Sailing the Timeless Wonder of Lake Powell

The confluence of rivers on the Colorado Plateau in the southwestern United States provides a stunning destination for the owners of a trailer sailer.

For the sailor with a passion for solitude, breathtaking scenery and a wilderness challenge, Lake Powell is the experience of a lifetime. Retired and yearning for a carefree adventure, my wife, Jeanine, and I took advantage of a summer when the lake was filling as it hadn’t for years, knowing we’d be able to reach some of the most ancient glens and alcoves. This was an irresistible prospect, especially to a couple of crusty canyon sailors like ourselves. And better yet, we could dispose of clocks and schedules and visit some of the more distant haunts and hideaways for as long as we cared.

We splashed Lady Jeanine, our 26-foot Balboa, at the Bullfrog Marina, some 98 miles north of the Glen Canyon Dam, stocked her with enough food and fuel to last a good two weeks, cast our lines, cranked the Honda and headed toward the main channel, bound for the confluence of the San Juan and Escalante rivers, Dangling Rope and Rock Creek Bay, some 75 miles south.

As we passed the Rincon — the abandoned riverbed meander in the Colorado River — we entered an imposing red rock canyon whose cliffs towered more than 1,000 feet overhead. To the south, four rainbow amphitheaters and natural gardens lay in the shadow of the great geological formation called Pollywog Bench.

A fresh breeze tumbled down 10,388-foot Navajo Mountain, and we killed the engine, hoisted the main and jib, and tacked south. To the east, a long, unbroken ridge lined the shore in a massive fold that extended some 2,000 feet above the surface of the bay.

We decided to spend the night in a secluded cove near the Escalante confluence. Two giant circles were engraved in the sandstone directly above us; and a small, 1,000-year-old granary of the Ancestral Puebloans was tucked beneath a small sandstone bench at the far end of the cove. About 500 feet directly overhead, we could discern a series of amphitheaters and the ruins of two prehistoric Indian summer camps.

We backed into the cove, and I set two anchors fore and aft and wrapped an old Danforth around a large boulder off to starboard — a bit of insurance against the brisk southwesterlies that are common in the area. We took a quick, cool swim in the emerald water. That evening, we supped in primitive luxury while the ravens scavenged for remnants and parades of tiny eddies thumped and slapped gently at our beam. At dusk, a single gray coyote crested the bench far above, peered scornfully down at us for an instant, turned and disappeared. In the brief splash of twilight, Venus stood on the edge of the mesa at our back like a fading sentinel.

The following morning, we secured our anchor lines to a marker buoy, headed out into the main channel, hoisted sail and made for the Escalante River, Ribbon Canyon (arguably one of the most beautiful estuaries on the lake) and Hole-in-the-Rock, a crack where the early Mormons chain-locked their wagons and drove them 1,000 feet to the valley below. An occasional gust rippled the lake with mischievous bursts that plunged down the Navajo's ridge to the south. We tacked at the entrance to the Escalante, then as we passed the two stone spires standing sentinel at the entrance to Ribbon Canyon, the clouds started to build, the sky darkened and the wind started to pipe 15 to 20 knots. It was no time to be caught in open water, and we scurried back to the cove and the comfort of our private sacristy. Jeanine grabbed the anchor lines with the gaff, and just as I finished securing them, one of Lake Powell's infamous desert storms barreled out of the south and pummeled the main channel with 4-foot cresting waves and spindrifts that rebounded from the canyon walls and churned past our cove with incredible ferocity. While our little cove was secure enough, Lady Jeanine occasionally lurched and strained against her mooring lines, and her mast and stays shuddered with the stronger gusts.

The deluge ended as suddenly as it appeared and blew north; the waterfalls dribbled to a stop, and the sun reappeared and dried the cove to a sandy gold. Toward evening, we watched Navajo Mountain turn glimmering violet in the setting sun and — having supped on brats and potato salad — we hopped into the inflatable to explore the neighboring grottoes and coves before nightfall. A brief walk ashore brought a leisurely stop in a hanging garden, a curious inspection of wild animal tracks: deer, cougar, wildcat and the telltale crease of a diamondback rattler. Just before dusk, we headed back to Lady Jeanine. One last swim before bedtime and we consigned ourselves to the rising moon, such as it was, in a dim, blue reflection on the far canyon wall.

The following morning, we abandoned the cove and headed south and west to Dangling Rope Marina to restock ice, milk and fuel. The marina is an oddity of sorts, since it's accessible only by boat and is some 42 miles upriver from the town of Page and the Glen Canyon Dam, which lies some 15 miles north of the Grand Canyon. Dangling Rope is usually a maelstrom of activity and hyperactive boaters, but it was strangely quiet and rather solitary this time — perhaps because the horrible price of gasoline discouraged the less committed, perhaps simply because we visited early in the season. We bought the necessary provisions and headed south to a small horseshoe cove at the southern extreme of Rock Creek Bay, just north of buoy 26. On every side, sheer walls and galleries of stone towered some 10 stories above us, while the southern precipice shielded us from the hefty afternoon winds that ripped down Padre Bay. We faced Lady Jeanine north and found a beautiful refuge. Indeed, the reflected bronze and gold of the sunset that evening was a vivid reminder that this was the harshest, most beautiful land in the great Southwest.

