The Great Basin of Utah stretching from the Provo in the south to Ogden in the north isn't today the pristine vista that Brigham Young and his company of 143 men, 3 women and 2 children saw in 1847 when they topped the Wasatch ridge and Young shouted "This is the right place." From my hotel room in downtown Salt Lake City I look out on a bleak rail yard to the north and a towering pipe spewing flames into the afternoon sky. To the east a block of soviet-styled office buildings obscures the base of the state capital.

But it’s still dramatic. West along Temple Street, the prospect runs past the airport out to the Great Salt Lake and the western desert beyond, a region of magnificent sunsets. East in the other direction, Temple Street runs past the vaulting granite structures of Temple Square, the heart of Mormonism, to the foot of the Wasatch Mountains—tawny brown mottled with alpine green, and billowing white clouds above them, their undersides painted pink, drifting toward me this August afternoon.

And not a snowflake in sight. Salt Lake City, site of the 2002 Olympics, is a world class winter destination, but the summer is something else. My wife had been called to Salt Lake City for three days of business meetings and I, a slow dog, tagged along. It was a mini-vacation, an uncommon chance for us to travel together without the kids, a time to mend fences.

It was a great, accidental call. Utah in the summer was a sleeper trip, a mind blowing plunge into an incomparable landscape of vast and complex, rioting beauty, in the off season.

Friends had talked down the Great Salt Lake—"It's dead and it stinks"—but since childhood I had been mesmerized by photos of it, so large it can be seen with the naked eye from space. The lake supports only primitive marine life—a species of brine shrimp. Such paces of water and salt, throughout the world, draw birds like bananas. The lake is a virtual Motel 6 for untold thousands of migratory birds.

Early the next morning, while Robin suffered through a meeting I drove thirty miles north on I-15 and turned west at exit 335 for Antelope Island, a state park in the middle of the Great Salt Lake. If it wasn't dead, the lake did stink, at least along the causeway leading to the island. I've never seen birds in such concentrations—egrets, heron, black-necked stilts and avocets by the hundreds fed at a lapping shore amid fluffy ropes of salt foam.

It was 9 AM and Antelope Island was tenderly colorful: wading birds white and black worked the shore against the deep-blue lake, the clean sky, and the subtly varied browns and yellows of the island ridges and the mountains in the distance. I followed the main road up to Buffalo Point at 4250 feet. Signs along the way warned pedestrians that "Bison can be dangerous." A range fire had scorched the top half of the point, exposing a bald head of rock rising from the ring of blackened cheat grass and rabbit brush. I parked the car at the top just as a hawk was taking advantage of the situation: from a hundred feet in the air it dropped a blow snake—the island's only serpent species—on to a flat boulder. The snake thudded on the rock 15 feet away from me and lay motionless, stunned or dead; the hawk braked and, screeching, seemed to stand up vertically in the sky. I moved away.

Antelope Island presaged wonders that lay west in the desert beyond the southern reach of the Great Salt Lake, toward the Bonneville Salt Flats, site of the fastest land speed ever achieved on earth. Since childhood I’ve been fascinated by magazine stories of this place. Early the next morning, with the sun burnishing the slopes of the Oquirrh range in the distance, Robin and I were cruising along I-80 west toward Wendover on the Nevada border. The radio announcer predicted a high of 107 degrees in Salt Lake City.

Despite the dangerous heat, we were committed to making it to Bonneville, at least until we saw the sign at Delle: "Next Services 66 miles." We turned around and headed back east toward a squat brown butte near the exit for Dugway, site of a secret military proving ground where for decades the government has tested nuclear and chemical weapons.

We turned south on highway 36 toward Dugway, following the foot of the Stansbury range east of the road. There was a stunning view of the 20-mile-wide Skull Valley and the Cedar Mountains rising in the west. Not yet 9 o'clock, the critters of the desert were in a feeding frenzy. Hawks worked the sage and cheat grass near the road, diving for snakes and lizards and rabbits. Farther along two golden eagles perched on a rise near the road spread their wings to the sun. I thought I saw antelope huddled in the shadow of the eastern mountains.

