Strap a couple of kayaks to a houseboat on Lake Powell and—presto!—you’ve got an expeditionary mother ship, the best way to explore the resurgent reservoir’s nooks and crannies. Motor to Reflection, Cathedral, or Labyrinth Canyon and continue on your own, paddling into silent coves unreachable by petrol-propelled craft. Onshore, hike to places like Antelope Canyon, perhaps the Southwest’s most stunning sandstone slot. Your floating base camp waits offshore with every refreshment and comfort you can think of—decktop hot tub included. Pick up your vessel at Antelope Point Marina near Page, Arizona (three days and two nights, $3,195, sleeps six; kayaks, $30 a day; antelopepointlakepowell.com). They’ll provide maps and directions to the secret coves that feel a world away from the whir of Jet Skis.
White Sands National Monument is the kind of place filmmakers love (Transformers I and II, Jarhead, etc.). Walk five miles from the Sands picnic area on the Alkali Flat Trail to find a ready-made moonscape, just you and bleached earless lizards surrounded by miles of pure white gypsum dunes, azure sky, and framing mountains. The monument has no designated overnight areas but allows hike-in camping if you’re willing to hoof it a mile or so, carrying everything you need. The reward is a night of utter solitude and geologic weirdness under some of the brightest skies in the world. (Watch for light shows as the military tests its latest whizbang machinery out of the White Sands Missile Test Range immediately to the north.) If you’re around on the 29th, reserve a spot on a tour to dry Lake Lucero, whose selenite crystals created the whole blinding expanse (camping permits, $3 from park visitor center; nps.gov/whsa).
Gateway (pop. 1,233) was once home to uranium-mining mania. But with nuclear sanity restored and the mines long since belly-up, it’s now the portal to western Colorado’s red-rock country. The land is peppered with amazing sandstone formations and watered by the Dolores River. Gateway Canyons Resort, a lovely adobe-style outpost that blends nicely with the surrounding canyon walls, stares right at the Palisade, a 2,000-foot red-sandstone monolith (doubles from $119; gatewaycanyons.com). The resort staff leads roped climbs to the Palisade’s summit. They also rent mountain bikes for poking around old mining roads (bring your Geiger counter), or they’ll shuttle you to the top of John Brown Canyon Road for an eight-mile, 3,000-foot plummet. Check out Juanita Arch, a 75-foot-high natural bridge, which requires a crossing of the Dolores by kayak and a five-mile hike on a deserted trail.
In November, Minden’s reliable thermals yield to what’s known as wave lift. "The westerlies blow over the Sierra, bounce down, and straight up again," says Tony Sabino, owner of Soar Minden. "It’s a sleigh ride. In a glider, the rates of climb are astounding." Spend a weekend with Soar Minden learning the thrilling art of grabbing lift so reliable that oxygen is sometimes required—you’ll fly up to 14,000 feet, over a mile above glorious Lake Tahoe. "Even expedition pilots who come here are awed," says Sabino. Soar Minden’s instructors will school you in stick and rudder technique in a series of airborne and classroom sessions timed so you never tire—you only want more (a day of flying, $150; soarminden.com; doubles from $140 at Wild Rose Inn; wildrose-inn.com). How do you know when you’ve caught a particularly good wave? "When it lifts you, you can feel the g-force in your butt."