In 1869, a one armed Civil War Major led a party of 10 men on an expedition that would forever change the American West.
Traveling almost 1,000 miles, John Wesley Powell & co. steered wooden boats through treacherous rapids, endless canyons, and uncharted territory. Along the journey of the mighty Colorado River, the expedition came across a particularly scenic area that Powell would describe as a “land of beauty and glory.” He would name this site Glen Canyon, after the oak glens that grew alongside the meandering river.
Fast forward almost 150 years and Glen Canyon is now submerged under 300+ feet of water. The expansive lake that sits above it is so vastly different, it would be unrecognizable to the man it is named for. While highly debatable whether it is for better or worse, Glen Canyon, or Lake Powell as it is now known, is a wonderland of water. Over 2 million people a year come to the lake to play. House boats drift below towering sandstone walls, veering around submerged rocks that once also stood several hundred feet high. Powerboats lead water-skiers and wake-boarders alike over calm Colorado River who in the past would have torn them to pieces in a series of mighty rapids. Kayaks glide through narrow channels, floating above slot canyons and other sunken wonders that were once only accessible to the most adventurous backpackers. While we no longer can experience Glen Canyon as Major Powell did, the man-made lake and encompassing National Recreational Area is still one of the most beautiful and scenic places on the planet.
Thanks to my job with Aramark, I was recently able to spend 5 days exploring the gigantic lake on a 59’ houseboat of my very own! Accompanied by 4 friends and my parents, we cruised the lake and gawked at the out-of-this-world landscape.
Our journey started on Thursday night when we made the 4 hour drive from Phoenix up to Page after work. Two of my friends from Wisconsin, Stephen and Eric, had just flown in while two of my buddies from the Valley, Matt and Tyler, also tagged along. The car was packed and our late start made for a long night, but eventually we reached the resort and crashed in our room. The next morning, we did some shopping at Safeway before meeting my parents at the marina. The porters assisted us with loading all of our stuff onto the boat; it was quite a lot considering we needed to feed, and more importantly, quench the thirst of 7 adults for 5 days. Initially, the quantity of alcohol (220+ beers, 6 bottles of liquor, 2 bottles of margarita mix, and 24 cans of Strawberitas) seemed like a bit much, but when there’s a will there’s a way!
After a 30 minute crash course of the controls and operations, the houseboat was all ours! A guy at the dock helped us get out of the marina and, with the powerboat in tow, we were set off. It was a grey, chilly day and a light rain sprayed the boat as we headed upriver. Across Wahweap Bay, dad steered the boat through a narrow channel simply referred to as “The Cut”. When water levels were higher, this area was a deep bay and posed no problem for boaters. Years of drought replaced the bay with a sliver of a pass that often closes depending on the fluctuation of the water. It was open for us, though for a first time captain it was a bit nerve-racking. On the other end, it was back into open water and a relaxing cruise up lake.
Later that day when it was time to find an area to beach the houseboat, Stephen and I jumped into the powerboat to facilitate the process. We searched high and low and found a great spot a ways inside Face Canyon.
We alerted everyone on the houseboat and showed them the way to our spot. Time to anchor the beast! Being the first time any of us had done this, it was a learning process. Digging into the sand and getting the anchors in place was the easy part. Setting up the ropes and making sure they were nice and snug was a bit more difficult. Halfway through the process, the houseboat began to swing away from the side we had not anchored in yet. We were forced to reverse the boat and try the process again. As we were tying up the ropes we noticed the powerboat was now floating away!
I jumped in a kayak and went on a rescue mission as the guys got the houseboat secured. When everything was set up, we did a little kayaking out to a nearby set of cliffs. From below they looked like great ones to jump from, but up above we realized they were way too high. We found a smaller one to jump from and watched Matt almost drown as he attempted to swim 100 yards in the chilly water. He sounded like a dying animal! We decided to leave as dark, ominous clouds pushed in. The storm easily overtook us and we had to battle waves and sideways rain on the way back. After a nice dinner, the rain subsided and we had a toasty fire to warm us up.
On Day 2, we pushed farther upstream to a nice inlet across from Rock Creek Bay. Unfortunately, Tyler was not feeling well and he decided to head back to Phoenix. Eric volunteered to powerboat him back to Wahweap Marina. While they were gone, Matt, Stephen, and I did some exploring along the shore and scrambled a bit up the eroded slopes of the sandstone walls. It was a beautiful sunny day; so calm, the water looked like glass. From on the water, it’s really hard to get a sense of how insanely expansive Lake Powell really is. Views from above bring about a whole new perspective. In the afternoon, we all went out for another kayak trip. We paddled to some cliffs near Dungeon Canyon and partook in some more cliff jumping. Back at the houseboat, another night of grilled food, blazing camp fire, and great camaraderie. With a clear sky above, I took advantage of the sleeping mats on top the boat. The stars were incredible!
Sunday began with some more cliff jumping. I pushed my limits by moving on to a higher cliff in the same area as the day before. The jump was off a nice overhang that we estimated to have a drop around 50-55 feet (Check out the Youtube!). The nerves were on end, but hanging in mid-air for several seconds before splashing in the cold water is such a rush. I felt so alive! It was a hell of a way to wake up. We spent the early morning pushing on farther up lake, refueling at Dangling Rope Marina and then searching for a place to beach. Unable to find one, we reversed course and found a rocky site in Rock Creek Bay (pun pun). Itching to try one of the canyons I had read about, I convinced my dad to powerboat Stephen and I out to Wetherill Canyon. He left us with a double kayak and we set off.
