When the sun rose that October morning we looked out the window of our hotel room and thought, “This isn’t good.”

The stand of pines outside the Yavapai Lodge in Grand Canyon National Park was only visible as faint black smudges in the dense, white haze. Our car, parked at the curb just 50 feet away, had vanished.

We had driven into the park the previous day from Phoenix through a rare, out-of-season snowstorm that had petered out just north of Flagstaff, replaced by this clam-chowder-thick fog. After checking into our room, we followed a short path that led from the parking lot to the south rim of the Canyon past an array of tough-looking, low-rise spruces, junipers and cottonwoods. After a quarter mile, the path dead-ended. We stared into the belly of a cloud.

My wife, Lisa, and I had traveled there with her sister, Deborah, who had inspired the trip by telling us that seeing the Grand Canyon was on her bucket list, and she had waited too long to check it off. Lisa hadn’t ever been there, and I had visited on a day trip 40 years earlier when my knees could still handle an eight-hour, 12-mile trek that culminated with a 3,500-foot ascent up a steep switchback path. About all I remembered was that last part. It was brutal.

Because my 64-year-old knees and the ladies’ lungs weren’t up for serious hiking, we knew we weren’t going to do more than stroll a couple of miles along the rim. Our plan was to use it as a spectacular starting point, a big bang kicking off a leisurely five-day tour of Northern Arizona we hoped might give us a fuller appreciation for the otherworldly beauty and variety of some of the world’s most dramatic topology.

For the Grand Canyon itself, we figured one afternoon, an overnight, and the following morning would be enough to get Deb her check mark. At this point in her life, she was looking for a perspective shift, a solid dose of the Big Picture. From what she’d heard, a hole 277 miles long, 18 miles wide and a mile deep, carved over 6 million years, that reveals 2 billion years of the Earth’s history just might do the trick.

But not if she couldn’t see it.

The unexpected fog put a serious dent in our itinerary, and posed an existential threat to bucket list fulfillment. To make our next stop — a tour of something called Antelope Canyon near Page, Ariz., which required prepaid timed reservations with Navajo guides — we needed to leave before noon. So after a lovely dinner at the century-old El Tovar Hotel, which sits directly on the Canyon rim (or so we were told, all we could see was fog), we retreated to our rooms and prayed for a break.

Which is why the next morning we were grimly inspecting our weather apps over a hearty breakfast at the lodge cafeteria. No little sun icons appeared until afternoon. The mood around the table suited adults desperately trying to fight off self-pity and hold back recriminations. Who made this stupid plan, anyway?

“We might as well walk to the rim again,” I said, without much conviction. “What else are we going to do?”

The path looked much as it did before: swirling mist, squat trees. I walked a little ahead, unable to stand the suspense. The trees gave way to more fog and . . . wait. Was that amorphous mask of white ahead showing swaths of pale pink?

I stopped where the path intersected in a T with the rim trail and stared hard ahead. In a dreamlike sequence, colors and shapes began to emerge from the mist. In no more than 10 minutes, the fog had vanished.

I could go on about the infinitely subtle variations in the palette from russet to vermilion, the body shock of vastness and depth, but that wouldn’t help. The Grand Canyon is life-altering in person, ineffably beyond what you expect from photography or description. You can’t help but see the big picture and the (minuscule) place not only you, but all of humanity, play in the greater scheme of the planet’s life and history. I looked over at Deb.

“Is it what you hoped for?”

“No,” she said. “It’s far more.”

Page, Ariz., is just under 2½ hours northeast of the park. We traced the sinuous path of the canyon through yet another freak snowstorm that frosted the pine forest, then descended steeply to a desert plain with an uncanny resemblance to the surface of Mars as seen by a NASA rover, plus a scattering of hardy desert shrubs. Steep-sided buttes popped up in random peaks reaching for the low-drifting clouds. Plunging arroyos, gouged violently by now-vanished water, interrupted the overwhelming flatness.

Aside from squat half-rusted trailers, the first man-made structures we saw were the twin stacks of a coal-fired power plant, soon to be shuttered, snorting plumes of smoke into a smudged sky. At the main drag, we took a right, away from town, and drove deep into the desert landscape until we came to a dirt parking lot inside a wire fence. A Native American woman in a trailer checked us off on her list and introduced us to our guide, a quiet young Navajo man. With the coal plant closing, tourism was Page’s great hope.

We took a small van down a rutted slope to the base of an impressive butte where a sand path led into the jaws of the close-walled canyon, technically a “slot canyon” carved through sandstone by water over tens or hundreds of thousands of years. (The exact age is impossible to know.)

From the air, the 120-foot deep canyon looks like a fracture crack in the rock surface, but from inside it looks more like a fantastical dreamscape. Where the Grand Canyon is mind-blowingly immense, Antelope Canyon is a profoundly personal experience. The walls, which in places are no wider than two outstretched arms, flow in smoothly undulating shapes like breaking waves of freshly churned peach ice cream. In places, the walls swirl around and above you, cavelike, but in others they flow to the surface, revealing streaks of bright Arizona sky that make the walls glow.

