Hiking Lake Powell
Although you can see some of Glen Canyon's wonders simply by floating past them, Lake Powell offers a completely different, wide open playground for those who venture off the water and wander a bit on dry land.
When a group of us set out from Bullfrog Marina on a warm Saturday morning in late February, we had no set itinerary, wanting only to see all we could before we had to return our houseboat and 18-foot runabout Monday morning.
After launching, we set off first for Slickrock Canyon, where we had heard about some vandalized Anasazi ruins that were said to have been beautifully restored. Shortly after entering the canyon, we saw a telltale clue to their whereabouts - a large, fenced-off area above the beach to the left, below a large alcove - and decided to beach and get closer.
Above and to the left of the recess, a small hanging garden clung to a crack in the wall, and on the beach below it a line of greenery trickled its way toward the water's edge. Stepping onto shore, I found a live freshwater clam clinging to the clayey edge of the shoreline. I picked up the tiny creature, admiring its smooth green shell, then nudged it back into the sand.
After securing our boats, we went up to the edge of the chain link fencing, where we could make out one or two walls of a dwelling near the upper left corner of the alcove landing, but couldn't get a clear view. We decided to climb up to the ridge above us and check out the view from there.
After several minutes of clambering up a long, narrow chute that began several yards to the left ofthe hollowed arch, we emerged onto a slender finger with expansive views both up Slickrock and out into the main channel. And by using binoculars, we got an excellent view into the ruins in the alcove below: three very clear external walls, with what looked like a two-room section, one or two smaller sections and a granary at the far right.
After carefully climbing back down to shore, we took our runabout in to the water's end, tied it off and began exploring back into the canyon.
Before long, we came upon another fenced-off ruin set high in the canyon's north wall. It seemed either astonishingly well preserved or well restored, with tightly set stones and even part of a wooden roof.
The sight made me ponder the ingenuity of the Anasazi architects. These high cliffs made for easily defensible dwellings, with excellent, broad views making sneak attack nigh impossible, and the south-facing dwellings would have received excellent winter exposure while being sheltered from the worst of summer's penetrating glare; the ancient designers even went one step further, with complex entryways that would have kept out the elements even more. Clever folk.
Heading farther east into the canyon, we stayed along the left bank of the creekbed, realizing too late that we should have moved to the right bank: Our traversible slope ran out, and rather than loop back, we plunged into a sea of grasses taller than our heads, densely growing, golden amaranth- and corn-like stalks seven or eight feet tall.
For several yards we pushed through the dense sea, which closed behind us with virtually no evidence of our passing, until we reached the edge of the right bank, then climbed back up to its comparatively easy sand and sandstone trail. Continuing east, the trail narrowed and became more defined, and we began to see more and more scrub oak, Brigham tea, yucca and prickly pear. Soon we came to the first of a line of burnt trees, completely hollowed out from the inside like abandoned carapaces, starkly black and white beside the red stone and soil, rich yellow grasses, and strikingly deep green, dandelion-like groundcover that abounded in the area. Caressing the hardened shells of the onetime living trees, we found sections that looked and felt like porous, dried-out bone, others that were like weathered suede. In places, we could look at the neighboring cliffs through a trunk, using it like a giant viewfinder.
Less than a mile in, footprints of a small mammal followed the trail for several yards, then departed as the route first paralleled a waterfall, then crossed the creek above it. Where the canyon dipped in to the right above the fall, we could see two more alcoves, one possibly holding the very eroded remnants of a wall.
The trail climbed the bench a bit as it continued, until we came to a massive dryfall with three green terraces that might hold small pools after rainfall. I scrambled up to the top terrace, then down to a small sandstone bridge over two parallel erosion holes that made it look like a giant pair of spectacles.
We continued playing and exploring until at last the time came to regroup, head back and see about some dinner and sleep.
Sunday, a small group of us decided our only definite destination for the day was Rainbow Bridge, the largest natural rock bridge in the world, so we set off early from Slickrock in the runabout, leaving our friends on the houseboat to meander to our agreed upon beaching area in the Escalante Arm.
