It’s a strange feeling to experience vertigo on the water. Not just your average run-of-the-mill vertigo, but the intense about-to-plunge-into-an-abyss variety. Reflections from above blended with the shimmering images below, and I couldn’t tell what was stone and what was a play of water and light. Sheer sandstone cliffs soared above my head and plunged into the crystalline depths below my board. I might as well have been gliding through the air. I attempted to balance the desire to stare in every direction with the need to calm my trembling legs. And the silence was absolute.
That is, until I rounded the last bend on my stand-up paddleboard and spotted our MasterCraft X10 gently resting with its bow tucked at the slot canyon’s entrance. I climbed back aboard and, faced with the prospect of exiting the canyon in reverse, helped the rest of our crew turn the boat 180 degrees by hand. Not too difficult when the rub rails are within inches of both walls.
The sun slipped deeper in the west, throwing the little slot into twilight. It was time to go. We roared past Face Canyon’s quiet coves and towering cliffs into the broad expanse of Lake Powell’s Padre Bay, bound for the mothership, a houseboat that was, temporarily, our home.
This was a type of boating I had never experienced before, running the houseboat to a destination with the MasterCraft in tow, then taking the X10 on sorties into some of the most breathtaking landscapes imaginable.
A Man-Made Oasis
When United States Army Major John Wesley Powell and his team embarked on an exploration of the Green and Colorado rivers in 1869, they were taking their boats into the last empty space on the maps of the continental U.S. The Powell Geographic Expedition would lose men, boats and supplies during the harrowing three-month, 930-mile journey from Wyoming to Nevada. Yet it also was a triumph as the one-armed Civil War veteran and his men ran the length of the Grand Canyon and explored its little, gentler sister, a hidden oasis straddling what is now the Utah-Arizona border.
Today, much of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area remains as Powell saw it nearly 150 years ago, and boats are still the best way to traverse this remote canyon country. But you won’t have to tackle a wild river to do it. The controversial 1963 construction of the 710-foot Glen Canyon Dam tamed the mighty Colorado. Though it drowned the canyon, the dam also created Lake Powell, a truly magnificent body of water. At full pool, the lake is 186 miles long with 1,960 miles of shoreline; last year, that translated to roughly 170 miles of navigable Colorado River channel and 1,800 miles of shoreline. That makes Lake Powell the primary gateway to a startling desert wilderness. Within the arms of its nearly 100 major side canyons are ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs, Mesozoic fossils, dinosaur footprints, lush hanging gardens, hidden slots, Seussian rock formations, and sacred Native American sites like Rainbow Bridge.
Behold, The Mothership
Boaters unfamiliar with Glen Canyon and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument might be surprised to learn that access to the lake is limited. You can launch your boat at Wahweap Marina or Stateline Launch Ramp at the lake’s southern end in Page, Arizona, and at Utah’s Bullfrog Marina or Halls Crossing Marina, both at its northern end. That’s it.
To truly explore Lake Powell, then, you’re going to need to load your trailerable boat with camping gear, food, water, extra fuel, a portable toilet and other provisions. Or you can take your own personal cruise ship.
We rented a 59-foot Wanderer houseboat from Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas at Wahweap. With two decks, four staterooms, two heads, a large salon and full galley, we had more than enough room to bring our longtime friends, Mike and Kelly Massey, my husband, Richard, and our 8-year-old daughter, Johanna. Plus, we carried two stand-up paddleboards and two kayaks.
In addition, we elected to bring the MasterCraft X10 as our auxiliary watercraft. Not only could we use it for tubing and boarding, but also one of us could run ahead to choose a good anchoring spot. Then we’d only need to beach the mothership once, an appealing prospect in narrow quarters and with sometimes tricky conditions.
“You definitely want a second boat,” says Capt. Rick Bennett, a marina pilot who assists boaters with leaving and returning to Wahweap. “A houseboat is slow. Take her straight to your campsite and get her secured on the beach. Then use the little boat for day trips.”
