When you drive from Salt Lake City to Phoenix, AZ you pass through some of the most incredible landscapes in the world. You start in SLC where you’ve got the titanic Rockies on one side and the flat expanse of the Great Salt Lake on the other. You drive through stunning Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, past the flat vistas of The Four Corners through the massive deserts of the Navajo Nation, around the Grand Canyon. You go on through the serene beauty of the rust colored rocks of Sedona before you arrive at Phoenix, America’s fifth largest city, surrounded both by the Sun Valley and rims of mountains. The drive clocks in at about 11 hours without stops.
You could take 11 weeks in between and still find brand new and totally distinct breathtaking views every few hours. But, there are two sections of this route that are so awe-inspiring they can actually change the way you think.
After the foothills of the Rockies fade away the you see the beautiful, open dry lands, canyons, and low mesas of eastern Utah. When you get to Arizona, you enter what I think of as a very iconic kind of desert. Not one filled with dunes, rather the hard-packed red sand and sagebrush desert of the American South West. Dotting the landscape are these incredibly enormous rock formations that rise out of the ground making all kinds of stark and distinct shapes. There’s Organ Rock and Owl Rock and Elephant Butte and the Three Sisters. Driving through it is like experiencing the terrestrial version of laying on your back and finding shapes in fluffy clouds floating by. They’re so tall it seems like you could step off the top of one and right out the atmosphere. It is fairly difficult to get a bead on the scale of these monuments because they’re the only things around and because you can see hundreds of miles to the horizon in every direction. That is when you don’t have to drive for fifteen minutes to get around one of these gigantic buttes.
This route takes you to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon- it’s the more popular side, and the one from which you can take that straight-up crazy donkey trek to the bottom and back. It’s a full mile straight down. To give you an idea of how clear it is out there, the first time I went I stayed on the North Rim. It’s a lot less developed, smells of delicious pine trees and feels like a completely different experience. Anyway, when it’s dark out, you can watch cars driving north (in your direction) from Route 40 up to Grand Canyon National Park- and the Park is ten miles across the open canyon. You can even make out the individual headlights. I grew up in a place where you can’t see more than a block in any direction, and sometimes not even that far so it blew my mind.
There are lodges and camping, but it’s crowded, and you have to reserve way in advance. I’d recommend staying about 45 minutes south in Williams, AZ, which was on the old Route 66. It feels like a town from the old west that’s managed to hang on. The drive up is a straight shot and is pretty on its own. You have to get up early to get to the Canyon if you want to get any serious hiking in. Some trails will warn you to start before 9 or 10 am or wait until tomorrow because of the intense heat and dryness. Anyway, the Grand Canyon is 100% the kind of place where even night owls look forward to getting up before dawn because there will never be another sunrise view more worth getting up for.
There are plenty of hikes to take and things to see in the middle of the day, but you can’t overestimate the toll the environment takes. Besides, the sun is so strong that even with a hat and sunglasses, you’ll be squinting to see the other side.
Sunset/ early evening is the other time of day the Canyon becomes so beautiful it has the potential to change you as a person. The colors of all the rocks of the canyon exaggerate as the light turns softer and more golden, the shadows stretch across the thousands of curves, cuts, juts and other formations as far as you can possibly see. The Colorado river, which is responsible for carving this colossal wonder into the earth but looks tiny and inconsequential from so high up, turns dark and placid looking. It puts absolutely everything into perspective in such a strong and indelible way.
The sheer size of these places alters the way you see everything. It forces you to reconcile with your tiny place in the grand scheme of things. How small you are compared to the world. How small the world is compared to the universe and on and on. You start to understand how profound and magical it is that seven billion different people live in one place and how unlikely and incredible it is that that place exists at all.
You have to go to this alien, open, desolate place where you are totally alone to realize how connected everything is. And you can’t help but be humbled and grateful. I love to travel and am lucky enough to have been all over the world, but nothing impacted me like that.
If you can, go.
- Donna B.
Donna is the CMO of SNAPS. She has an insatiable wanderlust and lives to travel almost anywhere and everywhere. The massive deserts of the southwest kind of freaked her out a bit after growing up in New York, but she's grateful she saw them early on in her travels.