On a road trip through southern Utah, Jeff Wise discovers the awe-inspiring magic of the canyonlands.
Jason Todd Rafting on the Colorado River.
| Credit: Jason Todd

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."

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.

Not for the first time in the past few days, I'm in a world unlike any I've ever seen. And as the current wafts us toward the next bend, I steep in that oddly enjoyable, revelatory state so common in the canyonlands: of wondering what grand marvel, what strange mystery will greet my eyes next.

Jeff Wise is a T+L contributing editor.

When to Go

The best times to experience the canyonlands are mid-March through May and September through early November. The desert sun can be intense, even when temperatures are cool. When hiking, be sure to wear a hat and to bring sunblock and water.


Bryce Canyon Lodge

Bryce Canyon National Park; 435/834-5361; brycecanyonlodge.com; doubles from $140.

Red Mountain Spa

1275 E. Red Mountain Circle, Ivins; 800/407-3002 or 435/673-4905; redmountainspa.com; doubles from $538.

Sorrel River Ranch Resort

A luxury lodge on the Colorado River. Hwy. 128, Mile 17, Moab; 877/359-2715 or 435/259-4642; sorrelriver.com; doubles from $279.

Where to Eat

Canyon Breeze

At Red Mountain Spa's main restaurant,reservations are required for non-guests. 1275 E. Red Mountain Circle, Ivins; 800/407-3002 or 435/673-4905; dinner for two $55.

Desert Bistro

1266 N. Hwy. 191, Moab; 435/259-0756; dinner for two $70.

Adventure Outfitters

Moab Adventure Center

225 S. Main St.; 866/904-1160; moabadventurecenter.com; rafting trips from $55 per person.