Lake Powell - Glen Canyon Dam

The Story

Overview - Map - Description - Things to Do - Camping/Lodging - Nearby

The lake and more than 1 million acres of desert and canyon country offer leisure-time activities for American and international visitors. Fishing and water sports are the dominant activities. Exploring on foot can provide intimate contact with the natural and cultural features preserved here for the enjoyment of present and future generations. Earth forces shaped this topography that now appears as talus slopes, buttes, mesas, canyons and cliffs. Prehistoric human inhabitants occupied the area and left scattered indications of their presence.

Born amid controversy and compromise, the dam fulfills its goals of water storage and power generation and provides major recreational opportunities. The resulting lake enables many people to view natural marvels and cultural features once accessible to only a determined few. Construction of the concrete arch dam began in 1956, and the final 2 generating units began providing power in 1966.

Concrete for the arch dam and power plant was poured around the clock for more than 3 years. The dam's crest is 1, 560 feet long. It lies 710 feet above bedrock and 583 feet above the original river channel. At its full-pool elevation of 3,700 feet, Lake Powell measures 560 feet deep at the dam.

The lake reached full pool level in 1980. The spillways were used in that year and again in 1983 to handle the rising lake level caused by floodwaters. Lake Powell's presence in a desert landscape has modified the species of plants and animals that now inhabit Glen Canyon. Today, Lake Powell is one of the Southwest's finest lake recreation areas, yearly discovered by more and more vacationers.

Native People

The first major human migration into North America from Asia may have occurred from 15,000 to 12,000 years ago. In relatively small groups, these people dispersed quickly throughout North and South America and lived in isolation for thousands of years. The tribes in this area, which we call Desert Archaic people, were hunters and gatherers. Their continuing subsistence needs left little opportunity for development of so called higher cultural traits or for population growth.

About 2,000 years ago a major cultural change-from causes about which we can only speculate -- transformed these nomads into relatively stationary farmers now called Basket-makers. Their weaving materials included cotton, which was introduced to them by groups living to the south. As they incorporated other ideas from the southern cultures, including above-ground houses, these Basketmakers evolved into the culture we call Anasazi.

Notable builders, the Anasazi developed complex stone houses called pueblos by Spanish explorers. Their granaries nestle in sandstone alcoves and their drawings adorn canyon walls. Pottery shards lie scattered about. Climate changes drove out the agricultural Anasazi, probable ancestors of today's Hopi Indians, by about 1300.


Early Spanish explorers traveled the area looking for an overland route to California and left us a detailed account of their expedition. Major John Wesley Powell also chronicled the first expedition down the Colorado River. Powell named this stretch of the Colorado River Glen Canyon. Not long after his voyage, permanent settlements were established at the easiest and most reliable river crossings. An early writer about water issues and limits in this arid country, Powell eventually was honored by having the lake named for him.

In 1776, two Spanish priests began an expedition that provided the first written record of Glen Canyon. Father Dominguez, Father Escalante, and their party set out from Santa Fe in July to pioneer an overland route to a military garrison on the California coast. After 3 months, having bypassed the canyon country, the party reached the Great Basin in Utah, where they decided to turn back before the onset of winter.

On October 26, the party reached the Colorado River at the mouth of the Paria River. When crossing there proved nearly disastrous, the explorers climbed out of the river bottom and made camp near today's Wahweap Marina. They spent 4 more days searching for a way across the river. Finally, on November 7, they chopped steps in the sandstone wall at Padre Creek and safely led their pack stock to the banks of the Colorado. Here the crossing was wide but shallow. The Crossing of the Fathers today lies beneath the waters of Padre Bay.

Another journey of discovery began nearly 100 years after the Dominguez-Escalante expedition. Major John Wesley Powell, a 1-armed Civil War veteran, set out to determine these lands' potential for reclamation. In May 1869, Powell and his crew of 9 men left Green River, Wyoming, to follow the fabled Colorado. On July 28, they entered Glen Canyon and found its waters calm compared with the rapids of Cataract Canyon. Their trip eventually look took them through the Grand Canyon and on to the mouth of the Virgin River in Nevada.


Railroad men with visions of a line from Grand Junction, Colorado, to the Gulf of California explored farther along the Colorado River. They declared the route feasible and said the trains could be powered by electricity generated from the flow of the river, but their bankers disagreed. Next came the settlers and, with them, the indispensable ferrymen.


Although the Colorado River is accessible near the mouth of the Paria, as Dominguez and Escalante discovered, it cannot be crossed easily. John D. Lee was sent here by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church) to build and operate a ferry. He built the Lonely Dell Ranch (known today as Lees Crossing, Arizona) for Emma Lee, his 17th wife, a few miles below Glen Canyon Dam.

By 1873 Lee had built a ferryboat named the Colorado. He was executed in 1877 for his part in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the attack by Mormons and Paiutes on California-bound settlers. The Mormon Church eventually bought the enterprise from Emma. The ferry ran continuously until 1928. It was replaced by Navajo Bridge which was completed across Marble Canyon in 1929.

Mormon settlers sent to colonize the San Juan Valley created a river crossing at Hole-In-The-Rock (Utah), just below the confluence of the Colorado and Escalante rivers 100 miles upstream from the dam These hardy pioneers blasted, cut and fabricated a road 3/4 of a mile long that descended nearly 1,000 feet.

Charles Hall, a member of that party, later found a somewhat better crossing about 35 miles further upstream. He ferried travelers across the Colorado at Halls Crossing (Utah) until Cass Hite found and developed another, still more accessible crossing. The ferry and the town of Hite, Utah remained active until flooded by the rising waters of Lake Powell. Cass Hite also found gold in the river's sands, and prospectors searched the canyon and surrounding plateaus for riches. The gold was mostly too fine to be mined commercially, and few miners profited from their efforts.

Natural History

Plants & Animals

Most plants and animals found here are typical of desert species. Cactus, yucca, blackbrush, rabbitbrush and grasses dominate desert plant communities. Spring or summer precipitation prompts sand lilies, fleabane, evening primrose, lupine, Indian paintbrush and globe mallow to bloom. Pinyon and juniper trees grow at higher elevations. Animal inhabitants include coyotes, foxes, rats, mice, lizards and insects. In startling contrast, shaded, spring-fed alcoves in side canyons provide suitable habitat for deer and beaver, ferns and sedges, reeds and cattails, cottonwoods and willows. Ravens, eagles, hawks, owls, sparrows and swallows are regular residents of the canyon country, where canyon wrens sing their unforgettable song.


The spectacular landscape dominating this canyon country is the product of eons of geologic activity: shifting of continents, global rising and falling of sea levels and creation of highlands now worn and redeposited. At times, desert dominated the landscape; sometimes, freshwater or saltwater seas invaded, leaving rivers to erode the most recently deposited layers. Prevailing winds abetted the process. Periods of erosion account for missing rock strata, layers appearing elsewhere in sequence.

The last uplift of the Colorado Plateau began about 60 million years ago. Uplift made meandering streams of the Colorado River run faster and cut the canyons that are Lake Powell's basin. Navajo sandstone, the dominant formation, is made of sand dunes hardened by pressure from deposits above them. The deposits eventually wore away and exposed today's sandstone. Other layers contain sea deposited sediments; still others hold fossils of land or marine organisms that lived millions of years ago. Petrified wood and fossils of dinosaur bones, sea shells and small sea creatures are found in several rock strata in this area.

Lake Powell video
Boater's Guide to Lake Powell
Lake Powell - Glen Canyon NRA Map

Colorado River Glen Canyon



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