This post was most recently updated on July 9th, 2019
If you’ve never been to Lake Powell in Utah/Arizona, then you definitely need to put that on your bucket list. It’s like the Grand Canyon, but filled with water. There are so many arches, cool rock formations, hidden beaches, coves, and bays. And since the water level changes so much from year to year, the lake is hardly the same twice.
There are many ways to experience Powell: tent camping on the beach, boat camping where you find a more private beach, day trips on tour boats (those throw off great wakes for jumping the wave runners btw!), hiking trips (Reflection Canyon, Hole in the Rock), weekly houseboat rentals, or houseboat timeshares. This post details some of the experiences of houseboating, which allows you to get way further up lake, camp at some seriously awesome and private beaches, and gives you a comfortable home base to explore some of what Lake Powell has to offer.
First off, Lake Powell is huge. Google ‘Lake Powell’ and go to maps. It might look pretty skinny, but each of those arms on the map are bigger than most lakes around. It takes almost 4 hours to sail from Wahweap Marina to Rainbow Bridge (one of the largest natural bridges on the planet), and that’s not even half of the lake! The Lake is in the Glen Canyon National Recreation area, so it costs $30 per vehicle to enter.
If you’re driving there from Salt Lake City, you’ve got about 3 hours of freeway driving, followed by 3 more hours of cruising the Scenic Byways. You’ll most likely end up behind a line of trucks, trailers, and boats on this leg. Better brush up on your (legal) passing skills or your 3 hour cruise will turn into an agonizing 4+ hour tour.
The little towns that you drive through are pretty cool though, but watch out for the parked police SUV. Most of the time they just put a dummy inside to slow people down through the 35/45 MPH zones. But who’s to say a bored deputy won’t decide to spend an afternoon giving out a bajillion tickets to speeding vacationers trying to beat the crowds to Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon, or Cedar Breaks?
If you’re coming from Vegas, your drive is two hours shorter, but not as pretty, aside from the Virgin River Gorge. You’ll be driving through the desert the entire way. Double check your AC and make sure your car is topped off with all the fluids (which you should do before any trip).
Depending on which company you rent or own the houseboat from, you can either put in at Bullfrog marina, in the middle of nowhere Utah — or Page, Arizona, a mini oasis at the southwestern end of the lake. Page is a full service town, complete with McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Sonic, and the most important place to a Lake Powell goer: Super Walmart.
Forgot the salad dressing? No worries. Run out of diapers already? They’ve got you covered. Seeing the lake changed your mind about trying fishing? You can grab a license at the sports counter. Rode down in a tiny car with no room for a cooler? Well, you’re in luck, because you can do all of your shopping for the week right there!
Spending The Night in The Yard or Slip
Some houseboat management companies will let you board the boat in the yard the night before you launch. They have the boats on trailers and a semi pulls it early the next morning. If your boat is in the slip at the marina, you may be able to spend the night on the lake, just tied to a dock. We did hear that some companies can’t clean the boats fast enough between trips so you might need to spend the night before you launch in a hotel or camped on the beach.
Sleeping spots are pretty simple: you have tiny bedrooms below with soft beds, or a hard deck up top. Houseboats usually have fold-out mats for sleeping on top, or you can bring a hammock and sleep in style. It gets pretty stuffy at night, so those on top are usually cooler than those below. But top dwellers have to deal with the mosquitoes and early morning sun.
My personal choice is a hammock with a mosquito net on the top deck, and I keep a bandana with me that I wrap over my eyes once the sun comes up. That way I get the breeze, the bugs are kept at bay, and I can sleep in. I don’t know what it is about everybody else, but I like to sleep in on vacation. In this setup, I can sleep to my heart’s (and body’s) content and wake up once everyone else is finishing breakfast. Then I don’t have to fight the breakfast rush.
Early First Morning
If your boat is in the dry dock on land, you’ll need to get off early in the morning and drive to the marina. The company will haul the boat with a semi and let everyone board before they launch. They’ll go over everything one last time with you on how to turn on the engines, engage the motors, turn on the generator, and other odds and ends that go along with running a houseboat.
Once you’re on the lake, you have two choices: remain on the slow-moving, shade-giving houseboat where all the food is, or you can hit the high seas on the ski boat/jet skis and race to find the best spot. Make sure you have the walkie-talkies and plenty of sunscreen, water, and snacks, because you will get fried in the sun. I made the mistake in my first year of being so eager to begin, that I forgot most of that stuff before I started looking for a spot. I had a funny sunburn to prove it and I just sat and drank water for a few hours once the houseboat finally arrived.
Beaching the Boat
The further up the lake you go, the more secluded places to camp you will find, but you are further away from help if you need it. Navajo mountain has a cell tower on it so if you can get out to the main channel and see the mountain, you can likely make calls and stuff (but you’re on vacation, so put that dang phone away… censored for my mother-in-law). Once you do find a nice, sandy spot to park the boat you need to make sure that you anchor it really well. Some people tie off to huge boulders and others dig holes and bury the anchors in the sand. Just make sure your ropes are tight. We got blown sideways in a windstorm one year because we forgot to tighten the ropes that day.