Farther along, the cluster of shimmering figures on the distant blacktop turned out to be wild horses which, as we came up to them, didn't move aside as we approached in a rental car. I tried to video them but missed the surprise. Some were solid brown, others palomino. They eyed us suspiciously. Five miles down the road, in the Gosuite Indian Reservation, we stopped at a convenience store, the only commercial building we'd passed in thirty miles. The clerk, a Shoshone who had married into a Gosuite family, talked about the fires and Dugway.

"People say the government killed a bunch of sheep out here. Nobody's found where they are, but them sheep are buried out here somewhere. Something was going on back then. Every day I talk to old timers who've got the shakes."

I expected Dugway to be a village at least, but there was only a Mormon temple with sprinklers dousing a plush green yard stark in the middle of the yellow desert; and an imposing guardhouse and soldiers who turned us away.

We turned back east on 199 toward the Onaqui ridge just north of the old Pony Express route west to Nevada. At the foot of the mountain we passed through burnt-out pinion pines and saw a blackened house on a hill. In the wake of the burn, the road was already lined with sunflowers three-feet high, blooming wildly.

We climbed up a ragged draw over the summit on the other side where the road picked up a wide stream on the right. The air was cooler, and I could smell the water. Campers were parked beneath cedar trees, and fly fishermen worked the broad reaches above bends in the stream. We came down through the crossroads at Rush and picked up route 73 south toward Mercur and Fairfield. At Fairfield there were corn fields in the wide flat valley flanking clusters of houses and outbuildings. Near American Fork at the head of Utah Lake, the dark loamy earth held fenced-in houses, tackle and farm stores, an elementary school, and a horse in every back yard.

South on I-15 toward Orem and Provo the landscape morphed into cityscape. Here the desert might have been a thousand miles away, except that we could see it beyond the sleek office buildings to the west. Heavy traffic quickened the pulse, the nineteenth-century gave way to the twenty-first.

Few places in America—in the world—offer this wondrous diversity: The heart soars out west. Thirty minutes from the desert we were driving up the Provo Canyon into the lower reaches of alpine forests, following the Provo River on route 189. Above Bridal Veil Falls we ate lunch in a small wooden cafe hard by the river. Flycasters worked the shallows nearby as passengers boarded the steam-driven Heber Valley Railway to Heber City.

The drive to higher altitudes was thrilling, the brown mountains dotted green, the dark rushing river beside us and the sky cornflower blue. On the road to Heber City we circled the vast Deer Creek Reservoir where the river had been dammed. Pleasure boats and jet skis cut white arcs on the blue-black water. On the return from Heber City—a one-drag, old-west town high on the plain—we enjoyed a stunning view of 11,750 foot Mt. Timpanogos to the west, cradling in August a swath of dirty snow high on its eastern face.

Turning right onto the Alpine Loop (highway 92) we stopped for a drink at Robert Redford's Sundance ski resort. The parking lot was nearly full; families were picnicking on the grassy flat near the creek and the country store was crowded with summer visitors. The woods and rustic architecture of Sundance have a way of blending people into the landscape so that I didn't feel crowded. I liked the intimate feel of slightly shabby wooden cottages hidden in groves of fir and aspen at the foot of Timpanogos, and the creek babbling down through the middle of the resort. A couple of miles away trout fisherman were wading the Provo River. It was like “A River Runs Through It,” the Norman McLean novella that Redford made into a film.

We spent our last afternoon in Park City and Deer Valley, east over the Wasatch Range. Park City's main street looked a scene out of "McCabe and Mrs Miller" taken over by young Californians. Weathered clapboard buildings, tall and leant, housed coffee bars, restaurants and clothing shops teeming with attractive people. At the top of the street we had a tasty dinner at a restaurant stacked three floors high; looking down over Park City, we ate off each other’s plate.

After dinner we drove through Deer Valley up to Stein Eriksen's Lodge. Robin had been here before—it was a special place for her—but I hadn't. To celebrate the end of our trip we drank brandy in the bar. Out the window, the last of the day's mountain bikers tore down a ski slope. The sky filled with dark racing clouds as we drank and talked.

Rounding a turn on the way back, I braked in the middle of the road. There before us was a double rainbow arcing down from the sky, its right rim landing squarely on a mountain top. We drove back to Salt Lake City hardly speaking. On the door of our room we hung the "Do Not Disturb" sign, with the desert and the mountains sleeping in the darkness.