Winding Our Way to Lake Powell

12/15/2011

By Jim Favors

We enjoyed our three, relaxing, sun soaked, days at anchor in Lake Tahoe immensely; part of our time there was spent talking about, planning for and researching our next stop, Lake Powell. From Lake Tahoe it’s roughly 750 miles to Wahweap Marina and our launch site for our two-week exploration of Lake Powell. You’ve most likely heard the statement, “You can’t get there from here.” Well, I can tell you first hand, there really is no shortcut and in our case we almost had to back track once we arrived at the entrance of Utah’s Zion National Park. Although there is another way to get to our destination, without driving through the park, it’s really not the most direct route and probably not as scenic.

Boater-homing in n RV park in Springdale, AZ, the only way this could be better is if it was on the water.

Lisa and I took our time driving to Lake Powell by spending three nights “Boater Homing” at RV parks along the way. We arrived early to our planned stop the third day, just outside the entrance to Zion National Park it was only 110 miles northwest of Lake Powell. Our objective was to see the rocky, natural beauty that Zion is so famous for, take the shortest route to and arrive at Lake Powell early enough to launch and get settled into a slip at Wahweap Marina.

Everything was going as planned until we saw a Zion park sign that indicated we might have a problem. It was a warning sign, this one had to do with a vehicle’s limitations driving through the mile-long, Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, not too far into the park. Basically the sign stated that if a vehicle was more then 7’10” wide and/or 11’4” in height or larger (tunnel height is 13’ 1”) that said vehicle required a tunnel escort. At 8’6” wide and 11’8” high I deduced we’d have to pay the $15.00 for the escort pass to qualify to drive through the tunnel. Reading a little further on the sign I saw another ominous line that stated combined vehicles over 50’ are prohibited. Because we are about 55’ in combined length my anxiety level started to rise, I really didn’t want to back track, drive an additional 100 miles and miss the experience of driving through the scenic Zion National Park altogether. We decided to proceed to the Ranger Station none-the-less, a little nervous about what would transpire.

Stopping to take photos and enjoy the sights at Zion National Park.

“Where do you think you’re going?” we were immediately asked by a park ranger as he eyeballed our rig’s configuration. I replied, “Lake Powell.” to which, much to our dismay, he said, “I’m not so sure about that!” and that’s when all the questions were asked and rules and disclaimers were explained to us. After divulging to the ranger that we were about 55’ long and 11’8” at the highest point (the smokestack – we always lower our mast when we travel) he agreed that we weren’t any bigger than most tour buses that go through the park every day and agreed to let us go through with the purchase of the escort pass. That was music to our ears.

After negotiating five or six uphill, hairpin switchbacks on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway we arrived at the western entrance of the burrowed, rock tunnel, (first opened in 1930) and our short cut to Lake Powell. The sign at the entrance to the tunnel stated the peak clearance height was 13’1”, which gave us a 1’5” margin of error to be able to clear the boat’s smokestack, if we drove right down the middle of the tunnel. With an escort pass in hand the westbound traffic was halted so we could traverse the tunnel by driving down the center. There was no physical escort just the pass itself was needed. It was more than a little unnerving, trying to maintain the center position in order to optimize our air draft, all the while only traveling at 10 to 20 mph, in pitch-black darkness if it was not for our headlights. Luckily, we made it through without any problems; much like we’ve made our way through shallow water so many times in the past. I’m finding out that trailering our boat really isn’t much different than cruising on water, both require us to know where we’re going, be aware of our surroundings, plan ahead, pay attention and trust our equipment.

Waiting in line for our turn to drive through the tunnel.

Once safely through the tunnel, after making a few roadside stops to take in Zion’s grandeur, we arrived at the western end of Lake Powell and Wahweap Marina. We had been talking about boating on Lake Powell for over 20 years, but we always thought it would be on a rented houseboat. Well, after dreaming about it for so many years the time had finally arrived and we would not be disappointed, especially since we had allotted two whole weeks to explore the lake and to make our trip even better, we were going to be on our own boat.

Wahweap Marina was our base camp as we waited out the three-day storm and prepared for our Lake Powell adventure.

