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Lake Powell: an oasis in the desert, in Arizona and Utah

A butte is lighted by the setting sun amid the storm clouds over Lake Powell.
A butte is lighted by the setting sun amid the storm clouds over Lake Powell.
Photo by Janda Raker

Have you been to Lake Powell? If not, you’ve missed a special experience. Most people who live or travel in the western U.S. have heard of it, yet many don’t even know where it is, much less have ever seen or experienced it. Between 2 and 3 million people visit the area every year, but that leaves 300 million Americans who don’t. Many drive through Page, Arizona, gateway to Lake Powell, on their way through Arizona or Utah or to Las Vegas or the Grand Canyon, and they see just the southern end of Lake Powell. If you’ve done that, it’s only an appetizer. To experience Lake Powell, you must make a deliberate effort, consider it your destination. And a boat is almost a necessity to really see it, but there are many options.

A butte in Lake Powell surrounded by the beautiful sky
A butte in Lake Powell surrounded by the beautiful sky
Photo by Janda Raker

You can bring your own boat and launch it into one of four boat launches, depending on the time of year. (Click here for national park info and here for info about Navajo land.) If you don’t have a boat or can’t bring it, you can rent a boat at several locations, including any of the marinas, renting anything from a kayak to a speed boat to a houseboat, including the luxurious new Axiom Star, which includes a captain. (Google "Kayak Lake Powell" or click here for marina info.) If neither of those options is available to you or you prefer not to operate a boat yourself, you can book a ride on a tour boat or even a dinner cruise and go to any of several beautiful areas of the lake. (Click here for tour info.) The fourth option is to pay for a scenic plane flight over the lake, viewing the gorgeous locale from the air (Google “Plane flights over Lake Powell, AZ.")

If boating, you can go out onto the water for an afternoon, overnight or for weeks at a time. If your boat is large enough, you can beach it or anchor offshore to spend a night or nights. Or you can take a sleeping bag and camp ashore, under the stars or in a tent. Camping is allowed anywhere in the national park that’s practical. And there is no need to camp near other boaters, as there are plenty of secluded beaches or small canyons available where you can have your own private beach or canyon. (For cost of permits, click here.) Be sure to check weather forecasts ahead and plan accordingly. If you encounter high winds, duck into a small canyon, pull onto the beach, bow first, and bury anchors in the sand, attached to three points on your boat for best adaptation to a storm. There are even floating toilet, pump-out, and dump facilities in 8 locations about the lake. (See a photo on the attached slide show. (Purchase a “Stan Jones’ map” with all details. It’s available at visitors centers and convenience stores in the area and through Amazon.com. Click here for that link on Amazon.)

There are campgrounds and RV parks at Wahweap, Bullfrog, and Hall’s Crossing marinas, for those who won’t be camping on or from boats. (Click here for campground info.) Wahweap also has a 350-room lodge, and Bullfrog offers a 48-room hotel. (Click here for lodging info.) Restaurants at Antelope Point, Wahweap, and Bullfrog and cafes and snack bars at those as well as at Hall’s Crossing and Dangling Rope provide sustenance for hungry boaters. (Click here for info on dining in the Wahweap area and here for some other options in the area.) Convenience stores and fuel are also available at all marinas. A ferry runs several times a day, from May until October, carrying RVs, buses, and passengers across Bullfrog Bay, between Bullfrog and Hall’s Crossing, where roads lead out from each area, creating driving shortcuts (click here for ferry info, including fees).

Lake Powell’s southern end is only five miles into northern Arizona, with the other 181 miles of the lake in south-central Utah. It provides almost 2000 miles of shoreline. The lake is the impounded Colorado River in Glen Canyon, north of Grand Canyon. If you’ve seen Grand Canyon, picture it with 400 to 500 feet of water in the bottom; that image is similar to Lake Powell. This summer, 2014, the lake covers 12.5 million acres. But because Lake Powell is in a canyon in the desert, you’ll not see it unless you go to one of the marina and launch areas, the only points with access from highways to the canyon and the lake.

Lake Powell, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area which contains it, and Rainbow Bridge, which is the largest natural bridge in the world, and its National Monument are among the most breathtaking and unusual sights in America. The forces of nature had already created a fabulous canyon, and when it was dammed up, with the dam finished in 1966 (click here for info on the dam and the history of the lake), the new lake was soon recognized as one of striking beauty, with many iconic rock formations and other well-known sites. You’ll find entrancing masses of slickrock, pictographs and petroglyphs, beautiful red and orange slot canyons, Anasazi ruins (click here for fabulous interactive maps, with excellent views of Defiance House and other sites), spectacular natural arches and bridges, intriguing moki steps, water caves, dinosaur tracks, winding canyons that can accommodate small boats, and many other fascinating features to admire, photograph, hike in, climb up, or kayak or paddleboard through. (See the attached slide show.) When skies are clear, which is most of the time, star-gazing is a favored pastime. The lake provides for boating, fishing, waterskiing, scuba diving, jetskiing, standup paddling, and onshore hiking. When near or on shore, watch for wildlife such as bighorn sheep, coyotes, pronghorn, rattlesnakes, chuckawallas, and river otters. If you keep a sharp watch, you may see bald eagles, ravens, great blue herons, and recently introduced California condors. Desert plants such as prickly-pear cactus, cottonwoods, Helleborine orchids in hanging gardens, and mariposa lilies decorate the delightful landscape. (Click here for Glen Canyon’s Facebook page, with much valuable detail, including up-to-the-minute reports about the environment in the area.)

The four marinas with boat launches and rentals located at Lake Powell are Wahweap, Bullfrog, and Hall’s Crossing, all on National Park Service land, and Antelope Point, on Navajo land, which even provides a water park for wakeboarding without a boat. Another marina, called Dangling Rope, with many conveniences, is accessible only by water and has no boat launch or rentals. Two visitors centers are available at the lake: one is the Carl Hayden Visitors Center at the Glen Canyon Dam at Page, AZ, and the other is at the Bullfrog Marina. (Click here for more info on both centers.) And permanent mooring for over 2000 private vessels is available at the marinas in different areas throughout the lake.

A detour has been constructed for travelers coming from I-40 and heading north toward Page, AZ, on U.S. Hwy 89. Because of landslides across that highway a couple of years ago, Hwy. 89T, east of 89, has been created, beginning about 40 miles south of Page. (Click here for a Google Map of the area.) It’s a very good road and will even save you some time.

Because of the several-years’ drought in the West, the water level at the lake is currently down. You’ll see the “bathtub rings” on the rock walls lining the shore, showing previous high-water marks. However, this summer (2014), the level has raised about 30 feet. If you have a depth finder on your boat, you’ll frequently register a depth of more than 400’ in midchannel. Watch your maps and navigation aids carefully when looking for campsites, as the shorelines’ shapes change with the water level, but there are so many places to camp that the changes won’t cause much inconvenience. And if you navigate close to the red and green midchannel markers, the water is so deep you won’t have any problem. When nearing the shore, just slow down and watch for warning buoys and rocks as you look for a place to tie up.

Plan your trip to beautiful Lake Powell as soon as possible. It’s a breath-taking work of art waiting to welcome you to its show. Don’t miss it.

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Here are two other websites you’ll enjoy: click here for a link to several YouTube videos about the area, click here for the Friends of Lake Powell, with even more great information about the area.