Drawing nearly 3.5 million visitors per year, Bryce and Zion are by far the most popular of Utah's national parks, but they represent only a tiny fraction of the state held under federal stewardship. Beyond Bryce sprawls the 1.7 million-acre puzzle box of canyons designated by President Clinton as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument; beyond that lies Capitol Reef National Park, a shoestring parcel that ranks as one of the most obscure preserves in the region. Its prize attraction is the Waterpocket Fold, described to me by park superintendent Al Hendricks as "probably the largest exposed monocline in the world." Monocline?"It's an upward fold in the sedimentary layers that's been exposed by subsequent erosion," he explains.
Still a little vague on what I'm looking for, I drive to the trailhead at Muley Twist Canyon and hike back along the dry creek bed for an hour, then cut uphill along a narrow trail that carries me through a grove of scattered juniper before it gives way to a smoothly curved ridge of elephant-skin Navajo sandstone. As I top the crest, I find one of the strangest landforms I've ever encountered: a vast groove etched into the earth below, 1,000 feet deep and 100 miles long. A tall cliff stands along the far side of the valley, as straight and uniform as an ancient battlement. For an hour I watch the light shifting over the rocks as the sun sets behind me, then pitch my tent just as full darkness descends. Soon the only lights are the stars overhead and a single winking fire on the valley floor.
The road east from Capitol Reef may not deliver the same kind of visual wallop as some of the earlier vistas, but I'm constantly surprised by the variety and bizarreness of the forms, as if some outer-space curator had organized a group show of extraterrestrial avant-gardists. To a geologist's eye, every fluted curve, every slab of ocher, would tell the story of some epochal drama. To me it's all a beautiful, indecipherable, cursive script.
After the solitude of the desert, the bustle of bandanna-clad tourists in Moab is a shock. On the banks of the Colorado River, the town's slickrock mountain biking trails, raftable white water, and ample desert for off-roading all make for an outdoorsy action theme park. Surrounded by T-shirt shops, real estate offices, and healing-crystal emporia, I feel like I'm in a Gen-X Jackson Hole. Civilization does have its advantages, though: that evening, I taste the first memorable food I've had in days, at the Desert Bistro, an 1896 farmhouse built of locally fired bricks and sheltered by an ancient cottonwood tree. Sitting beneath a modern rendering of an ancient American Indian pictogram, I feast on grilled pork loin with apple and chipotle sauce.
Water is notable for its absence throughout the Canyonlands, but its chisel work is visible everywhere; here I witness at last the brawny flow of a river hurtling through the desert rock. For a closer look I meet up the next morning with guides from Western River Expeditions for a one-day excursion through Cataract Canyon, a 22-mile string of rapids between the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers and their outlet in Lake Powell. Setting off on a flat stretch of water south of Moab, we motor downstream in a high-speed pontoon boat as the canyon walls on either side grow higher and higher. By Dead Horse Point State Park a vertical thicket of stony buttes rises step-like from the river, 2,000 feet high—twice as tall and 10 times as magnificent as the New York skyline.
The Green River merges from the right, and soon the river turns wild, thrashing itself on the first of 33 rapids. The first we roll over uneventfully, but then we're confronted with a dip in the river punctuated by a bucking, spouting wall of water. WHAM! Icy water pours overs me and runs between my rain jacket and my skin, like an electroshock. We bounce over another wave, then edge over yet another, and the surface settles down to foot-high ripples. My relief lasts about three seconds. "Let's do it again!" one of the guides shouts. With the outboard engine's throttle wide open, we bump and swerve up along the bank and then veer in a hairpin turn and throw ourselves right back in. WHAM! For the next hour we run rapid after rapid, several times, until we're drenched to the bone, ribs aching from laughter. The river slows, broadens, and gradually turns into Lake Powell, penned behind the Glen Canyon Dam, 200 miles away. The pinnacles and cliffs drift past in stately procession, as silent as they are ancient, parched above, flooded below.