I crept along the rust-colored rock, carefully navigating jagged shelves and mini craters.

Around me, the Aztec sandstone rose in stunning formations, as if an artist had created a copper jungle of boulders, using unfathomable balance and a good dose of flair. There were caves and archways, peaks and crevices and a magnificent view of the Virgin Mountains beyond.

On a warm winter Sunday afternoon, I was totally alone.

Or so I thought.

I looked up from my hike, surveying the natural beauty, then sucked in my breath.

Ten yards in front of me was a small herd of bighorn sheep. About four of them were grazing among the prickly burro bushes. Another — which I presumed to be the male, though they all bore long, curved horns — stood guard and had turned in my direction. He was watching me.

His honey-brown eyes calmly studied the intruder. I snapped several photos — alternately holding my breath and whispering to my muses that I didn’t intend to hurt them — before backing away slowly.

I had been in Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park for about two hours and already it had been an eventful day.

That morning, under a cloudless blue sky, I’d driven about an hour northeast of Las Vegas to explore the 40,000-acre park that friends had promised was filled with a sort of organic architecture: rainbow-like stratified rock and gorgeous vistas at every turn. It seemed a group of motorcyclists had the same mission, and I followed behind them on the entrance road, envious of their unbroken views as we rolled through towering hills and past plummeting valleys.

After paying the $10 entrance fee, I set off on my first mission: finding a glorious hidden formation called Windstone Arch, also known as Fire Cave and Glow Cave. The photos I’d seen showed a red hollow marked by several natural blow holes and dimpling in the rock that glows when the sun hits it right. I took my first left down a dirt road, and following the loose instructions I’d read, drove about 100 yards in, down a modest slope and looked for a place to pull over.

There were no obvious stopping points, so I decided to drive partway off the dirt path and onto what looked to be a fine-rock shoulder.

Immediately, I knew I’d made a mistake. My front wheels plunged over what was actually a rock ledge, and the car lunged forward. I tried to reverse — and only kicked a few streams of rock in the air.

I checked my cellphone. No service. But before I’d had more than a few minutes to worry, an SUV ambled toward me and stopped. An elderly woman got out and started taking photos. I walked toward her, waving my arms.

“Excuse me, I’m stuck,” I told her. “Would you be able to help me?”

Her son, who appeared to be in his mid-50s, got out — after smartly parking his car in the road — and took a look. His mother searched for flat rocks to wedge beneath my tires.

About 45 minutes and another stopped car later — “You look young and strong, why don’t you get out and help me?” the mid-50s man had quipped in the direction of the driver — my car was on the road again. I was off, and set on making up for the lost time.

Ancient history

The preservation area, which was formed 150 million years ago by great shifting sand dunes during the time of the dinosaurs, marks Nevada’s oldest state park. The age is felt in every step. Majestic-looking formations of sandstone, limestone and shale — resulting from the uprising and then extreme erosion of massive features of land — are stacked into imposing, hole-punched castles. Large rocks perch precariously on much thinner stone shafts. Great rock faces give way to gaping cavities. Mini-caves and nooks hide around every corner. Some ancient facades even display well-preserved petroglyphs, remnants of the Basket Maker people and the Anasazi Pueblo farmers who likely stayed in the area temporarily for hunting and religious ceremonies as early as 300 B.C.

Valley of Fire boasts a lineup of remarkable sites announced by signs and reached via marked trails. The Beehives were given their moniker for the unusual pattern forced into sandstone by wind and fire. Mouse’s Tank, a natural water basin, is named for an outlaw who used the area as a hideout in the late 1800s. The Fire Wave, made from smooth, sloping, rainbow-like streaks of crimson and beige rock, might be the most photogenic.

Just as intriguing are extensive areas noticeably bereft of signage or paths, in which a visitor can simply pull his or her car over — carefully, mind you — and explore. It was in this unmarked area that I searched for Windstone Arch.

Based on information I’d gathered online, I began my hike, meandering into crevices and climbing up hills, peeking inside various caves to see if they revealed something deeper.

I found incredible natural beauty — it was almost overwhelming — but the Windstone Arch proved elusive.

Finally, after a couple of hours of working up a sweat, I decided to move on — to the Fire Wave.

The trail was a short drive away and as I set out on the half-mile trek, I was joined by fellow hikers for the first time.

Wooden posts, secured with piles of rocks, guided us through sand and across smooth rock shelves until finally, about a dozen other tourists and I ascended a crest and reached the target, a landscape of sandstone bends and peaks colored with psychedelic waves of red and beige.

It looked as if an artist had dipped her fingers in various shades of paint and swiped them across the vista. It was hard to believe that nature had created such a swath of beauty through nothing but weather and time.

After climbing around and taking it all in, I headed back with about an hour’s worth of light.

Could I find the Windstone Arch if I tried one more time?

I made my way back to near where I’d seen the sheep earlier. I passed a few hikers sitting on a rock and chatting. Did they know where it was?

“Oh, the Glow Cave,” a woman said, referring to the place by one of its many names. “I was there long ago but it was hard to find. I can’t remember.”

Thanking her, I shuffled back into the rock labyrinth anyway, giving it one last shot.

An hour later, the sun low in the sky, I realized it was a lost cause. But I hadn’t failed.

As I turned toward the road and traipsed toward my car, I looked around at the copper jungle fading into a dusty gray, and I knew what I had found.