It's like Alice going down the rabbit hole. You're minding your own business, motoring along I-15 through the blandly rolling desert east of Las Vegas, when the road suddenly disappears into the wall of mountains ahead. It seems unlikely that a major federally funded interstate would just dead-end, so you drive on, the wall growing closer and closer, until you start to wonder if maybe the project was engineered by Wile E. Coyote—and then the highway veers and shoulders up a canyon, threading between high red-rock cliffs alongside the churning cocoa torrent of the Virgin River.
It's a suitably dramatic introduction to the canyonlands, a geological wonderland that sprawls across northern Arizona, southern Utah, western Colorado, and New Mexico. Here, surrounded by the naked eons of Earth's history, it's impossible not to be reminded of your insignificance, but the silent, overwhelming beauty of the landscape invites you to feel intimately part of it.
Less than an hour after passing through that precipitous cleft, I'm flat on my back, immobilized beneath a layer of rocks—but in a good way. I'm on the receiving end of a LaStone massage at Red Mountain Spa, one of several holistic retreats tucked into the outskirts of Saint George, Utah. As my masseuse starts pouring warm oil over my forehead, she describes the spiritual power of the smooth rocks she has placed on my body. "They've been exposed to thousands of years of lightning and flowing water, so they're full of energy," she assures me. Well, okay. Just keep that warm oil coming.
When I'm done, narcotized as a darted rhino, I stumble into the dining room and collapse over a dinner of molasses- seared elk and a grilled vegetable orzo salad. It would be easy to just let my time melt away in a puddle of restorative pampering, but the canyons are calling. The next day it's on to Zion National Park, where the North Fork of the Virgin River has carved a 2,000-foot-deep gorge whose sheer cliffs rival Yosemite's for jaw-dropping impact. As the area cycled from shallow sea to windswept desert and back, hundreds of millions of years of sedimentary deposits were laid down, lifted up, and eroded away again.
Exiting the free park shuttle, I walk across a surprisingly green valley and begin tramping up a switchback trail that rises to meet a sheer rock wall, then cuts across its face in an acrophobia-inducing half-tunnel, and finally steepens to a famous breakneck section called Walter's Wiggles. The low gray sky unloads an unseasonable rain, slicking the trail and making it seem even more dangerous, but as I reach the top, a break in the clouds provides a stunning denouement. I look down from a fin of vertical red rock and see a full rainbow spread out, not above but beneath me, arching across the green valley and serpentine river far below. It feels like the scenery, so epic and vivid in the sudden sunlight, is drawing the air from my chest. So this is what they mean by breathtaking.
With Zion Canyon in my rearview mirror, I head 90 miles down the road to Bryce Canyon. Bryce isn't a canyon at all, but rather the eastern flank of a mesa that eroded into a fairy grotto of crumbly red hoodoos, or spires. A footpath winds down among their bases, each turn revealing an eerie new tableau. Something about the scale of those lumpy spires looming 30 or 40 feet overhead registers in my spine. They remind me of ruins, maybe, or a maze of chambers, or clusters of Gothic candles dripping wax, or a weird Seussian landscape.
Like park lodges everywhere, the Bryce Canyon Lodge has cramped rooms, amateurish service, and furnishings that date back decades and weren't fashionable even then. Personally, I love it. There's an inimitable sense of time and place that oozes out of the dark wood and threadbare carpet—a rare piece of living human history among all that ancient geology. The 74 rooms and 40 cabins are booked months in advance, but the karma of those energized rocks must be with me: about 30 seconds before I step up to the front desk, someone calls to cancel. I'm signing the ledger when she calls back to change her mind. "I'm sorry," says the clerk. "We just gave the room away."