Lake Powell has 1,960 miles of coastline, which is longer than the entire West Coast and also has more than 90 canyons. Evocative canyon names like Antelope, Eden, Forgotten, Moki, Lost and Navajo hang in the wind as we try to figure out how far up the lake we should try to go and still be able to get back in the time allotted. We are going to shoot for Rainbow Bridge National Monument, the world’s largest natural stone bridge, which has a span of 275 feet and stands 290 feet tall. It is about 36 miles upriver from our starting point at the Wahweap Marina in Utah. Looking over my reading material, I note that Teddy Roosevelt and Zane Grey, one of the greatest western writers helped popularize the arch, which became a national monument under President Taft in 1909.
Plans finalized, we scarf down my wife’s gourmet pizza, the children take turns going down the water slide that is on the rear of the boat, and I take a jet ski out to a magnificent red butte. I park the ski on the white sand beach and survey my surroundings. There is not a soul to be seen anywhere. The silence is exquisite and the red rock radiates an even heat as it has done for centuries. I can feel the stress and the debris of my life falling away, melting into a fantastic confluence of sun, air, wind and rock. I get back on my jet ski a renewed man, fresh and ready for whatever this lake, which seems so much like a river can throw at me. The title of a science fiction book, Riverworld, comes to mind. This vast inland body of water, though technically a lake is much more like a river, and with all of its magnificent twists and turns, is a hidden world unto itself.
The following morning, I discovered Indian cliff holds cut into the face of a high rock wall. They were significantly eroded, so I am estimating that they were anywhere between 200 and 700 years old. I placed my foot and hand in the holes. They fit perfectly and I stayed in balance, no matter what angle or direction the footholds seemed to go in. You could climb up the cliff face with relative ease if you chose to do so. There is a lost art in the making of these hand and footholds. No ladders needed, and if you happened to have been an unwelcome visitor in those days that are now obscured by time, a few well-thrown rocks would have disabused you of trespassing.
A world of choices is available when it comes to making vacation plans for your family but you also have a world of concerns. Will everyone have fun, will everyone be safe—what can you take away from the vacation when all is said and done? A luxury house boating trip on Lake Powell may be the answer to all your questions. For three thousand to six thousand dollars for five days, depending on the size of the houseboat rented and the time of year, you can see a new canyon every hour, lunch in coves that a millionaire would envy, sleep on beaches under thousands of stars you may have never seen, and let the canyon winds ease your soul. Meteors blaze trails across the sky and you think to yourself as you drift off into sleep: “it just doesn’t get much better this.”
One of the greatest things about house boating on Lake Powell is that you don’t need a license to drive the boats and all it takes is about a half hour of instruction and you are off. It is almost like someone giving you the keys to an airplane and saying: “go have some fun.” These aren’t any ordinary houseboats either. Ranging in size from 75 feet to 36 feet, they come with full kitchens, including microwaves and refrigerators, an extra freezer on deck, television and VCR, and a CD player for your favorite music. Oh and not to mention, you have your own electric generator for the extra heavy duty stuff like air conditioning and hot water for showers. You can haul powerboats and jet skis from the rear of the boat for speedy transportation should you want to put down anchor and explore some inviting coves or slot canyons. You can have dinner, lunch or breakfast on the top deck and even switch steering to the top deck should you want some extra sunshine. Some of the 75-foot boats even come equipped with hot tubs! For emergencies or repairs you have a radiotelephone and the park service maintains a crew of “boat doctors.” We had trouble with the water heater on our boat the first day out and a malfunctioning jet ski that was taking on water. No problem. The boat doctors were dispatched and within a few hours of beach lounging, we had the water heater fixed and a new jet ski. (Do, however, ask personnel as many questions as you need before you leave. Learning where various emergency switches are, breakers, fuel lines and learning how to remove a tangled line from a propeller will save you many avoidable headaches.)
