Lake Powell Utah is one of the most extraordinary recreational playgrounds in the world. Delighting almost three million fun-seekers each year.
One of Utah’s first residents ... Brigham Young ... once said, “Seek ye not gold but water.” That which makes the American West so beautiful also makes it so fierce. A lack of water. An age-old problem.
The Colorado River Basin ... encompassing parts of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and down into Arizona, New Mexico and California ... is one of the greatest river systems in the United States.
The Colorado River starts as a trickle in the Rocky Mountains. 1400 miles later it empties ... barely a trickle once again ... into the Gulf of California. The river didn’t always end this meekly but that’s a subject for another time.
In between, a very controversial project was completed on September 13, 1963. The Glen Canyon Dam. It took 17 years for the second-largest man-made lake in the country to flood the canyons behind that dam. Lake Powell Utah.
It also created one of the most unique recreational playgrounds in the world. Hosting almost three million visitors ... from all over the world ... each year. Offering a virtual buffet of water-related activities.
Congress established the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in 1972. One and a quarter million acres. A lot of area to be explored on foot or by four-wheel drive.
Lake Powell Utah ... when full ... covers 161,390 acres or 13% of that area. The native Utahns I know have always referred to the area simply as “Powell”. Or Lake Powell.
There's one major problem. The water level at Lake Powell is completely dependent on the spring run-off from the Colorado and Utah mountains which feed the Colorado and Green Rivers.
In 2022, Utah ... and much of the west ... was in a severe drought. Lake Powell water levels had shrunk to 22% of capacity? Many people thought Lake Powell was going to dry up just like those who thought the Great Salt Lake was going to. And they weren't too far off.
The record-breaking snow year of 2022-2023, though, gave us the deepest mountain snowpack ever recorded. Lake Powell rose 65 feet this spring and summer and reached 40% of capacity.
This means the water level at Lake Powell almost doubled from last year. Obviously the problem isn't completely solved but it looks like we're headed back in a positive direction.
The problem won't go away though. At the rate lower basin states are using water from the Colorado River, the ongoing health of Lake Powell is not sustainable.
Water conservation efforts must be initiated and practiced. Every winter is not going to be like the last one.
At maximum capacity, the lake is more than 500 feet deep in some places. 186 miles long. With nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline to explore, it is longer than the entire west coast of the continental United States.
What makes Lake Powell Utah so spectacular?
The skies at night are astonishing. Lying on top of a houseboat and watching the panorama of stars unfold above you is an experience you’ll never forget.
The lake’s clarity is unparalleled. The water begins to warm around June eventually exceeding 70 degrees F (21 C). It stays warm well into October.
The climate in the Lake Powell Utah area is quite arid. The average elevation is around 3,700 feet above sea level but mid-summer temperatures can exceed 100 degrees F (38 C).
Being able to cool off in the water at any time along with the ever-present lake breezes make that 100 degrees seem much cooler.
Lake Powell is named after Major John Wesley Powell, a Civil War veteran. In 1869, he explored the Colorado and Green Rivers. He and his eight companions followed them right on down to the Grand Canyon.
In August of that year, they passed the spot where the Glen Canyon Dam now spans the Colorado.
Most of the lake lies in Utah. The dam is located in Arizona. The lake levels vary depending on the spring runoff from the mountains.
But it is also dependent on the amount of water released to produce electricity by the eight massive generators – one of the main reasons the dam was built.
Fishing is a year-round passion for many Powell enthusiasts. Few places anywhere can rival Powell as a Striped Bass fishery. You can also drop a line for largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, catfish and crappie.
The history of Lake Powell Utah and the Glen Canyon Recreation Area is overflowing with controversy and passion on both sides of the equation.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hatched plans to build a series of dams on the Colorado River. The goal? To harness the awesome power of the river and provide electricity and water for the exploding population of California ... and to a lesser degree ... Arizona and New Mexico.
Initially, they selected a site in what is now Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado. A small group of politically active objectors defeated this plan.
Led by David Brower of the Sierra Club, this group agreed to a different site between Glen and Grand Canyons. When Brower actually saw the scenic wilderness of Glen Canyon, he was stunned by its beauty. By then, it was too late to stop the project.
The dam was the subject of American writer Edward Abbey’s famous novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang published in 1975.
The book told the story of a group of characters sabotaging “environmentally damaging projects” in the American Southwest. It became one of the first “bibles” of present-day eco-terrorists.
The gang’s greatest disdain is for the Glen Canyon Dam. A concrete monstrosity damming a beautiful, untamed river.
The book’s characters bear little resemblance to today’s profile of radical environmentalists. They own guns. Eat meat. Drink beer and then litter the roadside with empty cans.
Nonetheless, these characters may have spawned several contemporary environmental and eco-terrorist organizations.
There are six marinas at Lake Powell Utah:
It takes as long as six hours to drive between marinas. Find out well in advance the location of each marina and what amenities are offered.
Renting a houseboat is, in my opinion, the best way to experience Lake Powell Utah. Houseboats of all sizes and price ranges can be rented at the marinas.
You have to book well in advance of the busy season, though. Up to a year in advance would be a good idea.
There are nine campgrounds in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Three have hookups. There are six primitive campgrounds.
Many people choose to bring their own camping equipment and camp in a secluded canyon. There are strict regulations about where you can camp and how you dispose of waste and garbage.
You could spend years trying to enjoy all Lake Powell has to offer and still see only a small part of it.
How far do people come to enjoy what Lake Powell Utah has to offer? A friend of mine spent a week at Lake Powell a couple summers ago.
While spending some time in a bar at one of the marinas late in the day, the bartender told him he was only the second person he had talked to all day whose primary language was English! He had served visitors from all over the world.
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