Perhaps the first inhabitants thousands of years ago had seen those same cliffs and battlements much as we did; perhaps they too had stared at them in wonder. The first human inhabitants, bands of prehistoric Indians, wandered the river more than 3,000 years ago. About A.D. 500, the Ancestral Puebloans settled along the original riverbed and adjacent canyons, developing an advanced agrarian society. Hundreds of their ruins survive today, and many — such as Defiance House, a dwelling in Forgotten Canyon — are accessible by boat and well worth the effort, when lake levels allow. Archeologists don’t know why these outposts were abandoned: possibly because of changes in rainfall and recurring drought during the latter 13th century, possibly because of invading warrior tribes from the north.

That night, we floated in an absolute calm at the base of the great cove with only an occasional raven to keep us company. It was rather eerie after the pandemonium of the previous day, and I began to wonder about our sailing prospects. I checked NOAA weather and, strangely enough, our prospects were excellent. A ridge of high pressure was expected to move in from the southwest about mid-morning. It would be accompanied by southwest winds, 15-20 mph with gusts to 25.

The run north would be a sleigh ride.

We took a quick swim (the water in Lake Powell is typically in the low 80s in the summer), barbecued a couple of steaks and turned in early.

The next day, we hoisted sail and headed upriver to visit Rainbow Bridge, a National Park Service Monument and the largest and perhaps most spectacular of the natural bridges in North America. As we returned to the main channel, the wind blew 10 to 15, and Lady Jeanine skimmed wildly over the building chop as we jibed back and forth. We passed through a series of arroyos and turned east at the San Juan tributary, a wilderness gateway that extends some 40 miles to the west before it becomes unnavigable. Making our way upriver, we reached a massive amphitheater with an exquisite natural garden of maidenhair ferns, scrub cedar, natural grasses, a bubbling artesian spring and a nearly perfect view of Navajo Mountain.

I suspended Lady Jeanine between two boulders on about 500 feet of line so that she lay directly in the middle of our cove. A stream splashed from stone to stone before dripping into the lake. Somewhere in the fragile ecosystem above, a series of ponds was well populated with a chorus of frogs that trilled and burped in full throat all night.

The next morning, the sun rose over the San Juan River and filled our canyon with shimmering bronze and gold. We breakfasted in nearly perfect silence, except for the gurgle of our secret spring and the birdsong that echoed from the fragile garden high above. To the east, a series of 1,000-foot palisades hovered over the river.

We stayed another two days, celebrating the utter stillness, broken only by the sound of a rare commercial jet.

Just after sunrise the following morning, we stowed our anchors and pressed north in a languid southwest breeze. It was a lovely sail, but by early afternoon, the desert heat became intolerable, and we dropped the sails and motored north to a small cove near the Escalante confluence just south of the Rincon. I set our anchors, and for the remainder of the afternoon we relaxed in the shade of Lady Jeanine's mainsail while the desert burned under a merciless sun. Evening brought a thunderstorm that cracked and boomed to the south, but the cove was covered in silence.

While Lake Powell and much of the Glen Canyon Recreation Area are quite majestic, not all of the area contains mythic beauty. In some places, especially near the Rincon, Padre Bay and Paiute Mesa, it resembles an immense moonscape, draped as it is in large black boulders and wind-carved dunes that offer little more than a dreary perspective of sand and stone. An occasional houseboat might be tucked into a small canyon here or there, but in such places the river is typically empty, silent and unbearably hot. Not a stir, not even the slightest breeze is likely to ruffle the quicksilver surface of the water.

The next day, we hoisted sail and headed north for the Rincon. A glimmering series of palisades and amphitheaters lined the western shore, where the sun barely peeked over the great cliffs far above. I pulled into one of the larger coves and again suspended Lady between two large boulders. Later that night, I was a bit surprised to hear a gaggle of celebrants across the river, since we usually manage to isolate ourselves from the typical collection of houseboaters and powerboaters. However, for all its many visitors (Lake Powell averages about 2 million visitors a year), the relative absence of noise and trash is amazing. The cardinal rule seems to be respected by everyone, both nature lovers and celebrants: Haul out more trash than you haul in.

Two days later, our provisions were nearly exhausted; the last of our ice had melted, and we were reduced to Fig Newtons and canned corn. It seemed time to head home. As we motored north to Bullfrog Marina, we remembered how we had luxuriated beneath our sandstone canopies and the epic beauty of the desert sky.

I anchored just south of the launch ramp, and Jeanine and I took one last swim, supped on cookies and 7-Up and did a bit of last-minute cleaning and organizing in preparation for the next day’s haul-out.

