As an introverted, daydream-y type, it isn’t hard to understand why the desert has always struck me as a daydream-y place, an oasis for those who love nothing more than to be at rest from the world and alone with their thoughts. It was one of the many things that lured me to California, this dust-kissed serenity, golden-tinged solitude, these timeless, nameless places with no beginning or end. The desert landscape offers a barren kind of a beauty. Though perhaps barren isn’t quite the right word, because it never felt lacking—at least not of anything I needed. It amazes me how a place most often devoid of people and cars, free of honking horns and flashing lights, can be more of a sensory overload than the most bustling city in the world. The silence, the solitude, the settling of dust, the heat waves hovering above the earth, the rustling of the wind through the brush and the palms—it brings a sort of peace, a state of rest, a feeling of contentedness, that is all too fleetingly found anywhere else.
In many ways, the desert made perfect sense as my post-graduation landing place, this alien place of birth and death and regrowth, of everything and nothing stretching just beyond the horizon. Without a job yet in hand, I packed my car with everything I owned and drove the six scorching hours from Los Angeles to Phoenix, a place I’d never been, where I knew no one other than the cousin whose place I’d be crashing at for a while. It’s a funny little paradox of a place, Phoenix—gleaming corporate sky scrapers jutting up against a reviving arts district, toned and tanned college kids stretching their paychecks rubbing elbows with the snowbirds and Scottsdale upper crust. And of course, the city is a paradox itself, a place that probably shouldn’t exist, a thriving metropolis shoehorned into an unforgiving desert landscape that’s remained the same for millennia. It’s a place I knew only briefly, and one I’d like to return to someday. That said, Phoenix is no fun in June, when daily temperatures hover around 180 degrees, and so my boyfriend and I decided to make the most of our temporary unemployment by plotting a characteristically spontaneous road trip.
The first stop would be about two hours north, in the new age oasis of Sedona. I literally grew up hearing stories of Sedona’s “energy” and “vibes” and other-worldly beauty from family members who had lived and visited there. As such, I was prepared to be blown away—but Sedona is truly quite unreal. Miles of towering red rocks usher you into Sedona proper, and the famed Bell Rock lies just to the south, offering hikes up to truly stunning vistas that will quickly make you a believer in Sedona’s beauty.
The town itself is something out of a Disney theme park, and as you stare down a Main Street lined with Old West-style saloons and crystal shops, wooden carvings of horses and Native Americans and slightly-creepy antique cowboy animatronics, all canopied by the bluest sky and whitest clouds and reddest rocks you’ve ever seen, it certainly has an unreal quality, this natural beauty so perfect it almost feels artificial.
We stayed just the one night in Sedona, in a rustic, incredibly tranquil one-room Airbnb outfitted with pine and Navajo tapestries and the most stunning view of the red rocks right out our window. Our 24-hour itinerary included a hike up to Bell Rock, and another up Cathedral Rock at sunset. I’ll admit, even in cooler temperatures, our second trek was certainly the more intense of the two, and deceptively treacherous. It starts out fairly mild, even for novice hikers like myself, but becomes significantly tougher around the halfway point, when the only path up becomes a flat, narrow, and very steep rock face you have no choice but to scrabble up—unless you turn around. This was (much to my surprise) my boyfriend’s preferred scenario, but I (also to my surprise) insisted we keep going. Although I don’t have a whole lot of hiking or climbing experience, and am fairly uncomfortable with heights, the breathtaking views were incentive enough to push through—and boy was the effort ever worth it:
Once the most harrowing part of the hike was over, the landing just above it offered expansive views that swept across the brick red rocks, by then turning blue and purple with the sunset, and Sedona’s famed Chapel of the Holy Cross into the side of the mountain across the canyon carpeted with bright green pines. Yet another level up, on the opposite side of Cathedral Rock, the sunset shifted from fiery pinks and reds to an ethereal gold and blue, the evening sun flooding through the clouds and illuminating the lush, forested valley below. Even my newfound confidence around heights couldn’t convince me to follow the lead of a few other hikers who had scooted along rock ledges jutting out over the valley, but from my place safely nestled between some sturdy boulders, beneath the arches of Sedona, I truly felt on top of the world.
We made a stop at the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a Sedona icon built into the side of a mountain, before leaving the next day. With a gorgeous chapel and fun gift shop, it also offers predictably stunning views and a price you can’t beat (as in free!) and is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.
