FIRST ENCOUNTER: Shadow Puppets
I was supposed to be in center field, proving myself against pro prospects. But here it was spring break, my senior year in high school in San Francisco, and Dad said, Sure, take the Jeep, drive a thousand miles to the desert, have fun. Three boys, a stack of AAA maps, one Playboy, and beef jerky. We gunned it across the Great Basin and rolled into Zion National Park, slapping our palms along slickrock walls and bellowing into every sandstone amphitheater, then tagged Bryce Canyon to gawk at those wiggy red spires. Five days after setting out, we hiked into Capitol Reef, reaching our farthest point from home in a quiet gorge that bent us back toward California and revealed one of Canyon Country's greatest pleasures: making 100-foot-tall obscene shadow puppets. Soon after, my batting average fell 50 points and I gave up trying to play college ball. I didn't care. I'd found something better.
BEST: SPRING AND FALL, ON LOW HEAT
Whoever named the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park had a meager imagination. This 30-square-mile puzzle of sandstone canyons, located 46 miles from the nearest paved road, is one of the lower 48's most inaccessible destinations. Only 4,000 people per year venture here. And that's the beauty of it: unmitigated solitude. Pack a week's worth of dehydrated Alpine Aire, park two miles past the Hans Flat Ranger Station, where backcountry permits are available ($15; 435-259-4351), and hike 14 miles to the Maze Overlook. From there, a scramble down the slickrock canyon puts you in the heart of the Maze. The only water comes from unpredictable springs at the bottom of the canyons, so consult a ranger and go south on whichever of the five trails he recommends. Four of them rise up to the Land of Standing Rocks, where a six-mile detour leads to a vantage point overlooking the Colorado River, 1,200 feet below.