Lake Powell had done its work; we were relaxed and content. We’d lived inside the moment. We had celebrated the rich palette of wonder and beauty and we vowed to return perhaps in late August or even early September. The late summer winds are terrific.

This article first appeared as "A Jurassic Journey: Sailing the Timeless Wonder of Lake Powell" in the May 2014 issue of Cruising World. Matts G. Djos is a retired professor of English, lifelong sailor, freelance writer, and the author of Fixing Positions: Trailer Sailing the West, and Sailing Out of Retirement: Living the Dream. He lives with his wife, Jeanine, in the Colorado high country south of Grand Junction.

Lady Jeanine, the author's Balboa 26, motors along the Escalante River below the shadowed Three Roof Ruin.
Lady Jeanine is tucked in under a cliff with two anchors to minimize swing.
Lady Jeanine was splashed at Bullfrog Marina.
The author, Matts Djos, chose a leisurely two-week itinerary that took them 75 miles south to Rock Creek Bay.
Boating and Exploring Map and Guide to the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area by Stan Jones and Steve Ward (Sun Country Publications, stanjonesmaps.com) is based on 40 years of hands-on exploration.
While Lake Powell is about 186 miles long, its shoreline stretches some 1,960 miles.
While the 1.2 million acres of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area attract all types of water-sports enthusiasts, fishermen and hikers, Lake Powell itself remains a bastion of houseboating.Russell Burden
About the Lake Lake Powell is about 186 miles long, depending on water level, though its innumerable canyons, including those of the San Juan River and the Escalante River, create some 1,960 miles of coastline. We prefer the middle lake from Cedar Canyon (north of Bullfrog) as far south as Rock Creek Bay. Both the Escalante and San Juan tributaries are also remarkable, although for sheer variety, wilderness and length, we favor the San Juan River. Weather: July and August are very hot, with severe daily thunderstorms that can generate flash floods in the smaller canyons. Wait out such storms in coves and larger canyons and never anchor beneath a dry fall (sometimes indicated by a water stain on the canyon wall) or at the far end of the canyon where you may be stranded by a sandbar after a flash flood. Anchoring: We usually tie a couple of anchor lines to a series of large boulders fore and aft, or we may set a couple of anchors at 45 degrees (to minimize swing) if we should choose to hide near the lee of a simple point or stone outcropping. We try to avoid any kind of beaching maneuver, although this is the preferred method for most houseboats. We usually prefer north- and east-facing anchorages in a canyon lee or battlement because they can offer shade in the intense desert heat, provide a certain amount of protection from lightning, and may offer some security from gale-force winds, which usually come from the west or southwest. The best sailing is in the spring and early summer (when most of the winds come out of the northwest) and in the early fall (when the winds are from the southwest and the water temperature hovers around 80 degrees). Winds tend to follow the twists and turns of the lake and are sometimes gusty. Provisioning: Drink at least a gallon of water a day during hot weather. The only marina between Bullfrog and Page, Arizona, is Dangling Rope Marina, about 60 miles downriver from Bullfrog and 40 miles upriver from Page, and food stocks there are limited. Block ice is available. Provision and get fuel at Page, if you are coming from the south. If you are coming from the north, provision at Green River, Utah. Pets: Keep pets on a leash at all times, and don’t let them run ashore unattended. More than one pet owner has watched helplessly as the family pet was carried off by a coyote. Waste: Lake Powell is a no-discharge lake, so carry a device for containing solid human waste. Pumpout stations are located throughout the lake at 20- to 40-mile intervals. Maps and charts: Since the water level on Lake Powell can vary by more than 150 feet, there are no accurate maps or charts of the lake, and sudden outcroppings and hidden shoals are everywhere. Watch for green and brown water or small, breaking waves, all signs of shoals and outcroppings. For fishing information, consult the Wayne’s Words website (wayneswords.com). For details about Lake Powell marinas and fees, consult the U.S. National Park Service (www.nps.gov/glca/planyourvisit/lake-powell-marinas.htm).Gail Shotlander
Lake Powell Water Levels: Lake Powell, a reservoir on the Colorado River, is the result of the creation of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963. The second largest man-made reservoir in the U.S., the lake straddles Utah and Arizona, is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and is managed by the U.S. National Park Service. The lake reached its full water level of 3,700 feet in 1980. Water levels, which fluctuate depending on snow runoff, have been in decline over the last dozen years due to drought. A study by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation predicts that by March 2015, the lake’s water level could continue to drop to about 3,561 feet. While Reclamation officials consider levels of 3,550 to 3,650 normal for the past decade, a level of 3,500 is worrisome. The drop in water level affects trailer sailing at launch sites, in that a reduced water level results in shallow water at the ramps and steep drop-offs. An alert by the National Park Service on the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area website urges sailors and all boaters to assess the water depth before launching. “We will continue to provide access to the water for the boating public as long as we can, but ask that everyone be careful — launching is at your own risk,” Superintendent Todd Brindle states on the site (www.nps.gov/glca/index.htm). Elaine Lembo