Lake Powell Offers Accessibility
To Desert Wilderness

Text and Photos by George Oxford Miller

The whole idea of exploring the desert by boat sounds like an oxymoron, and it was until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came along and dammed the Colorado River. Now, Lake Powell stretches its watery fingers into the narrow hearts of canyons that once took weeks of hiking to reach. The lake made accessible, sights and wonders once reserved for only the most hardy explorer.

Lake Powell rockfaceOur tour boat cruises past picturesque mountains named Gunsight Butte, Hole-in-the-Rock, Castle Rock and Last Chance Bay. The captain steers into Little Arch Canyon and powers back until we inch through the winding corridor. Light reflects off the red walls and fills the canyon with a rosy hue. Sparkling sunbeams bounce off the water and dance on overhanging grottos. With each turn, the 500-foot-high walls close in until we can almost touch the sides. We watch in whispered silence as the captain nudges the boat forward. The hull almost touches the sheer walls before he stops and backs out.

The jaunt into Little Arch Canyon only wets our appetite for the scenic majesty hidden within the secret recesses. Erosion usually gets a bad rap, but it created a wonderland in the red-rock country. Eons of weathering carved the sandstone heart of the desert into unmatched masterpieces of architecture. We disembark at our next stop for a closer inspection of the region's most awesome formation.

Five tribes of Indians consider Rainbow Bridge sacred. European eyes didn't gaze on the hallowed structure until 1909, when two Paiute guides led explorers to the arch. One year later, President Taft gave it the protection of a national monument. Before Lake Powell flooded Glen Canyon in 1963, reaching the formation required a 3-day trip by jet-boat down the Colorado River, then a 7-mile hike. Now, it's a 2-hour boat ride from Wahweap Marina outside Page, Arizona.

Lake Powell rainbow bridge

Our tour boat edges up to the floating dock, and we hurry ashore like penitents on pilgrimage. The stone bridge in the distance beckons with a reality that transcends all the postcard and calendar photos we've seen. Even at close range, its proportions in stone and time are hard to grasp. A small creek once formed a horseshoe bend around a narrow fin of sandstone cliff. Over eons, the stream cut through the cliff and formed the 275-foot-long span. Wind, rain, and freezing water continue to chisel away at the 42-foot-thick, 33-foot-wide edifice.

Red sandstone, blue sky, emerald water. The sublime beauty of the scene pumps me full of endorphins. It makes me want to paint, to sculpt, to compose poetry. Now, I understand why the Anasazi covered the West with pictographs and Native Americans chant and dance. The Creative Force of the canyons stimulates the creative force within and demands a response. I stand silently in the cold shadow of the 290-foot-high bridge and let the power of nature take hold. I respond in my own creative way -- I snap off three rolls of film.

A Salt Lake City television crew is filming the natural bridge for an outdoors program. "We just can't capture the beauty of this country on video," Doug Miller, the producer, says. "TV can't substitute for the experience of being here."

A houseboat holiday

Lake Powell houseboat

The half-day boat tour primes us for exploring Lake Powell's serpentine canyons. Ninety-six major side canyons radiate from the 186-mile-long lake. Its 1,960 miles of shoreline exceed the length of the entire west coast. For what amounts to about $35 dollars a day per person, a group of 8 can rent a basic houseboat for a week. For day excursions, power and fishing boats are available.

We get one for two days and travel about an hour from Wahweap Marina to Padre Bay. We find a sandy beach near the Crossing of the Fathers. In 1776, two priests named Dominguez and Escalante led an expedition in search of an overland route to California. They crossed the Colorado River here on their return to Santa Fe. We can still see remnants of the steps they cut in the steep sandstone slopes to provide footing for their pack animals. The rest disappear into 500 feet of water.

Flooding Glen Canyon created a firestorm of protest in the 1960s from environmentalists, archeologists, and Indians whose sacred sites were inundated. But the Corps of Engineers prevailed and the canyon, with its 1,500-foot-high walls became the second largest impounded lake in the nation, next to Lake Mead downstream. Now, the red-rock buttes tower above water instead of desert. Our boat floats over submerged canyonland like a plane above a cloud bank with only the tops of the peaks visible.

Lake Powell

Puttering into the shallow side canyon, we pass fishermen plumbing the waters for bigmouth and stripped bass, crappie and catfish. A pair of water skiers scoot by and disappear around a bend. We drop our anchors in an isolated cove bounded by a semicircle of castle-like cliffs, then set off to explore. Beyond the salmon-hued sand dunes, colorful ridges and outcroppings create a playscape for rock scrambling. A little creek with steep walls runs along the edge of the cove from a pour-off below the cliff. Two house-sized petrified dunes make perfect observation points for the coming sunset.

The evening rays cast a golden glow over Gunsight Butte across the narrow arm of the canyon. The red sandstone almost bursts into flame. The water mirrors a shimmering version of the image distorted only by the ripples of a swimmer paddling off the back of our boat. Slowly, the shadow creeps up the butte until it merges with the aqua sky and the quick coolness of evening descends.

The houseboat allows us to enjoy the conveniences of home, yet experience the isolation and unspoiled beauty of a remote wilderness setting. We dine on the beach under a vast chandelier of stars. A white cloth covers the fold-up table and candles add a touch of elegance to the al fresco setting. The gentle lapping of the waves provides background music.

Lake Powell sunset

After dinner, we build a campfire and watch glowing embers shoot into the sky, as though longing for the companionship of stars. Other houseboats are docked within the side canyon, but we hear no sounds except the crackle of our fire and the mummer of the breeze in the sagebrush. Soon the moon peers over the opposite butte and spotlights the cliffs behind us. The stars and moon create as magic a scene as the sun does during the day. We sit in silence as the slivery light casts the same spell on us as undoubtedly it did on the two priests in 1776. We have no doubt why the native inhabitants consider these canyons sacred.

If you go

Information: For brochures and reservations, call 800-528-6154. For current rates, package deals, weather, fishing reports and availablities, Contact the Rainbow Bridge National Monument at Box 1507, Page AZ 86040, 928-608-6404.

Access: Shuttle flights by Sunrise Airlines, 800-347-3962, connect Phoenix and Page with several flights daily. Fares begin at $178 roundtrip. Wahweap Marina operates shuttle buses to the stores and airport in Page. Rental cars are available at the airport.

Accommodations: Wahweap Marina, 928-645-2433, has a full-service hotel and restaurant, campgrounds, boat rentals and a variety

Boat rentals: houseboats rent from $577 to $2,860 for 3 days, depending on size and class of boat and season. Reserve boats a year in advance for summer months. Power and fishing boats also are available.

Climate: Jan., high 45, low 24; April, high 72, low 46; July, high 97, low 71; Oct., high 77, low 46 degrees F.

About the Author; George Miller is a writer, photographer and author of A Guide to Wildlife of Texas and the Southwest.

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