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Lake Powell, AZ

Updated: Jan 17, 2021

For our first real vacation together outside of MA, we visited AZ. Part 5 of the trip centered on Lake Powell. For other segments of the trip click on the hyperlinks below.

5. Lake Powell

Day 1

Our plans for the day included:

  • Horseshoe Bend

  • Rainbow Bridge

Although we weren't going to spend time in the Cliff Dwellers area, we couldn't resist taking a few pictures of our surroundings.

Horseshoe Bend

Our first stop today was only a short drive away. Horseshoe Bend is an incredible horseshoe-shaped bend of the Colorado River that's located near Page, AZ. It is accessible via hiking a 1.5-mile round trip trail from a parking area.

This is amazing site to see, but you know at some point in the future the Colorado will cut through the neck of the bend and follow a more direct path through the canyon. The water is slow moving, greenish blue in color and the banks are edged by thin strips of bright green vegetation.

The overlook is 4,200 feet above sea level, and the Colorado River is 3,200 feet above sea level, which gives this scenic view a breathtaking 1,000 foot drop.

Lake Powell

Now on to Lake Powell for a few days. Lake Powell is the second largest man-made reservoir in the United States behind Lake Mead. However, due to high water withdrawals for human and agricultural consumption, and because of subsequent droughts in the area, Lake Mead has fallen below Lake Powell in size several times during the 21st century in terms of volume of water, depth and surface area.

In order to construct the dam, the Colorado River had to be channeled around the site. Beginning in 1957, a temporary dam, was constructed upstream of the dam site to redirect the river through two, 3000 foot-long, 45 foot diameter diversion tunnels dug through the walls on each side of the canyon.

Photo courtesy of Utah State Historical Society, St. George News

Construction on the actual Glen Canyon dam continued 24 hours a day for over 3 years. The first concrete was poured in June 1960 and the last of over 400,000 buckets of concrete was poured in September 1963. At the height of construction (1962) the workforce topped out at nearly 2,500 employees. Below is a picture of how the canyon looked in 1889 (left) and in 1992 (right).

Credit: Nims; Webb, Stanton Expedition; U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.

Glen Canyon Dam rises 710 feet above bedrock within the steep, rust-colored sandstone walls of Glen Canyon. The crest of the dam is 1,560 feet long and 25 feet wide, while the maximum thickness of the base is 300 feet.

Lake Powell began filling on March 13, 1963 and completed filling on June 22, 1980 reaching elevation of 3,700 feet above sea level. Lake Powell extends through the main corridor of Glen Canyon as well as into over 90 side canyons that extend outward. The reservoir functions as a vast ‘bank account’ of water that can be drawn on during dry years. Lake Powell provides long-term carryover water storage that allows the Upper Basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah to use their share of the Colorado River while still providing the required delivery of water to the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada. As drought conditions persist in the Southwest, the water storage in Lake Powell is especially critical.

Lake Powell is 186 miles tip to tip and has 1960 miles of shoreline including the main and all side canyons. The maximum water depth is 583 feet and the average depth throughout the entire canyon is 132 feet.

Lake Powell's shoreline is more than the combined shoreline of all of the states on the Pacific Coast.

It’s natural for the elevation of the lake to fluctuate depending on the amount of spring runoff from the mountains, releases to the Lower Basin, and the amount of water carried over from the previous year. The amount of fluctuation varies each year but during extended periods of drought, Lake Powell’s elevation could drop by more than 200 feet below its maximum elevation.

This fluctuation in water levels helps explain why there is a white line along the shoreline.

This 'bathtub ring' is caused by the calcium carbonate and other hard minerals in the water that attach themselves to the sandstone leaving behind a white mark. The top of the white mark is the recent high water mark.

The contrast between the deep clear blue waters and the surrounding landscape - stark red sandstone rocks with little or no vegetation is incredible. It's easy to forget that the steep remote side canyons, the spires, ridges and buttes that once stood high above the Colorado, now form cliffs at the lakeside or are semi-submerged as small islands.

Rainbow Bridge

We were able to get tickets for the afternoon boat excursion to Rainbow Bridge National Monument. Usually we avoid 'tour boats/buses' when possible but the bridge is only accessible by boat, unless you want to hike 14+ mile through Navajo Nation to reach the bridge by land. Taking the boat allowed us to travel half-way up the lake and see even more of this amazing shoreline.

It's a 50-mile boat ride from the Wahweap Bay marina to the bridge.

To reach Rainbow Bridge, the boat had to navigate the last few miles through narrow passages of a side canyon called Forbidden Canyon.

After navigating Forbidden Canyon, we pulled up to a portable dock that led to the Rainbow Bridge trail.

Rainbow Bridge National Monument, at 160 square acres of land, is one of the smallest units of the National Park Service. However, what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for with an abundance of unique and interesting features. The primary feature is, of course, Rainbow Bridge itself, one of the largest natural bridges in the world.

It is a culturally significant site for Native Americans and signs ask hikers not to venture beyond the viewpoint to the formation. So there is nothing that helps put the size of the bridge in perspective except for the person walking behind Dave.

Maybe these details can help. Rainbow Bridge is 290 feet tall from its base to the top of the arch, and spans 275 feet across the creek channel. The top of the arch measures 42 feet thick and 33 feet wide. It is nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty and you can practically tuck the US Capitol Building Dome underneath the bridge.

A few closing point about the bridge.

  1. In 1999, Lake Powell water elevation rose to 3,696 feet, pushing 42 feet of standing water into the rock channel underneath Rainbow Bridge. When Lake Powell is at full pool (3,7000feet) 46 feet of water stands underneath the bridge. However, swimming is prohibited.

  2. Visitors frequently climbed to the top of the bridge until the mid 1950s when it was no longer allowed.

  3. Although the bridge will eventually succumb to natural erosion and weathering, contemporary scientific assessments have concluded the bridge is stable and strong. Interestingly, the bridge expands approx. 1 inch in diameter during the hot summer months.

  4. Based on geological samples, it's estimated the 'opening' was first cut about 30,000 years ago.

Day 2

  • Jet ski rental

  • Drive down to Flagstaff

After getting a basic introduction to Lake Powell yesterday, we decided to explore more on our own by renting 2-person jet ski. After some short training rides at the rental marina, we were on our way.

Dave took control of navigating us into the main channel and learning to deal with the boat wakes. After a few minutes he mastered the task and we took off for Navajo Canyon, a short ride from the marina.

I wish I had more pictures of riding the jet skis in the main channel but I was concerned about dropping my camera since it wasn't always a 'smooth ride'.

We tooled round in the side canyon and then found a place to pull the jet ski onto a sandy beach. It was such a different feeling being in the side canyon away from much of the boating traffic.

After beaching the Jet Ski we walked around the area. We weren't alone at this point but it was still a great experience to see Lake Powell from this perspective.

We hung out in Navajo Canyon for an hour or so and then returned to the rental marina; all good things must come to an end. An interesting fact - the average stay in Lake Powell is 4.5 days, the longest of any Park in the NPS system. Maybe the next time we should consider a house boat rental with friends or family.

Tonight we packed up and drove to Flagstaff for an overnight so that we could finish up this vacation with a drive down Route 66 and a few days of chilling in Vegas.

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