For the first-time visitor, Lake Powell baffles easy description. It’s so vast, so surreal, such a paradoxical union of desert and...
“It’s like Monument Valley with water,” our boat pilot offers.
Well, yes. That’s it exactly, actually. The vertical sandstone, the ruddy buttes, the outlandish abundance of water – it’s a scene ripped straight from a classic Western, except John Wayne is riding a WaveRunner, not a saddlebred.
Straddling the Arizona-Utah border, Lake Powell – famously created by the flooding and damming of Glen Canyon in 1963 – is one of America’s great visual feasts, and a mandatory bucket list destination for any Arizonan. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s also an appealing and accessible off-season retreat, when mobs of summer revelers and slip-sliding spring breakers are still many desert moons away.
For such a massive body of water, the lake is coy about letting people in. Sitting in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Powell covers 260 square miles, or about half the total surface area of Phoenix. However, the entire shoreline is protected by steep sandstone walls, which function as natural barriers against wildcat boaters and the like. As such, entry is limited to a handful of developed public marinas, including two in Arizona.
Following Highway 89 north from Flagstaff will conveniently spill you onto Wahweap Marina (100 Lake Shore Dr., Page, 928-645-2433) in the lakeside hamlet of Page, but a short jog east just outside of town will take you to Antelope Point Marina (533 Marina Pkwy, Page, 928-645-5900, antelopepointlakepowell.com), the brainchild of Valley billionaire Jerry Moyes and the Mercedes-Benz of Powell ingress. Opened in 2002, and operated on land leased from the Navajo Nation, the facility boasts a large armada of rentable houseboats and pleasure craft, along with a floating restaurant called Ja’di’Tooh that serves a mean stone-fired Hawaiian pizza – and a pretty decent selection of Arizona beers, to boot.
Antelope Point also operates a winch-powered wakeboard park, and offers guided fishing tours (the lake is packed to the gills with bass, catfish and walleye) and pleasure cruises. Anyway you want to attack the lake, the facility seemingly has an answer. That includes a small helipad near the parking lot where Kyle from Unlimited Aviation (928-645-2987, unlimitedaviation.com) is waiting with his four-seat Robinson R44 to ferry me over the lake and nearby Tower Butte. Viewed from on-high, Powell is spectacular and cathedral-like, a piece of improbable earthen architecture done in orange and ochre. You also get a sense of its unique shape from above; it looks like a giant, thrombotic vein, with thousands of capillary-like slot canyons peeling off from the main body. Pretty soon, I’ll be feasting on those intriguing tendrils of wilderness, and the helicopter ride serves as a nice prelude to the adventuring to come.
Pitching a Tent
If you go on YouTube, you’ll find all kinds of crazy Lake Powell party videos – mostly sunburnt college kids leaping and sliding off large stationary objects, including one snippet involving a houseboat, a giant movie-set-size inflatable bouncer, and what one can only imagine are several kegs of domestic beer stored below-deck.
Such reckless hijinks would have been appealing to me 20 years ago – or, maybe, three years ago – but now all I want is some exercise, a safe environment for my toddlers and a few peaceful moments to zone out on some pretty scenery while contemplating the ephemeral preciousness of things. In a hot tub, preferably.
Save the hot tub, one can achieve these ambitions by simply staking out a piece of beach and camping on the lake. From early October to early March, Lake Powell is relatively quiet by peak-season standards; you see some people here and there, a speedboat now and then, but finding a private alcove or beach head to call your own is beyond easy. With a GPS-equipped smart phone, navigation is easy, too – though the lake is also dotted with numbered navigational bouys for the technology-averse. Fire pits, tents and water sports – it’s a great way to enjoy the lake, and a weekend runabout boat rental to ferry your belongings and pull your wakeboard will cost about $1,500 for three days at Antelope Point.
If the hot tub is non-negotiable, you can always upgrade to that mythic symbol of American leisure: the houseboat. At Antelope Point, a three-day rental ranges from $2,100 for a bare-bones model that sleeps six people, to about $6,000 for a Direct TV-enabled, hot-tub-equipped double-decker with six bedrooms that sleeps 15. Expensive? A bit. But if you’re splitting it between four families, the outlay is roughly akin to a resort weekend.