Stroke after stroke, we settled into a routine and headed deep into the twists and turns of the canyon. The walls narrowed to a width only a kayak could enter. Lines of discoloration marked times when the water was much higher; I’m sure they continued unseen, below the current level. A mile or two, maybe even farther into the canyon- distance is so hard to judge on the water, we reached stagnant water and a gravel wash. A dry waterfall choked with boulders impeded our advancement. With our allotted time coming to a close, we retraced our route back into the open waters and caught a ride with my dad back to the houseboat. It was a truly unique experience, one I would recommend to anyone traveling to Lake Powell. I slept outside again that night, gazing at the stars and the dull outline of the Milky Way.
On Monday it was time to make the requisite trip to Rainbow Bridge. It is by far the most famous sight on Lake Powell. The way to the bridge is spectacular, a maze of winding side canyons, sheer walls shooting out of the water to dizzying heights. Navigating the powerboat below them was pure enjoyment, zig-zagging around the twists and turns. After taking a wrong turn, we finally found our way to the dock.
From the dock, it was a little over a mile hike to the bridge. The hike was easy. The park service had recently done work on the trail making it a flat, graded surface of compact gravel for most of the way. Early on, you get your first view of the bridge.
Resting at the foot of Navajo Mountain, Rainbow Bridge rises 290 feet above a shallow stream bed, stretching an impressive 234 feet across. Often claimed to be the largest natural bridge in the world, the Fairy Bridge in China beats it by a whopping 64 feet. We took a few minutes to gaze in wonder at the site that has been held sacred by Native Americans for centuries. As the crowds from one of several daily tour groups approached, I couldn’t help but think of something I had once read:
“The new dam, of course will improve things. If ever filled, it will back water to within sight of the Bridge, transforming what was formerly an adventure into a routine motorboat excursion. Those who see it then will not understand that half the beauty of Rainbow Bridge lay in its remoteness, its relative difficulty to access, and in the wilderness surrounding it, of which it was integral part. When these aspects are removed the Bridge will be no more than an isolated geological oddity, an extension of that museumlike diorama to which industrial tourism tends to reduce the natural world.”
Edward Abbey- Desert Solitaire
I must admit, I full heartedly agree with Mr. Abbey. Rainbow Bridge isn’t the only natural place I’ve been to that was stained by packs of camera-toting tour groups, paved pathways, ice cream stands, and the general commercialization and convenience that America thrives on. It’s almost like you are taking it out of context. Back at the powerboat, we cruised through a few other nearby canyons pretending we were modern-day explorers. In one particularly neat canyon, Eric shut the engine off and we sat in silence so complete our ears made their own white noise just to fill the void. That night, we set a tumbleweed ablaze and had another nice fire on the beach. We talked and laughed until late in the evening.
We all woke up lamenting our final day on the lake. The 5 days of vacation had flown by, as it always does. Shuffling between anchors, we regretfully pried them from the sand and tossed them back onto the boat. With a final wave of farewell, we said goodbye to our temporary home in Rock Creek Bay and scooted back out into the main channel. It was a good 30 mile cruise back to Wahweap Bay and the Boat Rentals Marina. We pounded the few remaining brews and relaxed in the sunshine on the top deck, taking turns to captain the boat. Before completely admitting the trip was over, the boys and I had to jump in one last time. Soaring from the top deck, we relished the cool plunge. WAHOOOO!
My house boating experience was an excellent one. The right group of people, decent weather, and incredible scenery made for a winning combination. A weird mix between backpacking and 4 star amenities, house boating is a unique experience I would recommend to everyone. In fact, if you’re interested give me a call! Just do your research first: www.lakepowell.com
Want to read more about the Lake Powell area? Check out my first visit to the Lake.
A Question on Water Level:
I get asked daily by guests planning a trip to Lake Powell what the water level is and how it will affect their trip. Here is a brief rundown on the lake and why its water level varies so much. When the Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1966, Lake Powell began to form. After 11 years, the lake reached its full pool: 3,700 feet. (A side note here; the engineers of the dam were incredibly accurate as the dam is only 3,715 feet high, leaving 15 feet to spare!) As the source of the lake’s water is snow melt and rain, the water level is all dependent on current conditions. Also, it fluctuates greatly based on the season. Snow begins to melt and make its way to the lake in late spring, meaning May-June the lake typically rises 20-50 feet. A high rate of evaporation during the hot summer months and little precipitation mean the lake recedes from early September until the following Spring. During drought, the water level obviously lowers more because there is not enough incoming water to replenish it. In 2005, the lake reached its lowest ever water level of 3,550 feet. During our 2015 trip, the water level was at 3,591 feet. And remember, we went right as the snows were beginning to melt. In the two weeks since, the lake has risen another 7 feet with an average daily rise of almost half a foot! In summary, the lake level is constantly changing. Don’t fret over current water level when planning your trip. There will be plenty to see and do at any level, and it will have little effect on your experience.
If you must, check out this site for the current water levels, the forecast for the water year, a history of years past, and the accessibility of The Cut and important launch sites.
- Bring binoculars for viewing the buoys
- Use the powerboat to scout out beaches for the houseboat
- When deciding whether it’s safe to go into a channel, follow the general rule: if it’s steep, it’s deep- if it’s a slope, it’s a nope. Sloping walls are more likely to pose navigational problems than steep walls.
- Have the whole party listen to the initial instructions. Each person will remember bits and pieces and together you will have a sense of what to do.
- Fill the toilet with water after flushing- it relieves the smell!
- Leave the ropes attached to the anchors when moving between beach sites. Simply put the anchors, with ropes attached, on the front deck of the boat and make sure the ropes won’t get caught on anything. Move to your new beach and everything is already in place!
- Always make sure the anchors are at the proper angle
- Bring a whiteboard along and use it to write messages and/or rules of the house boat… it’s cheap entertainment!
- Remember to take in the views, especially the stars!
- Shut off the phones and take in nature as it is best intended.
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