.  And, just as the Roosevelt Arch entrance to Yellowstone reads, these parks are “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

However, in the late 19th and early 20th century getting to remote parks was incredibly difficult.  Not only were these parks located in rugged, rural areas with little to no automotive infrastructure, they forbade access to vehicles even if they managed to get there.  In fact, many of the “roads” in our national parks were little more than footpaths and army patrol routes with occasional stagecoach routes. With an increase in the popularity of auto-tourism at the start of the 20th century, there was an intense push to not only construct new roads that would improve the parks’ accessibility, but also to update and modernize the footpaths and stagecoach routes. 

In order to maintain the spirit, integrity, and natural aesthetic of the parks, the roads being constructed had to minimize impacts on both the aesthetics of the landscape and ecology of the living environment.  One major early proponent of this method of thinking was Andrew Jackson Downing, who is considered one of America’s first great landscape designers and architects.  Downing stressed road construction practices such as following the natural curves and topography of the landscape and planting trees at the curve of a road.  The latter gives the impression that the road was moved to avoid the stand of trees.  Downing also emphasized constructing these roads to lead to specific viewpoints or natural vistas.

Another landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., built upon Downing’s ideas and introduced the concept of a loop drive, which he had perfected in New York City’s Central Park.  Building on Central Park’s successful landscape, Olmsted argued for designs that were easy to navigate, revealed the rural world, and minimized environmental “violence”. 

With the need for roads capable of supporting automobiles established, several groups set about modernizing park road infrastructure.  Much of the early road-construction in areas such as Yellowstone and Sequoia National Parks was undertaken by military units.  At Sequoia National Park, the first highways connecting the park to the public were constructed by Charles Young and his unit of Buffalo Soldiers, which was a nickname given to Black enlisted men who served in the American West after the Civil War.

However, with the establishment of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916, the responsibility for updating and maintaining roads in these areas was centralized.  Stephen Mather was selected as the first head of the NPS, and, along with introducing amenities such as restrooms and concession stands to the parks, he set about improving the infrastructure necessary for increased auto traffic.

This push for improved infrastructure by the NPS led to the undertaking and completion of some of the most innovative and noteworthy road construction projects in the United States’ history to that point.  With funding from both the Department of the Interior and several acts of congress, the NPS set about tackling the problem of accessibility to some of the country’s most remote and rugged terrains.

In 1921, work began on Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park.  With a total land area of more than 1 million acres, Glacier National Park contains two mountain ranges and over 130 lakes.   Working with the Bureau of Public Roads, the NPS sought to create the first road that would not only traverse the park but also cross the continental divide.  

The plan was to create a roughly 50-mile road that included two tunnel sections and a switchback section climbing to 6,646 feet.  Construction on Going-to-the-Sun Road was officially completed in 1932, although lower elevation sections of the road were not completed to standard until the early 1950s. Records indicate that three workers lost their lives in the project.

In 1927, a slightly larger project involving three separate National Parks was launched in Southern Utah.  In order to provide direct access to Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon National Parks, officials at Zion National Park drafted a plan for the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway.  This 25-mile stretch of highway would be the final piece in a “Grand Loop”, which would allow people a tour of the area’s parks and monuments.

Construction on the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway would prove to be uniquely difficult.  Deemed “a road designed to go where no road had gone before”, the highway not only winds through and up Pine Creek Canyon,  it also features a stunning 1.1 mile tunnel through solid rock.  The task of constructing this tunnel was given to the workers of the Nevada Contracting Company who began the project by blasting several gallery windows into the cliff face.  These windows, which now provide stunning views of the landscape, were instrumental in the tunnel’s construction–providing both ventilation and a point at which they could unload debris from the tunnel.

Two years and ten months from the day construction began, the highway and tunnel were open to the public, and the dream of the Grand Loop was realized.  Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places as well as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway is an enduring testament to the way in which engineering and the environment can harmonize.

This is by no means a comprehensive accounting of all the major infrastructure and engineering feats that have aided our appreciation of the world’s natural beauty.  These projects have created an indelible legacy–providing comfort, solitude, and stunning views to visitors from around the world.  The legacy of the men who built these roads, tunnels, bridges, and walls is not only written in stone and concrete, but also that infrastructure can provide a gateway to something that can be shared by everyone: nature.


Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.

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