Insiders say there’s an art to choosing your houseboat beach head among the countless furrows and mini-bays of Lake Powell: You want somewhere semi-sheltered, to spare your crew turbulence from passing speedboats and the like, but not so cramped that you remove yourself too far from the action. On our trip, we settle for a beach just outside the mouth of Labyrinth Bay, a pleasant two-hour cruise from Antelope Point Marina on the lower half of the lake. Anchored to the beach by four sturdy tethers, our 70-foot Gold-class houseboat affords us commanding panoramic views fore and aft: in front of us, Utah’s gorgeous Gunsight Bay; behind us, the beachside state border and much explorable Arizona terrain. This is bicoastal living, Lake Powell-style.
Into the Labyrinth
There are two advantages to anchoring at Labyrinth Bay. First, you have a view of Powell at its absolute widest point, where it looks like some crazy extraterrestrial sea. (No coincidence that portions of Planet of the Apes and Gravity were filmed here.) Second, Labyrinth offers an excellent home base to hunt Powell’s most prized quarry: the slot canyon.
Kayak rentals run $60 a day at Antelope Point, and the oar-powered conveyances prove to be our most in-demand accessories during the trip. Gliding across Labyrinth Bay at dusk, the profound silence of the morning undone only by the rhythmic slapping of our oars, we plunge into the slot, craning our heads upward to meet the vertical sandstone walls. Formed by eons of erosion, these narrow, fluted crevasses once rose hundreds of feet above the dry Glen Canyon floor. Now we float at their pinnacles like dirigibles navigating skyscrapers. Pretty trippy.
One of the coolest things about Powell is its amorphousness – its shape changes literally by the season, depending on water levels. Currently, the lake is about 15 feet lower than its peak 1982 level, which makes it a bit tricky to navigate in spots, but has also revealed new nooks and exit-spots in slots such as this. We paddle up to one, tie off the kayak and indulge in a short hike to the top of the canyon.
The one drawback of kayaking: It’s quite pokey. To pack any significant sightseeing into a Powell weekend – including an excursion to the famed Rainbow Bridge, the world’s largest natural bridge formation – you’ll need a motorboat. Antelope Point Charters (928-645-5900) offers half and full-day excursions, and will taxi to and from your houseboat or camp spot. Our pilot, Ann, knows the ins and outs of lower Lake Powell like Paul McCartney knows the bassline for “Come Together,” and finds us a sun-drenched, secluded lagoon about an hour from the houseboat. It’s not summer – far from it – but the water is simply too inviting not to leap into.
“How is it?” Ann calls from the boat.
The truth? Not so bad. Maybe next time, we’ll bring one of those big inflatable stuntman bouncers. Or at least some waterskis.
Insider Tip: Top Three Times to Visit
According to Lake Powell locals, these lesser-known dates offer good alternatives to the spring break/Fourth of July mob scenes.
Mid-October: The crowds thin by several factors after school starts, and the weather is optimal, with average high temperatures in the mid-80s.
July 11 weekend: The weekend after Independence Day is dependably low-key, with the summer’s sparsest crowds.
Early March: Visit in the first or second week of spring, before the Animal House scene kicks in.
Five Things to Do at Lake Powell
Rainbow Bridge. The lake’s signature geological feature is a three-hour boat trip from Page, but the scenery en route is so fantastic, you won’t mind the journey.
Helicopter Ride. View Powell from the 1,000-foot mesa of Canyon Butte. Unlimited Aviation (see story) will fly you to the top of the thing ($199).
Ice Cream. Accessible only by boat or helicopter, Dangling Rope Marina is perhaps the remotest ice cream parlor in America. A summertime favorite.
Tide pool exploration. As water levels recede, Lake Powell leaves garrisons of mini-lakes in the rock. Find these “weathering holes” at Padre Bay near buoy 19.
Underwater ghost town. Located at the north end of Powell, the town of Hite disappeared with the flooding of Glen Canyon. Make an excursion of it.
Houseboat Tip: Outsource the Shopping
Time is literally precious when you’re renting a houseboat. The last thing you want to be doing is grocery shopping and galley-stocking when you should be enjoying the water. One novel solution: Let Page-based Lake Powell Groceries buy the butter and bananas for you. Founded seven years ago by James and Josie Doyle, the shopping service will – for a 10 percent fee and $125 surcharge – do all your shopping and provision your boat before you even arrive, so you can hit the water the moment your luggage hits the bed. “We do between four and six orders a day during high season,” Josie says. That’s a lot of bananas.
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