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Monday, September 7, 2015 : Lake Powell, Rainbow Bridge, Horseshoe Bend

 

This morning, we are not exactly in a hurry. Last night, I reserved our tickets for a boat trip on Lake Powell to Rainbow Bridge, but we only leave at 12:30p.

 

Wi-fi is still as unstable as last night, and we are not able to chat with the family on Skype. We have to do with a phone call from my mom. But how the hell did we cope, during my earliest road trips in the States, when there were no internet and no mobile phones ?

 

After a quite decent breakfast, we get some cash from the ATM at the service station across the street, we reserve our Antelope Canyon excursion for tomorrow morning and we drive to Wahweap Marina, in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

 

Lake  Powell seen from Lake Shore Drive

Lake  Powell seen from Lake Shore Drive

 

Since we do not have the bags and the weather is bright, we open the hood. The drive is rather short, less than 15 minutes. We are two hours early, we take our time.

 

Soon after entering Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a site managed by National Park Service, where our America The Beautiful Interagency Pass is valid, we stop on a wide shoulder along Lake Shore Drive for a few pictures, including the one above. We brought sunscreen, which is a brilliant idea.

 

Lake Powell takes its name from a Civil War veteran, John Wesley Powell, who made himself famous by exploring Colorado River in 1869.

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Lake Powell and Wahweap Marina

Lake Powell and Wahweap Marina

 

We collect our boat tickets, spend a moment watching the displays about the history of the region, the town of Page, Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, and take a walk outside.

 

Glen Canyon Dam was proposed in the 1950s, to make sure enough water was made available for the whole population of the Southwest. Under Colorado River Compact provisions, States with water surplus (Colorado, Utah) store it in large reservoirs, for usage by States with water shortfalls (Nevada, Arizona, California). Colorado and its tributaries (Green River, San Juan River) being the only water basin in the Southwest, large dams had to be erected. The most important ones are Glen Canyon Dam, here, and Hoover Dam, 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas.

 

The bad news is that massive water withdrawals along the course of Colorado practically prevent it from reaching its mouth in the Gulf of California. The good news is that those same massive withdrawals supply water to about 40 million Southwestern residents, from the dams' close vicinity to Los Angeles, 250 miles from Colorado.

 

The construction of Glen Canyon Dam lasted from October 1956 to September 1963, turbines and generators were installed between 1970 and 1980, and Lake Powell was filled from 1963 till June 1980. At the time of my first visit in the area, in August 1980, it had just been completed, which I was not aware of at he time.

 

To host dam workers, a brand new town had to be built from scratch, on land swapped with the Navajo Nation. Today, Page has 7,200 residents and mostly lives off local tourism.

 

Glen Canyon Dam being 27 miles from the nearest paved road, a brand new highway, US Route 89, had to be built as well, from Kanab, UT, to Bitter Springs, AZ or, rather, an existing highway, former US-89, was diverted for about 100 miles and renamed US-89A. We will talk more about it in a few days.

 

The picture above only shows a small part of Wahweap Marina, which has space for about 850 boats.

 

After our walk around the marina, we walk back up to the lobby, where we are expected. Soon we are called and, by some odd privilege we never asked for, taken down to our boat in an electric vehicle driven by one of the crew officers.

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Castle Rock

Castle Rock

 

We know that we are near the end of the tourist season when we notice that our group only has about a dozen people, though our boat can accomodate way more than 100. No formal meal is included, but the crew is happy to offer passengers water bottles, coffee, fruit juice, cookies and apples.

 

The trip to Rainbow Bridge is 3 hours. In addition to the guide's comment in English, we have a quite detailed audioguide in French.

 

There are no stops during the trip. A few times, though, the boat slows down to describe points of interest, such as Castle Rock, a place where many films were shot, including both versions of Planet of the Apes (1968 and 2001).

 

We have crossed the Arizona-Utah state line again. Indeed, while Glen Canyon Dam is in Arizona, most of Lake Powell is in Utah.

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Tower Butte

Tower Butte

 

During the second slowdown, the guide describes us Tower Butte, just in the middle of the picture.

 

At the end of the day, a butte pretty much looks like a mesa, except for one detail :

 

  • When the hill is wider than higher, it is a mesa,
  • When the hill is higher than wider, it is a butte.

 

Predictably, the first (and only ...) question I ask the guide is : "And when the hill is exactly the same width and height, what is it ?". Feel free to use the contact form to share your own suggestions.

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Future arches on the shore of Lake Powell

Future arches on the shore of Lake Powell

 

Erosion is  a never-ending process except, of course, when there is nothing left to erode. On the right of this rock, we can see a number of small alcoves, all at the same height. A few dozen millenia from now, they will probably have turned into small arches.

