There is a place on Earth that will give you a taste of Mars.
Just two hours’ drive from Las Vegas international airport is the South West underbelly of Utah, where stunning 50-million-year-old rock formations remind you that one year lost to Covid is not even a second in geological time. Nothing like gigantic geological marvels towering over you to make a virus feel like the insignificant microscopic blip in our lives that it should have always been. Most likely, you have seen scraps of this reddish landscape on your TV screen, as automobile advertisers love this place, not just for the scenery and windy deserted roads—but also for the high speed limits. Seeing it in person, however, is such an otherworldly experience that you would not even notice the brand of the car that drove you there.
The landscape here is truly alien, more akin to Mars with a breathable atmosphere than the cramped earthly horizons we are used to. In the Western United States, everything is really big. The sky is big, the valleys are big, and the canyons feel like they were carved by giants digging tunnels and turning the layers of earth upside down in a fit.
The drive from Los Angeles or Vegas to Utah takes you through the ominous Mojave Desert, Death Valley, and the Valley of Fire—all very hot, very desolate, and very scary if it were not for the billboards of casinos promising cool cocktails. Adding to the alien feeling are three tall towers with what look like three blinding square suns in the middle of the desert. These solar power towers concentrate sunlight with hundreds of mirrors to power up all the neon lights, air conditioning, and slot machines in Vegas and beyond.
On your way from Nevada to Utah, you drive through a tight gorge where layers of rock turned topsy turvy remind you of what great upheaval nature is really capable of.
You will know you are in Utah when billboards start posting the 1-800 telephone number for Jesus. The State of Utah itself is an other-worldly place that makes you feel you are on another planet. The farmland towns still have Main streets, lace curtains, and staid names like Orderville and Virgin, with populations of less than 600, for obvious reasons. Entering the land of the wholesome Mormons is like a trip back to the 1950s, when birth control had yet to be discovered. Every Airbnb has at least five rooms, three bathrooms, and sleeps six to eight kids. On local hikes, all the families you encounter seem to have two happily married parents and at least five kids in tow. Even the teenagers look like they had snuck in through a wormhole from an era closer to the Great Depression, long before McDonald’s, Starbucks, and video games. These teens are skinny, with clear, unblemished skin, and surprisingly not glued to any devices. They seem to all have industrious side jobs too—and appear to listen to adults. If this secret formula can be exported to the rest of the world, it would be a great service to humanity.
Oh, by the way, alcohol is a hard commodity to find in this part of Utah, and when you find it, it comes in the form of the lowest-alcohol beer. The one liquor store I spotted was kept away from all other businesses and placed strategically outside of town. I didn’t dare go in lest I got accosted by someone trying to save me.
Utah is all about making a statement that the government does not boss people around. That is how there are entire working farms—complete with junkyard tractors—at the foot of some of the world’s most classic national monuments. That is also how entire towns are allowed to exist inside protected national reserves. Inside the heart of Zion National Park, you will not only find a town with restaurants and hotels but a bank too, just in case you need to open a checking account on your one chance to commune with nature and gaze at the star-studded heavens.
If you come here in the winter, you can ski up in the tiny alpine village of Brian Head, then drive down twenty minutes—and forty degrees Fahrenheit later—take a desert hike in t-shirt weather. If you do go to Brian Head, make sure to swing by Cedar Breaks, another lovely red geological formation, as it is pretty all dusted with snow. If you like the red rock, check out Coral Sand Dunes further south, where the same rock becomes a pink desert.
In between the gorgeous Zion and Bryce National parks, the drive is interspersed with glacial streams filled with trout hanging out in the shade of the curvy rims. If you keep going south to Arizona, you will find yourself in Grand Canyon National Park, where the grandeur of the landscape is matched by the crowds, of course. But if you want to go where few have been, keep driving east in Utah, and you will find yourself in Tropic, a town in the middle of nowhere with good BBQ. Past Tropic is Kodachrome drive, a wonderland of “hoodoo” formations all in one place. Once there, don’t miss the Angels Palace Trail, aptly named because for a mysterious reason, the rocks that withstood erosion over the millennia are in the shape and color of angel statues. It’s hard not to believe that a few locals did some handwork on them in the middle of the night. Right at the end of Kodachrome drive, something truly bizarre happens: the highway ends, and so does the paved road, and you are left with only a dirt road, and no more gas stations. This is an extremely rare occurrence in the United States, the land of the automobile, where you can drive sea to shining sea—and through most National Parks without getting out of your car to see the vistas. This is where the experience truly becomes Martian. Make sure you bring plenty of water and food, a full tank (which won’t last long), an extra tire, and only people you can tolerate on your last day on earth.
Past the end of the paved road here is the wide swath of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Park, with more canyons, formations, and stream beds. Further east is Glen Canyon National Park, Goblin Valley, and the Canyonlands in the far distance.
Should you come back from this highway to nowhere, and find the paved road back to “civilization,” you will know you are on your way back to Vegas when billboards ask you with increasing urgency if you are headed to heaven or hell. The truth is, after you’ve experienced for yourself Utah’s majestic Martian landscape, it won’t matter anymore where you’re headed in the afterlife. Everything human will forever feel small.