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

6 Lakes to Explore This Summer

Check out our list of lakes to explore this summer and plan your next road trip

There’s no better way to cool down on a warm summer day than hanging out at your local body of water. Fortunately, the US and Canada are packed with incredible, pristine lakes that offer plenty of opportunities to watch the sunset over alpine peaks, paddle along calm, glassy waters, or kick off your flip flops and go for a dip.

So, if you’re looking to kick-start your summer adventure, look no further. We’ve put together a list of six stunning lakes worthy of at least a weekend away.

Lake Powell, Utah/Arizona

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Powell, set dramatically against a backdrop of eroded red rock canyons and mesas, is the largest man-made lake in North America and is widely recognized by boating enthusiasts as one of the premier water-based recreation destinations in the world.

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Powell, formed by the impounded waters of the Colorado River above the Glen Canyon Dam, is the best known and most visited feature at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The vast landscape of Glen Canyon contains rugged water- and wind-carved canyons, buttes, mesas, rivers, seeps, springs, and hanging gardens.

Saguaro Lake, Arizona

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro Lake is located about 40 miles northeast of downtown Phoenix. The lake is named for its surrounding stands of Saguaro cactus. It has more than 22 miles of shoreline and is 118 feet deep at its deepest point when full and is about 10 miles long.

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lake is perfect for power boating, sailing, water-skiing, jet-skiing, kayaking, and fishing. The lake is divided into two sections connected by narrows between canyon walls. The lower main portion has the greater water surface, while the more narrow east end has boat access camping.

Okanagan Lake, British Columbia

Okanagan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okanagan Lake, home of the legendary lake monster Ogopogo, is the largest lake in the region and located close to the center of the beautiful Okanagan Valley. Highway 97 takes you along the shoreline from Penticton to Kelowna, traveling through many communities.

Okanagan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the way there are numerous access spots leading to beautiful sandy beaches, resorts, and campsites. Penticton, Naramata, Summerland, Peachland, and Kelowna are all located on the shores of Okanagan Lake hosting thousands of visitors to the area.

Lackawanna Lake, Pennsylvania

Lackawanna Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 1,445-acre Lackawanna State Park is in northeastern Pennsylvania, ten miles north of Scranton. The centerpiece of the park, the 198-acre Lackawanna Lake, is surrounded by picnic areas and multi-use trails winding through forest.

Lackawanna Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boating, camping, fishing, mountain biking, and swimming are popular recreation activities. The campground is within walking distance of the lake and swimming pool, and features forested sites with electric hook-ups.

Lake George, New York

Lake George © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake George, nicknamed the “Queen of American Lakes”, is a long, narrow lake located at the southeast base of the Adirondack Mountains, in the northeastern portion of New York State. It lies within the upper region of the Great Appalachian Valley and drains northward into Lake Champlain.

Lake George © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get outdoors and enjoy the beauty of Lake George and the Southern Adirondacks. There’s a little something for everyone, whether you are hiking with your family, playing a round of golf with friends, or heading out for an extreme adventure.

Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire

Lake Winnipesaukee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Winnipesaukee is the largest and most popular lake in New Hampshire and certainly one of the most scenic. Located at the foothills of the White Mountains and surrounded by mountain ranges, Lake Winnipesaukee contains more than 300 islands and covers 44,000 acres of crystal clear water.

Lake Winnipesaukee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The M/S Mount Washington visits five different ports on alternating days throughout the week. Weirs Beach is the Mount Washington’s home port and offers cruises every day. All cruises are 2½ hours roundtrip.

Ready to Go?

Lake Winnipesaukee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The time has come for you to get your boat on, swim on, hike on, or float on. Whether you love to hike, bike, camp, backpack, paddle, surf, houseboat, or sail—one of these beautiful bodies of water will certainly fit the bill.

Worth Pondering…

Once in a lifetime, if one is lucky, one so emerges with sunshine and air and running water that whole eons might pass in a single afternoon without notice.

—Loren Eisley

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