As we neared Wahweap Marina and it came into sight, we were in awe of the view that stood before us, the 1.2 million acres of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the home of Lake Powell. We left route 89, entered the park and, after passing inspection for invasive species, motored to a stop in the prep lane to experience the widest and longest boat ramp we’d ever seen. I couldn’t help but marvel that until 1963 this was still the wild, deep canyon area the mighty Colorado River ran through. It was on that date in 1963 that the Glen Canyon Dam had been completed and the diversion tunnels at the dam were closed off to allow Lake Powell to begin filling up. It would take 17 years for the Lake to reach full pool, at 3,700 feet above sea level.

The primary benefit of building Glen Canyon Dam was to generate hydroelectricity and control water flow from the upper Colorado basin to the lower. The ancillary benefit was the creation of the second largest, man-made, body of water in the United States, Lake Powell. At 186 miles long, with water depths as deep as 500 feet and 1960 miles of shoreline, one can easily reason why it took 17 years to flood the 96 named major canyons to create Lake Powell.

The mother of all boat ramps, so long you can hardly see where it begins.

Prepping Kismet for launch these days includes raising the mast and antenna, reinstalling the plug (important we dont forget that item) and the putting up the cockpit canvas, along with setting up the fenders and dock lines all before we drove forward down the airstrip sized boat ramp at Wahweap Marina. You read that correctly, we drove forward down the ramp! This thing is so wide and long, you need to do it this way otherwise youd be backing up, down a steep hill, for what seems like a mile or more. When we got close to the shoreline we did a 180-degree turn so we could then back into Lake Powell and launch Kismet into what became our home away from home for the next two weeks however wed have to wait three days before our adventures on the water could actually begin.

This is how the Colorado River looks today below the dam and how the canyons just above the dam must have looked like before they were flooded to make Lake Powell.

Lisa and I are fairly cautious as it relates to boating in bad weather. Even if youre careful, if you boat long enough, you will at some point get caught out in high wind and bigger seas than youd like. We knew wed be staying at the marina for at least one night so that we could get organized, but upon checking the weather it appeared we should consider staying tied to the dock for a few days. A cold front was moving through the Lake Powell area expecting to generate high winds, with gusts up to 40 mph, so we decide to wait it out and proceed when conditions were more ideal. As it turned out our decision was well advised because for three days the winds would kick up so strong, we had white caps inside the marina basin. Going into unfamiliar waters with bad weather unfolding would have been a recipe for disaster, besides, boating and exploring new territory is supposed to be fun.

This birds eye view was taken from the top of Glen Canyon Dam during our tour.

With time on our hands we drove into Page, Arizona so we could provision for our trip. In doing so we had to drive across the Glen Canyon Bridge. To the left we saw the backed up waters of Lake Powell being held by the massive arch walls of the dam, at 720 feet its the second tallest dam in the United States. To our right and 638 feet below the bridge we saw, for the first time, the Colorado River and what the canyon looked like for thousands of years before the Glen Canyon Dam was built. What a spectacular sight.

Perched on a ridge above the dam is the Carl B Hayden Visitor Center which offers guided tours into the dam and along with a knowledgeable tour guide who relays the history and the construction of the dam and education of its purpose in addition to the history of the surrounding area. Being caught up on chores and waiting for clear weather, we decided to learn more about how Lake Powell came to be by taking one of these guided tours.

This is a model showing all the flooded canyons and main rivers that make up Lake Powell, it is prominently on display at the visitors center for the dam.

Our tour started with an elevator ride down to the top of the dam. While walking along the ridge (25 feet wide), I got a little queasy when I looked over the arched concrete structure with the Colorado River over 600 feet below. I heard from our tour guide that the concrete I was standing on began to be poured, non-stop and around the clock on June 17, 1960 and continued until the dam walls were complete on September 13, 1963, a span of over three years. In that time 5-million cubic yards of concrete were used. For perspective, thats enough concrete to pave a four-lane highway from Phoenix, Arizona to Chicago, Illinois.

We proceeded into another elevator that took us down to the base of the dam (300 thick) to where the eight turbines are located they generate the hydroelectricity, the main reason for the dams construction. As mentioned before the ancillary benefit of the dam was the creation of Lake Powell. By the end of our tour we were both anxious to get out onto the water.