Chasing John Wesley Powell: Exploring the Colorado River—Canyonlands, Lake Powell & Grand Canyon

Retracing John Wesley Powell’s first descent of the Colorado River and its canyons 150 years later

One hundred fifty years ago in May 1869, a one-armed Civil War veteran set off with nine mountain men on a scientific expedition to map one of the last blank spaces left on the US map: The Green and Colorado Rivers through the Grand Canyon.

Lake Powell and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

John Wesley Powell’s 1,000-mile, three-month adventure, officially called the Powell Geographic Expedition, started in Wyoming and ended in Arizona. But the heart of it went through Utah and its jaw-dropping wilderness—through what would become Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, Dinosaur National Monument, Canyonlands National Park, and Lake Powell (Glen Canyon National Recreation Area).

Colorado River south of Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Certainly, some of the scenery and route has changed since the 1869 trip (which Powell repeated in 1871): dams were built, altering the rivers and flooding the canyons he explored. But much of the route remains protected, ensuring a rugged and wild adventure for those following in Powell’s wake.

Here are key segments of his trip through Canyonlands National Park, Lake Powell, and Grand Canyon National Park—and what they offer today.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“God help the poor wretch that is caught in the canon during highwater.”
— Jack Sumner, member of the Powell expedition

Cataract Canyon sits 3 miles below the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers— and it bedeviled the Powell crew. The rapids appeared so dangerous, the crew spent days portaging their boats past cataract after cataract.

Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park as seen from Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, a large sign warns paddlers of “hazardous rapids” as they enter Cataract Canyon and the free-flowing Colorado River. Some 400 miles away from the dam that impounds the Green River and 180 miles from another on the Colorado, this segment of the river provides the most powerful white water in the country. It boasts 30 big rapids including The Big Drop, where the river drops over 30 feet in less than a mile.

Canyonlands National Park; the Colorado River is down there somewhere © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boaters and paddlers can obtain permits through Canyonlands National Park which manages the canyon. Cataract itself is 14 miles, but river trips are usually about 48 miles, starting upstream on the Green or Colorado and ending on Lake Powell.  

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For those who don’t want to travel via river, there’s still plenty to do in the surrounding national park, from taking in breathtaking vistas in the park’s Island in the Sky district on its paved scenic drive, to hiking or four-wheeling in The Needles district, or serious backcountry trekking in the remote section called The Maze.

Lake Powell

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Powell described Glen Canyon as a “land of beauty and glory” and named it for its many glens and alcoves near the river. About 100 years later, the canyon was flooded by the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River forming a lake named for the one-armed explorer.

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With 2,000 miles of shoreline, Lake Powell offers boating, kayaking, and fishing amid rugged red rock canyons and mesas.

For visitors seeking more solace than the lake’s annual 3 million visitors provide, the surrounding Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers numerous hikes, multi-day backpacking trips, and mountain biking.

Grand Canyon

“The limestone of this canyon is often polished, and makes a beautiful marble. Sometimes the rocks are of many colors—white, gray, pink and purple, with saffron hints.”
— John Wesley Powell

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 900 hundred miles and three months after they launched their boats, Powell and crew reached what he later named the Grand Canyon. Theirs was the first recorded passage of white men through the entirety of what Powell called “the great unknown,” though Grand Canyon has been inhabited for 12,000 years.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the canyon is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It contains 277 miles of the Colorado River and is up to 18 miles wide. Most of the 5 million annual visitors come for the majestic views of its fantastic shapes and colors—red, buff, green, pink, slate, and violet.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Those who venture below the rim can hike and camp in the backcountry (with permits), take a mule ride down to the bottom, or raft the mighty river that carved the canyon 5 to 6 million years ago. Whitewater trips last from 3 days to 3 weeks.

Worth Pondering…

Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.

—Arthur Ashe

Plenty of Sand and Amazing Landscapes on this Grand Circle Tour

The American Southwest is famous for incredible scenery, red rock pinnacles and formations, brilliant sunsets, and deep canyons

This is uncommon land, for an uncommon experience.

Get your camera ready for this scenic route from Las Vegas to Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley, Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon, and other scenic wonders of the American West.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Hoover Dam/Lake Mead

An engineering marvel, the Hoover Dam tamed the mighty Colorado River to provide hydroelectric power and much-needed water for the parched Southwest, creating Lake Mead in the process. Just 25 miles outside Las Vegas, Lake Mead National Recreational Area offers more than 550 miles of shoreline and year-round outdoor adventure. Whether it’s swimming, water skiing, boating or fishing, it’s all possible in this spectacular setting.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Zion National Park

Unlike most other Utah parks, Zion is a canyon viewed mostly from below. White and vermilion cliffs tower all around, some reaching nearly 8,000 feet. The main canyon was cut by the North Fork of the Virgin River. It is narrow, less than a quarter-mile wide. But it is deep, flanked by towering sandstone palisades 2,000-3,000 feet high that often draw rock climbers to its walls. The six-mile canyon drive ends at a formation known as Temple of Sinawava, where the canyon begins narrowing to a slot only 30-40 feet wide.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Bryce Canyon National Park

Discover a massive array of red rock spires that extend hundreds of feet into the air. Known as hoodoos, these totem-like formations rise in a series of horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters. Explore deep canyons on foot or drive around the high elevation loop road and look out for Bryce’s bristlecone pines, the world’s oldest trees that date back 5,000 years.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Glen Canyon/Lake Powell

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers unparalleled opportunities for water-based and backcountry recreation amid scenic vistas and geologic wonders. The second largest man-made lake in the U.S., Lake Powell is without doubt the most scenic, stretching 186 miles across the red rock desert from Page, Arizona to Hite, Utah.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Monument Valley

You’ll marvel at the 250-million-year-old red rock formations, the magical light, the starry night, and the Native American history that infuses this iconic landscape. Drive the 17-mile scenic loop road on your own or hire a guide to delve deeper into the storied region and to access off-limit sites. Camping at The View Campground offers the RV traveler a great opportunity to capture the incomparable sunrise and sunset hues. Don’t forget your cameras!