The First Swim
As soon as we’re done setting anchors and tightening ropes, I run straight to the water. After all that work, it feels great to just get in and float. Turn on the water slide and spend a good hour playing like you haven’t played since you were little.
One word of advice: Even though you’ll look dorky, wear a thin, long-sleeved shirt and a wide brimmed hat every second that you’re not swimming for the first few days, and use lots of sunscreen during the trip. Everyone else will most likely soak up all the sun they can get, but after three straight days of that, they’ll burn up and start squirting the aloe vera. If you’re diligent about wearing the shirt and hat when you’re not swimming, you’re body will be used to the sun those first few days and you won’t burn up like everybody else.
Days three and four, you can start to be more lax about covering up, and by the end, you’ll be totally fine while some people are in pain. Trust me. The first year I went to Lake Powell, I was lucky enough to go twice that summer. I didn’t wear the shirt and hat during the first trip. After my burns finally healed and I headed back a few weeks later, I hardly ever took that shirt off and even went so far as to swim with it on so I didn’t get burned that bad again. Although, I don’t recommend that because you really will look dorky and you’ll be soaking wet when you get out and won’t want to wear the shirt until it’s dry.
Crazy Lake Powell Weather
Even though you’re likely visiting Lake Powell in the summer, the weather there is crazy. We’ve experienced gale force winds, sandstorms, thunderstorms, flash flooding, and even crazy hail storms! Bring appropriate gear and clothing, since you’re technically in the wilderness.
Meals & Clean-up
We usually assign each group (friends, family, whatever) a whole day of meals. If you’re on the lake for a week and you have a big group, you end up cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner for everyone in one day, then you get to enjoy everyone else’s cooking the rest of the days. If your group is smaller, you just take another day or two. We also do the dishes and cleaning of the boat the day that we cook. We’ve had pasta, burgers, sandwiches, cereal, waffles, and our favorite: shrimp, corn, potato, and sausage boil. Someone even brought smoked pork one year. They smoked it before the trip and brought it down frozen. Whatever you like to eat, make sure you enjoy it because you’ll be playing in the sun all day and your body will need it, along with PLENTY of fluids.
The houseboat we stay on has two bathrooms with sinks, toilets, and showers; ac; generator; tv; dvd player; microwave; toaster; fridge; oven; stove; grill; pretty much everything including the kitchen sink. It makes cooking and snacking great. Some boats don’t have generators or batteries, so make sure you check which amenities the boat you want to rent has.
There are plenty of popular hikes like Hole in the Rock, Rainbow Bridge, and Reflection Canyon, but there are so many ravines and side canyons, that you can explore all kinds of things almost anywhere you go.
We’ve hiked up narrow slot canyons up to our armpits in water, climbed up giant sand hills, bouldered along some big rock faces, and played on soft, sandy beaches.
If you have a ski boat and/or wave runners, you should already know how to enjoy playing on the lake. If you have a fishing license, you can catch some really big striped bass with frozen anchovies. There is a floating marina halfway up the lake, called Dangling Rope Marina, where you can get frozen custard and other treats, and even gas for your boat if you need it. If you just want to relax, bring a juicy romance novel or catch up on sleep for a few days. Whatever you do, enjoy life.
The night before you’re supposed to head back, you’ll want to start gathering up all your stuff. Depending on your pickup time, you may only have a few hours after first light to get back to the ramp to load the houseboat. If you picked a spot way up the lake, you may want to move a bay or two closer to the main bay so you don’t have to travel so far the next morning. You may have to pay a fee if you show up late…
The management company will most likely want to load the boat themselves rather than have some weary, weekend warriors try to load a million-dollar piece of equipment. Once you get back to the main bay, radio in, and send your ski boat to pick up the employee to bring back to the houseboat. They’ll steer it in and either put it in the slip, or ride it right onto the waiting truck.
Scurry and Get Out…Fast
The cleaning crews will want to clean the boat before the next group arrives so you’ll need to get everyone unloaded off the boat and packed into your hot cars quickly. Leave the houseboat nicer than you found it; it’s just common courtesy…(does that phrase even exist in our society anymore?).
The Long Trip Home…
After packing, unloading, and reloading all your gear, you’ll most likely be absolutely wasted. As you should be – you just spent a whole week partying at one of the coolest places on earth. But don’t throw in the towel just yet (unless you’re the self-appointed “co-captain” or backseat driver); You’ve got that long drive back. But for some reason, the trip back always seems to go by quicker. Maybe that’s because the anticipation is gone and you’re dreading going back to work tomorrow with your sunglasses tan or sunburn (unless you wore your hat and long sleeve shirt…).
Make sure to stop to eat, re-hydrate and stretch out, because your body needs it after all that partying. Just drive safely and stay awake so you can make the trip next year.
Enjoy this video from this year’s trip, in case you need any more motivation…
Video created by Jessie Heaton
As you know, Postcards & Passports is all about family travel and this post was written by my son-in-law, LJ Heaton. I appreciate his Lake Powell houseboating tips; he’s quite the expert as he’s been going for years. He’s also a great husband and father, an avid outdoorsman, and as quick-witted as they come! See more of his outdoor adventures at @outdoor_trekking_dude on Instagram.