During a stint of downtime last weekend, I caught myself doing something dangerous: I started looking at maps.

That's how it starts. I get a craving to plot out a road trip, to consider the idea of three or four days of striking out down a lone highway into some iconic Western landscape. And it always seems to come this time of year, when winter weather is on the wane and daylight is on the rise.

In truth, I double checked the map to consider a trip to Zion National Park. I know the route well, but I thought, "What about slipping up to Cedar Breaks, or swinging up to Kolob Canyons?"

It's dangerous speculation. Suddenly, a long weekend turns into something much more. And a chance to see what's down the next highway or around the next bend is a temptation I struggle to resist.

While I have often written about the regional travel ideas in previous features, it's never a bad idea to revisit the possibilities that a few days of driving can bring in this part of the world.

THE CALL OF ZION

Zion is a Hebrew word that means "a place of safety or refuge." When the Mormon settlers arrived in the 1860s, they coined the name. It resonates as a perfect title for one of the Southwest's flagship national parks. And, at a little more than four hours from Flagstaff to the eastern entrance, it's an easy road weekend getaway.

In more recent times, the park has provided refuge from the modern world, as people move between its embracing walls and hike back into the Narrows. There, the crowds thin and the bustle comes only from the creek anxious to find its end. The walls down deep are smooth and wavy, and the echo of water, running and dripping, becomes meditative.

Zion visits are so frequent for my wife and me that we have our rituals: picnics in the open lawn that stretches out from the Zion Lodge; bicycle rides along the road through the canyon; and, of course, at least one solid hike on one of our half-dozen favorite trails.

What also makes Zion a great destination as a road trip is the journey it takes to get there. Few drives prove as scenic and as inspiration-stirring as the one along U.S. 89A along the Vermilion Cliffs, which is followed by an ascent and descent of the stunning Kaibab Plateau.

It also helps that a return trip can involve coming back on U.S. 89 between Kanab, Utah, and Page. This brings another round of windshield tourism, as the road moves along blushed sandstone cliffs and through the beautifully twisted Cockscomb Ridge.

When arriving at Zion in the spring, however, the more popular and aforementioned hike of the Narrows is a little too cold -- it requires walking in the knee- to waist-deep waters of the Virgin River. The one option is to consider getting outfitted with waterproof gear through www.zionrockguides.com.

Cold waters aside, the crowds are somewhat limited and closures to traffic in favor of a shuttle system don't happen until April 1. So, there's a little more freedom. Learn more www.nps.gov/zion or call the park at (435) 772-3256.

SOUTHERN NEVADA SOJOURN

When it comes to southern Nevada, recreation often begins -- and usually ends -- with Lake Mead National Recreation Area. It attracts more than seven million visitors a year on average, making it a more visited location than even the Grand Canyon.

That happens with places such as Lake Mead, which -- much like Glen Canyon Recreation Area to the north -- is a major draw for being a large body of water in the middle of the desert.

Like Glen Canyon, the hiking and backcountry experiences within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area appear in contrast to the deep waters of the lake. Most people are drawn to Mead for house-boating, Jet-skiing and wakeboarding.

But a small number of people seek out the mythological land of the recreation area's stretches into the Mojave Desert. One of these places is Rogers Spring, where thermal spring waters create an oasis in the arid country.

Another is the Redstone Trail and its rock formations. The remnants of 150 million-year-old sand dunes, the carved red rock reminded me of the monolithic forms at nearby Valley of Fire State Park (also a great stop on a road trip), as well as others I have seen along the Arizona-Utah border.

On a hike a few years ago on the Redstone Trail, my wife and I followed the half-mile loop until we reached one of several outcroppings. I ran my fingers along the pockmarked surface. I studied the wavy lines that flowed and spiraled toward an unseen center.

Wind kicked up the red-copper sands as we walked to the next stony mass, where we spotted small windows -- less than a foot around -- carved out of the rock. I resisted the urge to climb, to explore deeper, as I did not want to disturb the delicate forms.

Visits to these trails, Valley of Fire and even a loop that includes the famous Red Rock Canyon west of Las Vegas bring a perfect road experience during a time when the weather is tempered. Learn more about Lake Mead at (702) 293-8990 or www.nps.gov/lame.

UP THE 'STAIRCASE'

In 1996, President Clinton signed the nearly two million acres of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It started what would become a flurry of monument designations in the Southwest, spurred on by then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt.

More than 15 years later, the national monument is still a relatively remote and wily place to visit. Still, it makes for great road trip fare, given the size and the attractions along its outskirts.

The multilayered, fractured topography has stood as one of the untouched places in the region. The Bureau of Land Management determined 1.2 million acres of it would remain as it has been -- primitive. Studies showed that the sizable chunk of southern Utah contained enough undisrupted land to create 16 wilderness study areas with a total of 880,000 acres.

During a trip a few years ago, my wife, Jane, and I toured the fringes of the Grand Staircase in one of these study areas. We arrived a few hours after a predawn departure from Flagstaff during a southern Utah trip.

There, less than a mile east of the Paria River, we walked along pedestal rock forms between 5 and 10 feet high and marveled at their mix of iron-red and beige sandstone forms.

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I also recalled the steady hikes across the tropic shale beds located northeast of Big Water. The charcoal-colored shale revealed a marine history, complete with spiral shells known as ammonites that dotted the surface.

The shale runs along the border of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the monument. Into the recreation area, paleontologists have discovered fossils of monstrous, seafaring dinosaurs.

The discovery of such remains led the national monument to build a spiral-shaped visitors center in honor of the ammonite in Big Water, Utah. It represents one of four Grand Staircase centers that highlight the treasures that abound within the monument. When it comes to road trips and exploring this huge expanse of land, this is a great place to start.

For more information call the Bureau of Land Management at (435) 644-1200 or e-mail Escalante_Interagency@blm.gov. Be sure to check on conditions of back roads before traveling.

RESERVATION TIME

For a long time, I often found myself somewhat reluctant to travel the Navajo Reservation in the spring. This came after an April trip to Monument Valley, where I ran into the fiercest sandstorm I had ever seen.

I parked at the Burger King to check out a Navajo Code Talker exhibit I heard about there. As I whiled away looking at the displays and taking notes for a story, a haboob swarmed in from the south and created a brownout.

I had the misfortune of having the top off my Chevy Tracker. The next day, I spent most of the morning and a roll of quarters at the car wash to vacuum out the sand. Then, the next spring, I encountered a snow squall near Navajo National Monument that followed me along Route 98. It was a white-knuckle affair.

Despite this, I have returned to travel along the most desolate and scenic highways that run through the reservation. One of my favorite drives, and that of many others, is the one that runs from Kayenta north to Monument Valley.

Traveling to Monument Valley is about as mythical as a road trip can get. The lonely road from Tuba City to Kayenta sets up a final stretch that involves driving by a towering giant volcanic scrape of a mountain that's locally known as El Capitan.

To the west of the highway is Owl Rock, a Navajo sandstone pinnacle that appears like the nocturnal creature. But it's only a prelude to the grandeur of Monument Valley, which reveals itself as the highway reaches the Utah border.

Along with Monument Valley, there's the aforementioned Navajo National Monument. It remains a favorite among the small regional monuments that dot northern Arizona. The hikes and canyon views are worthy of a day's stay, especially to hike down to the Betatakin ruins.

Before traveling to Monument Valley, get all the latest information by calling (928) 871-6647 for more information. And don't forget the map.

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