Located just west of Flagstaff and south of the Grand Canyon in Williams, Bearizona was a last-minute stop that turned out to be an absolute highlight of our trip. I had heard of the park before I even got to Arizona, but only because of an adorable PR move Bearizona had orchestrated a few months earlier in which bear cubs were brought to the Cubs spring baseball training camp in Arizona. It’s a bit out of the way of anything, and was really only tangentially on our route, but it’s easily a destination in its own right. Your $20 admission gains you entrance into a wildlife park with a petting zoo, bird of prey shows, and enclosures of black bears, bobcats and other animals, but the main attraction is of course the drive-through portion of the park. This is several miles of “wilderness” through which you drive alongside black bear, bison, goats and even wolves, all roaming or sleeping or grazing just feet from your car—and sometimes even closer.
Often in my experience, these kinds of experiences are oversold and under-deliver, but at Bearizona you really do get right up close with the wildlife. There are no fences between you and most of the animals, no tour guides swatting you along through the park or rangers keeping you from getting too close; you’re only instructed—wisely—to keep your windows up and doors closed. We had been warned some of the teenage bears were especially curious, but were skeptical that any of them would actually get too close—and this was definitely not the case. At one point, we were no more than five feet from several black bears, and, in another part of the park, adorably came under attack by a herd of inquisitive mountain goats who even attempted to head-butt and climb onto the car. Bearizona was a really fun and certainly unique way to spend a couple of hours, and would be a great activity for families with kids, or just kids at heart.
Williams, where Bearizona is located, is known as the gateway to the Grand Canyon, and just an hour north is where you’ll find the national park in all of its glory. And it truly is glorious:
Despite growing up in the west, I’d never been to the Grand Canyon, this classic, wholesome, all-American road trip mecca, and something about my visit there made me feel a lot like being a little kid again. Despite the crowds and the bustling visitor centers, and the fact that we visited the South Rim, the most popular area of the park, in the height of summer, the Grand Canyon still offered a connection with nature that I’d never quite felt before. It’s a wholly captivating, breathtaking place of escapism and mysticism where you can lose yourself amongst endless rolling blue skies, the winding Colorado river, and every painted crack and crevice of the vast, ancient canyon. I was particularly taken with the idea that, miles and miles away across this canyon, near Utah to the North and Las Vegas to the west, there were people perched atop ledges and rocks, posing for photos and creating them mentally, utterly transfixed by the very same thing as me. I’ll keep this brief, as I certainly have nothing to say about the Grand Canyon that hasn’t been said before, but it’s nothing short of an understatement to conclude that it’s truly a captivating place, and one which everyone should visit in their lifetime if given the chance.
Driving north into the indigo blue desert evening, our next stop was Antelope Valley and Lake Powell, which straddles the Arizona-Utah border. It’s home to the iconic Horseshoe Bend, a whole lot of houseboats, and stunning cotton candy sunsets, and that warm desert night seemed as good a time as any to pitch a tent along the lake and try our hand at camping. For a mere $20, and equipped with camping gear borrowed from friends, we were able to sleep that night beneath the bright Arizona stars, just feet from the sandy shores of Lake Powell. Our excursion was initially prompted by the lack of hotels and Airbnbs in the area (save for a few truly off-the-grid Navajo huts and tents that would definitely be worth a visit another time,) but camping ended up being both cost-effective and one of the most memorable experiences of the trip.
Early the next morning, we set out for the place that had brought us to Lake Powell to begin with: Antelope Canyon. If you’re interested in travel photography or social media accounts, you’ve likely seen images of the canyon around. The curvature of its interior and the way the light floods through its crevices creates an almost rainbow effect inside the camera that can be vividly captured on camera. The only way to access the canyon, which is on protected Navajo land, is through private tour companies, which are run by members of the Navajo tribe and receive visitors at a base camp a couple miles from the canyon. The tour is certainly not the most accessible experience: it runs about $40 per person, requires driving for several bumpy, dusty miles in rickety dune buggies out through the desert, and in the height of summer is swelteringly, blisteringly hot. The canyon is not accessible without a Navajo tour guide due to dangerous flash flooding during the winter, and the fact that unsupervised visitors have been known to vandalize or otherwise destroy the natural beauty of the canyon. I completely understand the necessity for this, and would still highly recommend that anyone who wants to see Antelope Canyon or find themselves in the area visit it for themselves, but my two cents would be that the cost and hassle of getting there, as well as the size of the crowds and fact that the tours can take upward of two hours, are certainly factors to keep in mind if you’re visiting anticipating a peaceful jaunt into the desert.