Bennett has been boating here since the 1970s. He expertly coached us through exiting the crowded marina. We were grateful for his help. For the uninitiated, maneuvering a houseboat feels like skippering a football field that doubles as a sail. Or maybe an aircraft carrier.
With the rest of the crew manning the Wanderer as we started a two-hour cruise upriver, I joined Bennett on his boat. We would search for the best campsite and help bring the big houseboat into the beach.
“I love this lake,” Bennett reflected. “You can’t explore all of it in your lifetime. There are still places I haven’t been. I don’t know if I should be ecstatic for you that you’re experiencing it for the first time, or brokenhearted for you that you only have two days.”
One Particular Harbor
We arrived in Padre Bay, Lake Powell’s largest expanse of open water, well before the Wanderer and had plenty of time to scout its side canyons. We found a sizable sandy beach tucked in a little cove along the south side of Padre Canyon. It would only receive direct sun for a few hours each day, but it offered excellent protection from wind and waves. A worthwhile trade-off, I hoped, after Bennett regaled me with stories of hurricane-force microbursts and 6- to 8-foot seas in the main channel.
Sure enough, as the Wanderer came in, a gust of wind tore through the cove. Mike jumped out to help Bennett dig the 3-foot-deep anchor holes, while Richard stayed at the helm and kept the twin 115 hp Mercury outboards in gear to hold the houseboat’s nose in position.
We buried four anchors deep in the sand — one each from the Wanderer’s four corners — and cut the engines. Bennett hopped back into his utility boat for the run back to Wahweap, and we were on our own.
Johanna splashed cheerfully in the brisk water. Despite the freshening breeze, I decided she had the right idea and slid one of the paddleboards off the stern. Around the cove, impenetrable sandstone walls reared hundreds of feet skyward. The water cast golden reflections along the stone.
Back at the mothership, I could see the gangway had left an angry crescent-shaped scar in the sand. The houseboat was moving too much as the wind strengthened. We retrieved one of the anchors and reset it farther out, which solved the problem. Satisfied, we cooked a steak dinner and retired to the top deck for the moonrise.
At sunrise, all I could hear was a bird’s cry, the splash of a fish, and the purling of water along the hull. The wind had died, leaving a glassy cove. It was a perfect morning to take the MasterCraft out for adventure.
We opted to play with the water toys, and then explore a slot canyon in the afternoon. We reached nearby Kane Creek Canyon, and Kelly and I paddled the SUPs around several dome-shaped islands before crossing a stretch of open water to meet the boat at a peninsular white-sand beach. Johanna tried tubing for the first time, and when our companions hiked to the distant base of the cliffs, she joined me on my paddleboard.
There were no other boats, no other campers. Miles separated us from the nearest road. We might as well have been the only people on Earth.
After a quick lunch of sandwiches back at the mothership, we raced across Padre Bay and rounded a butte-capped point into Face Canyon. The walls narrowed, and conversation dwindled until we were as silent as the petrified sand dunes all around us.
“This is what it would look like if you could go boating on Mars,” Mike remarked. Taking in the blue-and-orange palette around us, we had to agree.
Cathedral of Stone and Light
On our last night, we gathered on the top deck to watch the dying sun illuminate the walls on the other side of Padre Canyon. The sculpted sandstone seemed to glow from within, fading slowly in the twilight. We roasted s’mores around our fire pit at the lake’s edge. Stories and laughter echoed in the darkness, and the nearly full moon made the sugar sand look like snow.
Morning brought the final to-do list, from packing our gear and retrieving our anchors, to preparing the MasterCraft’s tow harness and taking a few final squealing trips down the waterslide. I’d grown fond of the Wanderer. It might not be fast, it might not turn on a dime, but it had allowed us to become more intimately acquainted with this little corner of Lake Powell. Plus, when combined with the X10, it gave us the chance to make this cathedral of stone and light our own.