 

Close to the marina, many house-boats, rented by the day or by the week by whole families, are criss-crossing the lake in all directions. These house-boats have a very low draft, and it is appreciated not to rock them too wildly by passing close by at full speed. That is why our boat quite often slows down to pass around.

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Eastern shore of Lake Powell, Navajo Mountain in the background

Eastern shore of Lake Powell, Navajo Mountain in the background

 

The mountain with the flat top in the background is Navajo Mountain. It is not a volcano, but a very large igneous intrusion in the midst of Colorado Plateau limestone. Those igneous intrusions pack enough energy to melt surrounding material and force their way thru, but not enough to become live volcanoes.

 

Navajo Mountain is 10,348 ft high, which is 6,700 ft above Lake Powell, and 5,900 ft above the plateau. It is the highest summit in the region. No wonder it can be seen from so far ! On this picture, it is about 25 mi. away from us.

 

Navajo Mountain has been venerated by Ancestral Puebloans, and is now a sacred place for the Hopi, who call it "The Heart of the Earth", and the Navajo, who call it "The Head of the Earth". It is on the territory of the Navajo Nation.

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Shore of Lake Powell

Shore of Lake Powell

 

As we get farther from Wahweap Marina, our starting point, we see less and less boats. Due to their very low speed, house-boats never venture that far. Where we are now, we have not seen a single one for quite a while.

 

Our boat has now picked up its cruising speed and is no longer slowed down.

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Lake Powell

Lake Powell

 

When Lake Powell began to fill, many sites were submerged, including Crossing of the Fathers, a series of sand bars across the river, used by Spanish missionaries Escalante and Dominguez when they explored the region in 1776. This ford is now flooded inder 400 ft of water.

 

Lake Powell fills up Glen Canyon, patiently carved by Colorado River over the course of a few million years. Needless to say, its shorelines are particularly tortuous. However, as an exception to the rule, starting from where we are now, there is an alignment that allows to navigate in a straight line. Our guide calls this the 5-mile stretch.

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Water level marks and erosion on the shore of Lake Powell

Water level marks and erosion on the shore of Lake Powell

 

On this picture of the west rim of Lake Powell, we can very clearly see the orange parts of rock, which have never been submerged, and the clearer, almost white parts, which emerged as the level of the lake decreased. The highest water mark ever was 3,700 ft above sea level. On the day of our visit, water level is 3,610 ft. In 35 years, that is a 90-ft decrease, mainly due to increasing water withdrawals, whereas global warming irregularly, slowly but surely, decreases snow covers in the Rocky Mountains, which are the main source of lake refill each spring when they melt.

 

The two largest lakes of Colorado Basin, Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam, make up only one hydrological unit. When the level of one lake increases, the other one decreases, and vice versa. In 2014, attempts to preserve water level in Lake Powell pushed Lake Mead to its lowest level since the 1930s.

 

In this region, water is both a scarce and precious natural resource. Its usage has to be closely monitored, with the fragile ecological balance of all ecosystems and, ultimately, the prosperity of close to 40 million people, at stake.

 

The height of Glen Canyon Dam has been carefully calculated so that the highest level water can ever reach does not jeopardize the many sacred sites in the region, such as Rainbow Bridge.

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Rainbow Bridge canyon mouth

Rainbow Bridge canyon mouth

 

Our boat has sigificantly slowed down, but it is not because of a house-boat. We are at the mouth of Rainbow Bridge Canyon, a narrow and tortuous passage which boats have to cross at a very slow speed.

 

Engine noise is quite muted, silence is back, that's good. For some reason, all other tourists have gone downstairs to sit inside the boat, although the weather is nice, with no wind. Marie and I are now the only ones on the upper deck.

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Not much space in Rainbow Bridge canyon !

Not much space in Rainbow Bridge canyon !

 

Our boat very slowly crosses Rainbow Bridge Canyon. Not only is the passage quite narrow, but the captain also takes great care not to go a wrong way. With its multiple almost identical-looking branches, the canyon begins to look quite like a labyrinth.

 

The canyon gets a little wider at its end, just enough to maneuver a boat and dock it to a floating jetty. I ask the guide how they do when the level of the lake decreases. His reply is straightforward : "Very easy, we add a section to the floating jetty".

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On the trail to Rainbow Bridge

On the trail to Rainbow Bridge

 

As soon as we get off the boat, we follow our guide on the trail to Rainbow Bridge, which is rather short, 1 1/4 mi., without much elevation gain. Needless to say, it is an easy walk. And since the canyon is kind of narrow, parts of the trail are in the shade. That's great !

 

At the beginning of the trail, our guide shows us a few large iron rings with cables, hanging from the sides of the canyon, perhaps 30 feet above us. These are the old rings used to fasten the floating jetty back in the 1980s, when the level of Lake Powell was much higher than nowadays.