At 275 feet wide and 290 feet above the bed of the stream that cut it, Rainbow Bridge National Monument is certainly worthwhile to behold. Rounding the last bend in the canyon, visitors get their first glimpse of the shapely bridge from the water. And from the monument's courtesy dock, the immense formation is only a few hundred yards up a walkway and around another bend, where we found it reflected perfectly in the rich green water. On our late winter visit, snowdappled Navajo Mountain shimmered blue and white in the distance, beautifully contrasting with the red and green of the bridge and the rest of the lower elevation landscape.
After admiring the bridge, we had been hoping to follow a trail around it and up to a spot above it marked Painted Rock Camp, where there were pictographs noted on our map. Unfortunately, when we got to Rainbow we discovered that all trails around the bridge were closed. I knew that visitors have been asked not to walk under the bridge out of consideration for it as a Navajo sacred site, but I had hoped the trail on the map skirted it widely enough to avoid the prohibition. Alas, it seemed not. Somewhat disappointed, we went back to our runabout and headed back north, planning to explore another canyon or two on the way back to our main group.
Our map showed Navajo stairs near the mouth of Oak Canyon, so we thought we'd dip in a bit and take a look. I don't think any of us ever did spot the steps, but as we made our way in we were all struck by the landscape. Unlike the steep, dramatic cliffs that predominate in the main channel, surrounding us here were unearthly whorled, curved and mounded hills and slopes - reminding some of us that there is currently a remake of The Planet of the Apes being filmed in Page, Ariz. We definitely felt like we could be on another planet.
Landing on the beach, we found the shore littered with dozens of clamshells, apparently broken open and decimated when they found themselves high and dry at water's ebb. (We also picked up more than 30 golf balls apparently abandoned by boaters who found it amusing to practice their swing but hadn't brought their caddy along to pick up after them.) Hiking in, we found that with care we could scramble up the curvaceous slickrock slopes, traversing the canyon for yards at a time from dozens of feet up, crossing narrow gardens where two hillsides would meet in deep crevices. Not far into the canyon, a small, gorgeous grove filled an amphitheatre on the south side. I headed in and found a loop trail through the rich greenery.
Amazingly, when I emerged from my solo grove experience and touched base with our group, we realized it was already late in the afternoon, nearing the time we had said we would rejoin our friends on the houseboat for the evening. That meant that our exploring had come to an end for this trip.
There were so many other adventures we had thought we might be able to "squeeze in" during this visit - seeing Bob Hope Rock (does it look like him?), petroglyphs up Llewellyn Gulch, the Cathedral in the Desert up Clear Creek Canyon; and these are just some of the options between Rainbow Bridge and the Escalante Arm.
But Lake Powell is just so vast. It must take a lifetime to see even half of what the area has to offer. I can't wait to go back and explore further.
The best, most comprehensive map of Glen Canyon is the Stan Jones Boating and Exploring Map and Guide. This large but easily packable map provides an excellent depiction of the lake and its canyons, with accurate mile markers and navigational tips. It also offers comments about every canyon, including camping spots, scenic features and fishing opportunities, and even has an illustrated key to Powell's game fish. I carried it with me in the pocket of my wind jacket everywhere we went and found it immensely useful.
Michael Kelsey's Boater's Guide to Lake Powell also offers more information on the region's landmarks and lore, with more details on what you'll see when you head up a canyon on foot. But for the most accurate trail information, look for the USGS or BLM topo maps for the part of the canyon you want to explore. The canyons we hiked are covered by the map Navajo Mountain 1:100,000.
When to go
I loved our late winter exploration, because I don't like extreme heat and I hate crowds: The weather was perfect for hiking and we were almost the only people on the lake. But the water was icy, and it won't really be warming up until early June. If you want to avoid crowds and heat but also want to be able to play more in the water (even just wading up a canyon creek), September to October is perfect: The crowds are dwindling, but the water is still plenty warm from summer's heat.