Hubbell Trading Post © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Hubbell Trading Post, Arizona

The squeaky wooden floor greets your entry. When your eyes adjust to the dim light in the “bullpen” you find you’ve entered a mercantile. Hubbell Trading Post has been serving Ganado selling goods and Native American Art since 1878. Little has changed in more than 140 years at the oldest operating trading post on the Navajo Reservation.

Visitors also can tour the Hubbell house; browse the visitor center (built in 1920 and used originally as a school); and see barns, corrals, wagons, and other historical farm equipment, as well as a variety of farm animals, including Churro sheep.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Petrified Forest National Park

Most visitors come to see the ancient tree trunks, which are preserved by minerals they absorbed after being submerged in a riverbed nearly 200 million years ago. And they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors—the yellow of citrine, the purple of amethyst, the red-brown of jasper. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts and striated canyons.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Grand Canyon

The Colorado River cuts through the American west to create one of the natural wonders of the planet. A total of 277 miles long and up to a mile deep, it’s a geological masterpiece, with amazing vantage points along both the North and South rims. Over millions of years, the river sliced the landscape into sheer rock walls, revealing many layered colors, each marking a different geologic era.

Worth Pondering…

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

—Rachel Carson

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area: Lake Powell and So Much More

Lake Powell is a major center for many leisure activities including fishing, swimming, water sports, houseboating, backcountry hiking, and four-wheel drive trips

The Colorado River is dammed on both sides of the Grand Canyon, forming two huge artificial lakes: Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

Encompassing over 1.25 million acres, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area stretches for hundreds of miles from Lees Ferry in Arizona to the Orange Cliffs of southern Utah.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The National Recreation Area offers unparalleled opportunities for water-based and backcountry recreation amid scenic vistas, geologic wonders, and a vast panorama of human history. Outdoor activities are what Glen Canyon is all about. There is something for everyone’s taste. 

The second largest man-made lake in the U.S., Lake Powell is without doubt the most scenic, stretching 186 miles across the red rock desert from Page, Arizona to Hite, Utah.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

What makes Lake Powell so memorable is the contrast between the deep clear blue waters and the surrounding landscape—stark red sandstone rocks with little or no vegetation and innumerable steep remote side canyons. Spires, ridges, and buttes that once stood high above the Colorado River now form cliffs at the lakeside or are semi-submerged as small islands.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Lake Powell has become a major center for many leisure activities including fishing, swimming, water sports, houseboating, backcountry hiking, and four-wheel drive trips.

It began filling in 1963 following the completion of a dam across the Colorado River near the south end of Glen Canyon, and was not completely full until 1980. In 1972 Lake Powell and the surrounding countryside was incorporated into Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Access to Lake Powell and Glen Canyon by road is very limited. Activities are concentrated at the western edge, near Page, where various beaches, resorts, marinas, and campsites are found along the shoreline.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

At the far northeast end of the lake there are basic services and a few tracks leading to the water at Hite, though decreasing water levels have left this village quite far from the shoreline.

The only other paved approach roads are to the Bullfrog and Halls Crossing marinas two thirds of the way up the lake, which are opposite each other and linked by a car ferry.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is open year-round. The highest visitation is during the summer season.

Carl Hayden Visitor Center offers tours of the dam, exhibits, video shows, a relief map of the entire Glen Canyon area, restrooms, and a bookstore.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Bullfrog Visitor Center offers exhibits relating to geology and the human and natural history of Glen Canyon, pioneer artifacts, a life-size model of a slot canyon, bookstore, and restrooms.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Navajo Bridge Interpretive Center, near Lees Ferry, offers a bookstore, outdoor exhibits, and self guided walks across the historic Navajo Bridge.

Lake Powell is abundant with camping opportunities, whether you seek developed campsites with RV pads, putting a tent up on a secluded beach, or anchoring your boat in a quiet cove.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

There is a National Park Service campground at Lees Ferry. Concessioner operated RV campgrounds are available in Wahweap, Bullfrog, and Halls Crossing. Primitive camping is available at the following vehicle accessible shore line areas: Lone Rock (Wahweap area), Stanton Creek, Bullfrog North and South (Bullfrog area), Hite, Dirty Devil, and Farley Canyon (Hite area). These sites have no facilities except for pit toilets.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Bullfrog Marina RV Park & Campground offers 20 pull-through sites and 4 back-in sites for RVs up to 50 feet in length. All sites have full hook-ups with 30-amp electric service.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Centrally located adjacent to Wahweap Marina near Page, Wahweap RV Park & Campground offers 139 full hook-up sites with 30/50 amp electric service and free Wi-Fi. With a stunning view of Wahweap Bay, sites accommodate RVs up to 45 feet in length. All campsites have charcoal grills and picnic tables. Only a short distance to boat launch ramps, swim beaches, boat tours, and small boat rentals. Our home base while exploring the National Recreation Area, we would return to this 5-star RV park in a heart-beat.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

With 1.2 million acres of golden cliffs, lush hanging gardens, impossibly narrow slot canyons, and the brilliant blue of Lake Powell to visit, you may find yourself coming back again and again. 

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

Your road is everything that a road ought to be…

And yet you will not stay in it half a mile, for the reason that little, seductive, mysterious roads are always branching out from it on either hand, and as these curve sharply also and hide what is beyond, you cannot resist the temptation to desert your own chosen road and explore them.

—Mark Twain, American author