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Rainbow Bridge

Rainbow Bridge

 

We have almost reached Rainbow Bridge. The size of this natural bridge is impressive. From close up, it is really, really huge. It is 290 ft high and spans 275 ft. It is the third largest natural bridge in the USA.

 

It is really a natural bridge and not an arch. In theory, if late summer had not made it dry, there should be a river under the bridge, the one that helped create it.

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Rock engraving at Rainbow Bridge

Rock engraving at Rainbow Bridge

 

The outside world discovered Rainbow Bridge little over a century ago, thanks to Cummings-Douglass Expedition in 1909. The next year, President William Howard Taft designated it a National Monument, under the provision of the Antiquities Act, signed into law by his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, which allowed the President to designate as a National Monument any natural or historic site deemed of significant interest for future generations, according to the text.

 

The site had been known to local populations for centuries, though, as the rock engraving in the picture above shows. This engraving is several centuries old. Earliest traces of human presence in the vicinity of the site date back to year 540 A.D.

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Rainbow Bridge

Rainbow Bridge

 

Contrary to what the picture shows, I am not under the bridge, but more than 50 feet ahead. The whole Rainbow Bridge site is venerated by local Navajo populations and, since the 1950s, it is absolutely out of question to pass above or under the bridge. Signs remind of the sacred value of the site, and rangers on duty make sure those beliefs are duly respected.

 

The trail coming from the dock ends here. Right behind Rainbow Bridge, Navajo Nation territory begins. There is no easy land access, and early visits were genuine expeditions that lasted several days. Therefore, there were very few tourists for decades. The filling up of Lake Powell to its permanent level made access much easier, and the number of visitors shot up from 3,000 to close to 100,000 per year. Such a flow of visitors on a both fragile and sacred site evidently required mandatory procedures to preserve it. That is why there are always two rangers on duty.

 

I have a conversation with one of the rangers. She shows me a hardly visible print in the rock ground. It is a dinosaur foot, about 1 ft wide. 3 relatively thin, widely spread claws ... it is most likely a dilophosaurus, a 20-ft long and 7-ft tall (making it much larger than the velociraptors in Jurassic Park)  carnivore that lived in the area about 190 million yars ago. Obviously, the animal did not leave such a print on hard ground. It walked in mud, which later solidified and miraculously preserved the print. 

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Our boat at Rainbow Bridge

Our boat at Rainbow Bridge

 

After a few minutes gazing at the site, chatting with the rangers and resting, we finally leave beautiful Rainbow Bridge and walk back to the dock.

 

I point out to our guide that the boat is registered in Philadelphia, on the East Coast, and that it must have been quite a feat to bring it here. In fact, it is a purely administrative registration. This boat never actually left Lake Powell.

 

We then leave. The return trip is faster than the first one, and our guide no longer talks, except at the very end, when we pass again close by Castle Rock. At some point, I go for a chat with the helmsman. I tell him that, since we crossed the Utah state line, we should have set our watches one hour forward, setting them one hour backward just before entering Wahweap Marina again. While agreeing with me on the facts, he replies that, perhaps, it is not meaningful to bother vacationing tourists with such a quixotic question, for an excursion that, eventually, always comes back to where it started from.

 

Finally, our guide tells us that his boat, the Nonne Zoshi, was used on June 29, 1985 to pull 89 water skiers for the minimum duration of 20 seconds needed to certify a world record for the feat. He preciously keeps a picture of the event next to the helm.

 

We are back at Wahweap Marina. After a quick walk thru the shop, we leave Glen Canyon.

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Wahweap south entrance, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Wahweap south entrance, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

 

At the exit of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, we take a picture of the entry sign common to most NPS sites.

 

The weather is really fine, we decide to drive to Horseshoe Bend, a beautiful bend of Colorado River, about 12 mi. from here, which we have already seen 5 years ago. It is sort of late in the afternoon, but we stand a slim chance to make it in time for sunset which, in theory, should be gorgeous.

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Sunset at Horseshoe Bend

Sunset at Horseshoe Bend

 

The time to find a place to park the Camaro and walk down the .6 mi. trail, it is too late. We miss sunset by a mere few minutes, at most. No big deal, though. Marie nonetheless takes a few pictures of Horseshoe Bend with whatever little daylight remains.

 

We are not the only ones with the same idea. The site is absolutely crowded, the parking lot overflows, cars are parked on both sides of US Route 89 for perhaps 1/4 mi.

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Sunset at Horseshoe Bend

Sunset at Horseshoe Bend

 

As a warm-up for the next days, Marie takes times to try herself at shooting pictures of the sky right after sunset, which I find quite good.

 

We then drive back to the hotel. Dinner is the same as yesterday, Taco Bell for me and McDonald's for Marie. Wi-fi is still as unstable, with the same consequences for backing up pictures and updating the blog. I am beginning to build backlog, which does not exactly thrill me.

 

This was a beautiful day, very well spent, with gorgeous weather.

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