Our second day was spent on a beach just outside of Friendship Cove, an absolutely stunning and calm body of water between two towering cliffs. Our older children went off on jet skis and the younger ones covered themselves with the thick black mud that lies just below the surface of some of the beach sand. Others fished to their hearts’ content. I sat back and enjoyed their happiness, in and among some high-speed jet skiing into whatever remote corner took my fancy. I cannot recall ever dining in such splendor as we did that evening. Steak was cooked on one of two grills (one on the upper deck and one on the lower deck) and after much contented lip smacking, we settled in for nature’s evening show. Massive red buttes seemed to soak in the dying rays of the sun, looking for all the world like the fortresses and ramparts of a prehistoric world. I don’t think any of us would have traded it for a night of dining in one of the world’s finest restaurants.
The next morning our family went off exploring. We took a short hike into Friendship Cove, climbing over boulders and trudging through sand just to see what was on the other side of the rocks. We were rewarded with a splendid view of this natural inland harbor, which if it were on the East or West Coast would be famous for its beauty. Short hikes are perfect when you have little ones. They get a chance to see how far they can walk and encounter nature on their own terms. If they get tired, you are only a short way from the comforts of the houseboat, which the littlest children referred to as “home.”
During the course of third day, we got all the way up to Rainbow Bridge but due to the size of the houseboat, we did not care to navigate the narrow, quarter mile waterway that leads to the dock, and then walk the mile and a half trail that takes you to this historic site. My son and I took the jet ski all the way in to the dock through some of the most scenic canyon walls I have ever seen. I have rafted down the Grand Canyon and gazed upon staircases that seem to go into infinity but this narrow canyon with its green waters and layers of sandstone and granite walls is just out and out gorgeous. I let my nine-year old son take the steering and throttle once we got back into open water, and his abandoned laughter as he took acceleration to the max without batting an eye will be something I will long remember. There is nothing quite like the excitement of a young boy when he takes the controls of a piece of high-powered equipment for the first time. So much safer than motorcycling, jet skiing is truly a great family activity. My wife thought nothing of rocketing off for an hour with our littlest, a girl of three.
Children under 12 must wear life jackets at all times while on board and certainly all should wear life vests while jet skiing. While there are few hidden water hazards, should you be unfortunate enough to hit one (remember that while water levels are at record lows, you can seem more of the canyons than have been seen in years) you should suffer nothing more than a rough water impact. Power boating seems kind of archaic once you’ve taken off on a jet ski, so I recommend, if you have the opportunity, to tow two jet skis rather than a boat and a jet ski. (The jet skis are also easier to secure when you beach for the night.)
We spent most of our final day navigating downstream, making our way back to civilization with no little regret. There were so many canyons that we did not explore, so many seemingly untouched beaches, and many trails that we might have taken if we had only had more time. The wind whistles through my hair and the waves are picking up as the throttles are pushed to a max of about 12 knots. We are running into a stiff wind but already I am plotting a return—perhaps with seventy-five foot luxury houseboat!
One of the most useful things to bring with you house boating is a pair of binoculars. The lake, which as I’ve said, really seems much more like a great river has green and red navigation buoys that are set just far enough apart that some of them cannot be seen soon enough to confirm your direction, if you feel the need to do so. You keep the green buoys to your left and the red buoys to your right on the trip both up lake and down lake but some of the bays and inlets are so large that you can easily think you are going up lake when in fact you may be wandering off into a very large side canyon. Being able to see the buoys with a set of binoculars can really help when you get confused, as we did on several occasions. If you make a mistake, go back the way you came and look for those buoys, which by the way are numbered.
There are some truly stunning white sand beaches opposite the Wahweap Marina. As we approached the breakwater, I noticed that the white hills and sandstone formations are rounded and full of half formed arches and curves. Yet they seemed strangely familiar. I couldn’t quite place it but their haunting beauty reminded me of something almost extra-terrestrial. We brought the boat into the docks and I managed to forget that I should have untethered the jet ski and powerboat. It is illegal to come in past the breakwater towing jet skis or other watercraft. The docking crew was extremely helpful, however, and before we knew it, we were unloaded and ready for our drive home to Phoenix. When I got back to the rental station, I asked the ranger there about the beautiful beaches opposite that I had seen coming in. “Ah,” he said, “they are beautiful, did you know that they filmed Planet of the Apes there?” A fitting ending, I thought, to a wonderful journey through a river world.
