Eleventh Stop – Lake Powell, May 22 and 23

Our revised plan had been to visit Zion National Park after Bryce, but we decided that we were a bit overdosed on canyon scenery and called yet another audible to divert to Lake Powell, which is on the border between Utah and Arizona. Since we had a short 145 mile drive ahead of us, we took our time departing from Ruby’s RV Park, leaving at about 10:45, headed for Wahweap RV Park, which is next to Lake Powell, inside the Glen Canyon National Recreational Area. To get there, we backtracked on Route 63 and Route 12, to get to Route 89, where we continued south. There was more traffic headed that way than there had been getting to Bryce, but that might be because it was a weekday with more commercial traffic. It was an easy drive, losing elevation most of the way, and ending up at about 3800 feet.

Pretty much the entire drive was in Utah until the final mile or so, when we crossed into Arizona, where (as I mentioned before) they don’t observe daylight savings time, so it’s an hour earlier there than in Utah. Therefore, we got there at 12:45 local time, with the odometer reading 5157 miles. The campground is privately run, but inside the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, so we went through the park gate. It’s a hefty $30 fee to get into the park if you don’t have an America the Beautiful Pass, and I think we have now used that enough to have gotten our money’s worth (the pass only gets you into the parks, camping is always an extra charge).

The Wahweap RV Park is large, very pleasant, and well-managed. We were in Loop D, where I think they put most of the larger RV’s. They have the only trees for miles around, which look to be about 15 years old and are obviously irrigated to stay alive in this climate. When we left Bryce, it was about 45 degrees, by the time we arrived at Glen Canyon, it was up to about 85, with bright sunshine and not a cloud in the sky. From our campsite, it is about 200 yards to Utah (where it is an hour later).

Campsite at Wahweap RV Park. Only trees for miles around

We took a walk to cross the state line and to check out the Wahweap area, which is where there is a resort as well as the campground. There is a massive boat ramp there, by far the largest I have ever seen, and we happened to see a tractor trailer pulling a houseboat for launching, so we walked down the ramp to watch that.

Huge boat ramp
Launching small houseboat at huge boat ramp.

Lake Powell is a man-made lake, formed by the Glen Canyon Dam. Since we had plenty of time after setting up camp and eating lunch, we headed over to the Glen Canyon Visitors center, which is on Route 89 at the east side of the dam (the Colorado runs pretty much north – south at this location. It is a nice visitor center with a lot of information about the dam and the surrounding territory. In addition, you can take a tour of the dam, which we elected to do. The dam is 710 feet high, and took about 10 years to build, with 5,000,000 tons of concrete continuously poured from 1963 through 1966. It is actually bigger than the more famous Hoover Dam near Las Vegas. Its primary purpose is to store water from the Colorado, which is a primary source of water for all of the southwestern states, but whose flow (without the dam as a buffer) varies widely from season to season and year to year. Lake Powell is the second largest reservoir in the country, holding 29 million acre-feet when it is completely full. It is part of the water system for the upper basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona), and there is a complicated and controversial water usage agreement between the states that requires a certain amount of water flow through to the lower basin states. A secondary purpose is to generate electricity, and it has a capacity of 1900 megawatts, which is sold at cost by the government to the southwestern power grid.

View straight down the dam to the downstream side.
Power Station at the base of the dam. There is a large tunnel that goes down there, but it is closed to private vehicles.

There was quite a controversy over both the need for and the placement of the dam, since its construction flooded a large area with scenic canyons that are typical of the Colorado Plateau. Another site that was also considered would have flooded Dinosaur National Monument, which must have been thought to be more environmentally important, so Glen Canyon lost out.

There is quite a bit of security at the dam. To go on the tour, you leave any bags, pocket knives, etc. behind, and go through an airport-style metal detector. On top of the dam, there were a number of armed guards, and they tell you that they cannot be in any of the photographs that you take. The tour starts at the top of the dam, where one of the buckets that poured concrete was on display, along with one of the water turbines that generates electricity. The turbine on display was one of the ten originally installed in the 1960’s. Having reached the end of their service life, they were replaced in the early 2000’s with more efficient, all stainless steel turbines.