Our mostly silent guide led us to the entrance, then let us wander through the labyrinth at will, soaking in the inescapably spiritual vibrations. By the time we walked back up to the van, my heart was beating slower.

The following morning, calm and rested and not quite sure what to expect, we boarded a bus for a short trip across the flat red sandstone plain, then into the mouth of a steep tunnel. We descended in spooky darkness for 15 minutes, emerging directly beneath the crescent arc of 710-foot-tall Glen Canyon dam. Built in the 1950s and ’60s, the dam holds back the Colorado River and floods 186 miles of once-spectacular canyons to form the second largest reservoir in the country.

The segment of Glen Canyon downstream from the dam is all that is left. The half-day float trip on 15 miles of swift emerald current departs from a dock at the foot of the dam and follows the course of the river in a gorge about a thousand feet wide between walls a thousand feet high. On a warm, sunny day with puffy white clouds floating above the nearly vertical five-million-year-old red stone cliffs, it was for once easy to forget all the petty insults and profound cataclysms that preceded and no doubt would follow this four-hour pause in life’s insanity.

A personable guide with a deep historical and geological understanding of the canyon, not to mention a refreshing wit, steered us to the narrow sand spit where we stepped out of the boats and walked a narrow path to the base of a wall where, millennia before, people not ultimately that much different from our group of tourists carved stylized images of items that represented something important to them, like a line of horned sheep (or maybe goats) and a human stick figure, that may have memorialized someone who had died on that shore.

Back on the water, we floated around Horseshoe Bend, where the river makes a 270-degree loop around a keyhole-shaped promontory, one of the most photographed spots in Arizona. High above, tiny tourists crowded onto an overlook, no doubt taking selfies. We had to crane our necks to see them outlined against the deep blue, feeling lucky to be the ones coolly gliding by — part of the view, not the crowd.

We stayed that night at the Sheridan House Inn in Williams, Ariz., 2½ hours to the southwest, a drive that the inn’s hostess described as “boring.” For Easterners, it was anything but, with its alien (to us) desert landscape and wide-open sky studded with dramatic clouds framed by Jurassic-looking peaks. Williams is the debarking point for a tourist train that runs to the Grand Canyon an hour away — complete with faux train robberies and banjo-strumming geezers — that seemed to be aimed at families with young children, and the home to a kitschy attraction called Bearizona Wildlife Park, a drive-through safari where you can automotively mingle with wolves, brown bear, bison and other critters wandering freely.

The inn itself was delightful, a modern home with an adjoining cottage set in the woods on a hillside. Our room had a virtual fireplace that could “burn” in rainbow colors, as well as a private Jacuzzi looking up a forested slope.

After an elaborate breakfast prepared by the inn’s owners, we set off for Sedona, a trendy, new-agey town an hour distant. We found the packed tourist strip with multiple shops that all seemed to be selling T-shirts and healing crystals to be a little much, but just outside of town we were stopped cold by the jagged, multicolored cliffs jutting high above the trees. This turned out to be Slide Rock State Park, named for the smooth rocks of the mountain stream that winds down the base of the cliffs and serves as a natural water park in warm weather.

That evening, the innkeepers recommended the less-discovered village of Jerome, a former copper mining town built on a steep mountainside, an Old West version of Cinque Terre with a business district just touristed enough to support a charming set of shops and restaurants — not a chain in sight. Jerome had prospered in the early 20th century, and the switchback streets of the town are strung with once fabulous and now timeworn Victorian mansions that cry out for some real estate visionary with ready capital to come rescue them.

We set out for Jerome the next morning — a flawless day, warm and sunny. Encouraged by the excellent weather, I studied Google Maps for a way to avoid retracing our steps on the four-lane highways in favor of something more scenic. Sure enough, a smaller road appeared to take a more direct route to Jerome. It gently rolled through parklike countryside of large widely spaced trees. I was congratulating myself on choosing the adventurous route when, about 20 minutes into the drive, we turned a sharp curve and found ourselves bumping along a dirt road strewn with rocks. A sign said, “PRIMITIVE ROAD: CAUTION USE AT YOUR OWN RISK.” Uh-oh.

I skidded to a stop in the middle of the road, er, path, to study the map. Yup, this was definitely the direct route into Jerome, about 30 miles away. I persuaded myself it was just a brief segment of rough road before the pavement reappeared.

I forged ahead. The tinny little rental car skittered over the pocked surface, shuddering with the impact of every rock. If I accelerated above 1o mph, the vibrations threatened to tear the car apart. I could see several intersections ahead on the map. Gripping the steering wheel like I was trying to strangle it, I prayed that each one would be the turnback onto a real road.

We crossed a creek that cut its way through jagged boulders, passed a corral built entirely of raw, palisaded logs and, still, the road stretched endlessly ahead. Brief portions of relatively smoother going only tempted me to increase speed and hope the improvement was permanent. But the road returned to the rattling death trap that was its true nature.

