The first glimpse is surreal—a vast sapphire body of water shimmering against a backdrop of picturesque, orange-hued sandstone buttes. At 186 miles long and with more than 90 side canyons that snake into the desert landscape, Lake Powell holds the title as the second largest artificial lake in America.
Honestly, we prefer our lakes created by nature, and our rivers running free. But Lake Powell, straddling the border between Arizona and Utah, happens to be close to some unique places that have long been on our list—Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Lower Antelope Canyon, and Horseshoe Bend, among others. And so, mid-May found us at Wahweap campground on the shores of Lake Powell, just upstream from Glen Canyon Dam. With our apologies to Edward Abbey and the Sierra Club (both of whom ardently opposed the dam), this is an undeniably beautiful place.
Once a remote desert canyon, Lake Powell came into existence after the dam was completed in 1963. An ambitious 10-year project that corralled the mighty Colorado River, the dam was built to control the flow of water downstream and generate a cheap supply of electricity. As perhaps a not-so-surprising side note, Lake Powell has become a mecca for water recreation in the arid Southwest.
But damming the river has come at a high price—as the lake filled, it drowned canyons of legendary beauty and hundreds of archeological sites sacred to the native peoples. The environmental issues are equally devastating, from pollutants caused by heavy recreational usage to erosion and loss of native species. Everything and everyone downstream has been affected—including the Grand Canyon, a close neighbor. Obstructing the natural flow of the river also means that the reservoir behind the dam—Lake Powell—is slowly filling up with mud.
More than five decades after the last bucket of concrete was poured, Glen Canyon Dam continues to be plagued by controversy. (It’s obviously a complicated situation, but if you’re interested, the Glen Canyon Institute presents an intelligent discussion of the issues.) Whatever your point of view, in another 150 years, the dam will likely be obsolete. By then, Lake Powell will have amassed enough silt to significantly impact storage capacity, and the dam will be decommissioned. However, proponents of removing the dam advocate acting sooner rather than later to facilitate cleanup and restoration of the canyon (as you can imagine, it’s easier to remove 50 years of silt than 200 years accumulation).
In years to come—probably not in our lifetimes—there will be those fortunate to once again explore the beautiful canyons that currently lie beneath the lake. As for us, we thoroughly enjoyed short hikes to nearby Horseshoe Bend and Hanging Garden, both within the National Recreation Area, as well as a guided trip into Lower Antelope Canyon. These are not places one can commune with nature in solitude—especially the famed photography destinations of Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon. But they’re renowned for good reason, and well worth a visit.
Antelope Canyon lies just outside of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on Navajo Nation Land. An extraordinarily beautiful slot canyon famous for a just-right combination of sculpted sandstone walls, color, and ambient light, it’s the most visited and photographed slot canyon in the Southwest. If you go, expect to be in a herd. Despite the crowds, we thought it was worth the $26 entrance fee (per person). The tours are well run, and our guide was enthusiastic and informed.
We’ve visited both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons, and prefer the lower canyon—it’s much less crowded, and in our opinion, more interesting. The half-mile walk through the canyon involves steep stairways and tight passages, so if you’re claustrophobic, this tour isn’t for you. Some photographers favor the upper canyon because the light shafts at certain times of day are especially striking, but we think both canyons are equally beautiful. If you go, choose a sunny day—that’s when you’ll see the best colors in the canyon.
We also experienced—I can’t say enjoyed—kayaking on Lake Powell. We put in at Antelope Point Marina, intending to explore some of the side canyons. Too many speedboats and too many people not paying attention to the “No Wake” signs made it more stressful than fun. In talking later with a kayak guide, he recommended putting in before 7:30 in the morning or after 3:30 in the afternoon—and never on a weekend.
Last but certainly not least, we enjoyed meeting up with fellow full-time RV’ers Mike and Kathie (Life Rebooted) who also happened to be staying at Wahweap. We had fun sharing happy hour and stories of the traveling life on a scorching afternoon at our site—it was so hot that I couldn’t motivate myself to get out of my chair to get my camera. We hope to catch up with them in Florida this winter—and we’ll be sure to get a photo next time around.
About the RV Park: Wahweap RV Park and campground is within the National Recreation Area but run by a concessionaire. The park is well kept and the views are amazing—depending on your site. The older section (loops A, B, C) is tiered, with spacious pull-through and back-in sites, asphalt or concrete pads, and full hookups. (We stayed in loop C in a back-in site and loved it.) The newer section (D and F) is laid-out in typical RV-park rows. Nice bathrooms, coin operated showers and laundry, and decent Verizon coverage. It’s an expensive option for a National Recreation Area ($44 per night with AAA discount!) but it was a relaxing stay with a gorgeous view.
Next Up: A Spectacular Hike In Buckskin Gulch