20-ton bucket, used to pour concrete on the dam in the ’60s
One of the original turbines from Glen Canyon Dam
Glen Canyon Dam Bridge over the Colorado River from top of the Dam

Generally, the tour goes down inside the dam to the bottom where the turbines are located, but unfortunately the elevator was closed for maintenance. There are stairs, but it’s the equivalent of 53 floors to get down there from the top of the dam, so they don’t use them for the tour. It’s a dizzying drop looking over the top of the dam, particularly to the downstream side, where the water level is about 500 feet below that of the upstream side.

The water level in Lake Powell varies greatly. It was first completely full in 1980, but the west has been in a drought since 1999, and it hasn’t been close to full in that time. This past winter was the wettest in 20 years, and the water level is currently rising about 7 inches per day. They are projecting a total rise of 57 feet, but that will still be well short of full. Currently, the dam is impounding approximately half of what it would at full pond.

View along the top of Glen Canyon Dam

Having learned that, we now knew why the boat ramp had to be so huge – the water level varies more than 100 feet. It also explained one geological feature that seemed odd – the lower part of all the cliffs was a whitish color rather than the more common reddish-brown. That is calcium carbonate deposited from when the water level is high. You can see the high water mark that was set during floods in 1983.

After the tour, we watched two of the interesting movies that they show in the Visitor’s Center, with more about the local geology and the dam.

On Tuesday, we went on a boat tour on Lake Powell. The tour left at 9:00 (Arizona time) from a dock at the Wahweap Resort and Marina. The weather was perfect – clear blue sky with temperature in the high 70’s (headed for the mid-80’s by afternoon). At a large dock area adjacent to the one the tour boat dock, there were hundreds of houseboats, some privately owned and some for rent. Later in the tour we passed an even larger dock on Navajo land, which appeared to have the larger and even more fancy houseboats. I guess they must manufacture them on the lake somewhere – I can’t see how else they could get them there.

Houseboats on Lake Powell.

According to the boat tour guide, since Lake Powell is a National Park, if you own a houseboat, you aren’t allowed to live on it, and in fact you can spend a maximum of 30 nights onboard. I wonder how closely that is monitored, and how it applies to multi-owner houseboats.

There were about 40 people on the tour, and most of them seemed to think the canyon scenery that we sailed through was spectacular, practically wearing out their smartphones and cameras clicking away. Maybe we have become jaded, having seen Arches, Canyonland and Bryce, but we were far less impressed. In my opinion, the calcium carbonate white stain that shows the high-water mark (and which the locals aptly refer to as the “bathtub ring”) ruins the view, so we took only a few pictures. Judge for yourself.

Castle Rock, near the start of the boat tour
Entrance to Antelope Canyon. White marks the high water mark of the dam
Antelope Canyon

Without the water storage capacity of Lake Powell, Los Angeles, Pheonix, Las Vegas, other southwestern cities that rely heavily on the Colorado River for their water supply could not exist in their present state – the water supply would not be reliable enough. So I guess Glen Canyon dam (or a similar dam at another location) was inevitable. It is a shame that it has degraded what was once spectacular scenery, but there is no shortage of that out here in Colorado. The locals (and tourists) appreciate the opportunity to fish and boat on the lake, too.

In the afternoon, we decided to check out Page. To get there, you cross the bridge that is just above the dam. Shortly after the bridge, there’s a scenic viewpoint where you get a great view of the dam, the bridge, and the 600-foot cliff that goes down to the Colorado downstream of the dam.

View of Glen Canyon Dam and Bridge from Page, AZ side of River
View of Colorado River, downstream from Glen Canyon Dam
Tuesday’s selfie

The bridge was built to facilitate construction of the dam – workers were housed in what they described as the “world’s largest trailer park” in Page. The legacy of that remains, as many of the residences are trailers with more permanent houses grafted onto the side. We didn’t find any charming historic district in Page, but we did find El Tapatio, an excellent Mexican restaurant where we enjoyed a very good dinner.

Lake Powell was a pleasant enough stop, certainly less crowded and hectic than Zion National Park would have been.