Pushing still further north from Antelope Valley, we crossed the border into Utah, where we made a stop at Zion National Park. The park is vast, and gorgeous, all canyons and winding roads, bridges and creeks and tunnels carved into rock. It’s also known for its hikes, but we had just a couple of hours to see Zion, and so for visitors on a schedule or those who are less athletic, I’d driving to the visitor center and using the park’s tram, which winds up and up through the park to various landings and lodges.
As our road trip was planned so last minute, it just so happened that each of our accommodations was incredibly, wonderfully unique, and our lodging that night was no exception. We had booked our Airbnb in St. George, Utah with the expectation of a quaint cabin, close to a lake, in a ranch-like resort development that included about ten cabins in total. What we found when we arrived via a winding, dusty, eerily quiet and empty country road that night was our two-story cabin, cozy and gleamingly modern and stocked with toiletries and snacks, with a quaint porch decked out in rocking chairs and facing a serene manmade lake surrounded by the other cabins. This would have been luxurious enough, but we quickly, disbelievingly, came to the realization that we were somehow the only guests at the ranch that night, and had the entire place to ourselves. This meant the lake and pedal boats, the fire pit, the golf carts, and the entire starry Utah sky and blue mountains and miles of open fields were all ours, our very own private resort, a dreamy Western escape, for some $150 a night. We didn’t encounter a single other person during our stay, and while roasting marshmallows over the fire pit my boyfriend managed to get hit in the head with a bat (the flying kind) and to this day our night in St. George feels a little like a crazy dream. Further adding to the surrealism of the experience, we later deduced through a guestbook in the cabin that this strange ranch was owned by none other than the wealthy parents of a former star of The Bachelor. It was a wild experience in every sense of the word, and yet another stay that reaffirmed why I am such an evangelist for Airbnb, which almost always guarantees a venture off the beaten path, making memories and trying things you’d absolutely never get from a hotel.
The final leg of our trip was a place I’d visited many times before: Las Vegas. It’s obviously a destination most people are familiar with, if not from personal experience than from pop culture, and having gone to school in Southern California and had my first exposure to Las Vegas not be for the purposes of clubbing, I’ve found I have a different relationship to the city than most. In fact, I’ve found myself defending it to many who are eager to write it off as fake, generic, sleazy—too hot, too loud, too bright. But my Vegas is different. I’ve talked before about my experience at the Life is Beautiful music festival, which was founded in 2013 in order to revive Vegas’ historic downtown, and which I attended three years in a row. Certainly, there’s something about the Vegas strip at night, and I’ve enjoyed dancing in its nightclubs and swimming at day clubs as much as any other twenty-something, the Vegas that’s always spoken to me is the one of decades past, and the one that’s been reawakening in recent years. I’m enamored with old downtown Vegas, with the murals and the neons, the quaint casinos that are dwarfed by the corporate behemoths on the strip. I love the parked built of old shipping containers, the pop-up art exhibits, the thrift shops overflowing with old neon and slot machines, the ferris wheels twirling against the pale desert sky. Las Vegas has always been an anomaly of a city, and it still has a long way to go toward figuring out how to serve the people who actually call it home, rather than just those who pour in for a day or two, but I have confidence that it won’t be long until the city find its footing, because its heart and soul is already readily apparent and beats loudly for anyone who stands still long enough to hear it.
There’s nothing quite like knowing your feet are firmly planted on the ground, the clear blue sky is endless above your head, the brick red mesas along the horizon sturdy and true. In the desert, the only temporality is night and day. There is no rush, no deadlines, no itineraries, no lines or opening times or passes for the popular attractions. In the desert, you are where you are, not where you’re going, or where you were. There is no before, no next, there is just this very moment. Breathing the desert in, exhaling the weight of the world out. Feasting upon the vistas as if your eyes have been starved of beauty. Feeling the sun and the wind on your skin like you’ve felt nothing else before. It’s all surreal, and hyper real, this alien landscape that somehow still exists in a world seemingly designed and developed down to the atom. When the frenzy becomes a bit too much, there is something so life-affirming, so grounding, in realizing life is not always measured by momentum. Sometimes living is standing still, climbing, breathing, seeing, feeling, simply existing—and there’s nowhere I’d rather do that than the desert.