When the grade began to rise, I realized with real fear that we were headed for that mountain in the distance, on the other side of which, I realized, was Jerome. One last turn revealed a sign reading “HIGH CLEARANCE VEHICLES ONLY.” Was a Nissan Versa a high clearance vehicle? I doubted it, but the GPS said Jerome was just a few miles distant, and I couldn’t face retracing all that painfully gained ground.

Another bad decision. I will never hear the phrase “white knuckle driving” as a cliche again. I was gripping the steering wheel so hard my hands ached. The slow rise became a fast rise. Halfway up the mountain, the left side of the road disappeared into a sheer drop.

The vistas of distant mountains across a wide and unsullied valley were difficult to enjoy. I inched forward at walking speed, hugging the naked rock face on my right around hairpin curves which were obviously not wide enough for two cars to pass. We had seen only a couple of farm pickups in the 45 minutes we’d been driving on the “PRIMITIVE ROAD,” but just one more coming in the other direction would mean disaster. I pressed the horn about 50 feet before each curve and kept it blaring until we were safely on the other side.

Going up was bad, but so was the descent. The tires felt like they had been scorched bald by the sandpapery road and seemed to slip on each bend. I asked my wife to count down the tenths of miles as they ticked off on the GPS. Four miles to go. Three point nine. Three point eight. . . .

The entire time, a single thought ran through my mind on repeat: “If we survive, this will have been quite the adventure.” I avoided thinking of the alternative outcome.

An hour after we left the paved road, though it had seemed an eternity, a caravan of ATVs rounded one final bend. Beyond them, blessed pavement, above which stood a sign with the three most beautiful words in the language: “Welcome to Jerome.”

Shroder is a writer based in Northern Virginia. His website is tomshroder.com. Find him on Twitter: @tomshroder.

More from Travel:

If you go

Where to stay

Hyatt Place Lake Powell

1126 N. Navajo Dr., Page

928-212-2200

Hotel with a clean, contemporary lobby and comfortable rooms overlooking the flat desert plain leading to the edge of Glen Canyon. $139 per night for a standard room.

Sheridan House Inn

460 E. Sheridan Ave., Williams

928-635-8991

A charming bed-and-breakfast with luxury appointments and gourmet food, about an hour from both the Grand Canyon and Sedona. $160 to $280 per night.

What to do

Wilderness River Adventures

199 Kaibab Rd., Page

800-992-8022

A truly unforgettable guided float up the Colorado River through the geologically unique Glen Canyon between sheer sandstone walls that rise hundreds of feet to either side. Reservations required; adult prices don’t include $15 park entrance fee. $120.89 per adult (includes boxed lunch) and $109.90 per child ages 4 through 15 for a full-day float trip; $93.42 per adult and $82.43 per child for a half-day.

Antelope Canyon X

Mile Post 308, Hwy. 98, No. 3784, Page

928-660-8890

A guided hike with Taadidiin Tours through the intimate spaces and surrealistic shapes of a water-carved slot canyon. $40 per adult ($60 peak season).

Slide Rock State Park

6871 N. Highway 89A, Sedona

928-282-3034

This has to be one of the most scenic state parks in the country, dominated by dramatic red rock cliffs and a smooth rock-bottomed mountain stream that gives the park its name and favorite warm weather activity. Park entrance is $20 per vehicle from March to May, $10 per vehicle October through February.

Information

T.S.

If you go

Where to stay

Hyatt Place Lake Powell

1126 N. Navajo Dr., Page

928-212-2200

Hotel with a clean, contemporary lobby and comfortable rooms overlooking the flat desert plain leading to the edge of Glen Canyon. $139 per night for a standard room.

Sheridan House Inn

460 E. Sheridan Ave., Williams

928-635-8991

A charming bed-and-breakfast with luxury appointments and gourmet food, about an hour from both the Grand Canyon and Sedona. $160 to $280 per night.

What to do

Wilderness River Adventures

199 Kaibab Rd., Page

800-992-8022

A truly unforgettable guided float up the Colorado River through the geologically unique Glen Canyon between sheer sandstone walls that rise hundreds of feet to either side. Reservations required; adult prices don’t include $15 park entrance fee. $120.89 per adult (includes boxed lunch) and $109.90 per child ages 4 through 15 for a full-day float trip; $93.42 per adult and $82.43 per child for a half-day.

Antelope Canyon X

Mile Post 308, Hwy. 98, No. 3784, Page

928-660-8890

A guided hike with Taadidiin Tours through the intimate spaces and surrealistic shapes of a water-carved slot canyon. $40 per adult ($60 peak season).

Slide Rock State Park

6871 N. Highway 89A, Sedona

928-282-3034

This has to be one of the most scenic state parks in the country, dominated by dramatic red rock cliffs and a smooth rock-bottomed mountain stream that gives the park its name and favorite warm weather activity. Park entrance is $20 per vehicle from March to May, $10 per vehicle October through February.

Information

T.S.