Questions and Answers from the Lake Powell website:
Q. Where is Lake Powell?
A. Lake Powell starts in Northern Arizona and extends into southern Utah. It is part of the Colorado River in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. In terms of mileage, Bullfrog Marina in Utah is 298 miles from Salt Lake City and 480 miles from Denver, Colorado. Wahweap Marina in Arizona is 267 miles from Las Vegas, 280 miles from Phoenix, 388 from Albuquerque, and 540 from Los Angeles, and an easy 2 hour drive from the Grand Canyon
Q. How big is Lake Powell?
A. Lake Powell is Big. Lake Powell is 186 miles long and has almost 2,000 miles of shoreline. You’ll find there are 96 major canyons (think of them as fingers of the lake) some of which are 15 to 20 miles in length.
Q. Can you fly to Lake Powell?
A. Yes, you can fly to Lake Powell. There is unscheduled air service from Salt Lake City to Bullfrog, Halls Crossing and Page. The carrier is Frog Air (American Aviation) at 801.537.1537. Service from Phoenix to Page is available via Great Lakes Airlines
Q. I’ve heard that you have to make houseboat, Lake Powell lodging and vacation reservations at Lake Powell a year or more in advance. It that true?
A. No, not at all. The chances are very good that at Lake Powell we can accommodate you on your houseboat rental, Lake Powell lodging or other vacation reservations on relatively short notice. Not that making vacation reservations at Lake Powell as far in advance as you can isn’t a good idea, just don’t let stories about three year waiting times put a kink in your plans. Call Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas now and we’ll help you make your Lake Powell vacation reservation.
Q. Once we’re at Lake Powell, what is there to do?
A. Lots. At Lake Powell, there are all sorts of outstanding tours, for example, there is a Rainbow Bridge National Monument tour that is absolutely inspiring. Or, take the Wahweap Bay Cruise, the Sunset Cruise or the Sunset Dinner Cruise aboard the Canyon King Paddle wheeler. The Escalante Explorer takes a trip down the Escalante arm of Lake Powell while the Canyon Explorer tour explores intriguing destinations such as Forgotten Canyon – site of the Defiance House Ruins – and lost Canyon. Take a guided hike through Antelope Canyon, or maybe you’re up for one of the Float Trips where you’ll explore the Colorado River. There are hundreds and hundreds of secluded beaches for swimming and building sand castles, and Lake Powell fishing is spectacular, so bring your gear. At Lake Powell, there’s house boating, power boating, water skiing, and all sorts of water toys available including personal watercraft.
You can also explore the Grand Circle, America’s largest grouping of National and State Parks, monuments, and recreation areas in America. You’re just hours from the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Zion National Park. You’re just a few hours from Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. And that’s just for openers. There are virtually a limitless number of interesting and exciting things to do during your Lake Powell vacation.
Q. What about safety concerns on Lake Powell?
A. If you take normal precautions and reasonable care, you’ll have no problem. Remember, you’re on the water so life jackets are important, especially for little ones (children under 18 must wear their life jackets at all times if on a boat or the exterior of a houseboat). Cliff diving is dangerous; it is recommended that you do not participate in such activities. It gets dark on the lake at night, so once sundown has passed, there’s no boating. We ask you to be responsible when you’re on the water and always exercise appropriate care.
Q. What kind of fees should we expect to pay?
A. The National Park Service charges a fee for using the park and Lake Powell. They’re fairly minimal and help with improvements to Lake Powell.
Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas
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Sean O’Reilly is editor-at-large for Travelers’ Tales (www.travelerstales.com). He is a former seminarian, stockbroker, and prison instructor with a degree in Psychology. A life-long devotee of good humor and all things sacred and profane, his recent editorial credits include: Travelers’ Tales China, The Best Travelers’ Tales 2006, Hyenas Laughed at Me and Now I Know Why, Travelers’ Tales American Southwest, Travelers’ Tales Greece, Travelers’ Tales Ireland, Travelers’ Tales Grand Canyon, Danger!, Pilgrimage, The Ultimate Journey, Testosterone Planet and Stories to Live B and 30 Days in the South Pacific. Widely traveled, Sean most recently completed a journey through the islands of the South Pacific and Malaysia. He lives in Virginia with his wife and six children.