Quick Trip: Lake Powell

Lake Powell, Utah
Article by Alexander Moliski
February 06, 2020

What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote.

Edward Abbey

The Plan

Spend a low-stress, revitalizing weekend on the banks of Lake Powell.

Winter in the Wasatch

Park City, my current hometown, is a renowned travel destination in the winter months for its world-class ski resorts, indie film festivals, and temperate, beautiful, snow. In fact, Utah, specifically the Wasatch Mountain Range, is known around the world for its near-perfect snow.

Being from the east coast, I didn’t grow up skiing. I actually never even rode a ski lift until this year. I’ve been learning and loving, the sport of skiing, but the inner backpacker in me wasn’t ready to back up my boots for the entire season.

Wanting to get out of the snow for a weekend, I decided to drive a few hours south to Lake Powell and soak up the desert sun with a fishing line in the water. Luckily, Utah is one of the few places I could get away with such a winter sabbatical. Out east, it wasn’t really an option. Once winter came, it was impossible to escape in a day’s time without the help of modern flight.

South Utah

Like North Utah, South Utah is a destination location in its own right. With five (!) world-class national parks—Zion, Arches, Bryce, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands—all within a single six-hour drive, it’s impossible to deny the area’s beauty. During peak season, late spring through summer, the stunning red landscapes attract tourists by the thousands. In the off-season, winter to early spring, the area is far less appealing to visitors due to occasional snowfalls, and extremely cold night temperatures. To me, there’s nothing more beautiful than a desert covered in a fresh coat of snow. The pure-white contrasts off of the reds and pinks in the sands creating a bizarre display of natural colors.

Mt. Hillers

As I drove south from Salt Lake, I passed very few people on the desolate desert roads. I had the sand, mountains, and expanse to myself. After about four hours, I came to Hanksville and turned onto 95 south. Nearly the entire stretch of road from Hanksville to Bullfrog is surrounded by BLM land. Typically, BLM land is made of scraps of “useless” land that’s converted to multi-purpose graze land. There’s usually not much to see, with the “pretty” land usually being swallowed by parks or recreation areas. But because this is Utah, there really isn’t any land that isn’t beautiful, and even on the stretch of remote BLM land, I was surrounded by gulleys, canyons, mountains, and mesas. I wanted to jump out and explore but the trip nearing five hours and it was getting late.

Glen Canyon

Before heading on the trip I did a bit of research on the area. Wanting to follow the right rules, I found that [primitive camping] is allowed anywhere on the shoreline of Lake Powell without permits or fees—bingo. I then hopped onto Google Maps satellite view to find a back road that would get me close enough to the lake. I found a promising paved BLM land road that led to a dirt road not too far from the lakeshore. I’ve found using satellite mode to be an effective strategy, but it can sometimes look too good to be true. Google Maps satellites are usually a few years behind, and even more so in remote areas. These roads can be washed out, or as I found out the hard way in this case, closed. I pulled up to the BLM land road, followed it to where I saw the dirt road. At one point this area was called the “South Primitive Camping Area”, indicated by a sign. The sign also said that it was closed to vehicle access. Bummer.

I parked, in front of the sign, packed everything up and proceeded on foot. It was a 2.5-mile trek across the open desert. There was no trail to follow, I simply walked in the direction of the lake hoping to see water. Once I climbed a little hill the lake came into view. It was a beautiful site after walking nearly three miles through the desert with camping, camera, and fishing gear. I spotted a natural inlet and decided that’s where I was going to start.

Lake Powell

Lake Powell has always been on my radar. As an avid angler, I have a bucket-list of trophy fish I want to catch. Amazingly, Lake Powell has a healthy population of striped bass—one of my must-catch fishes—among other great species like trout, catfish, pike, and walleye. Fishing for catfish was a regular pastime back home in the east, and within minutes I had a channel cat on the end of my hook (chicken liver works every time for these guys!). Unfortunately, the striped bass eluded me and remains on my bucket list.

I only had a few hours to fish before the sun set. As soon as the sun went down over the cliffs, the temperature dropped, and I scrambled to set up my tent before it got even colder. While I was setting up camp, I couldn't help but be distracted by the near-perfect sunset. The pinks and reds reflected off of the still waters of Lake Powell creating a panorama of color.

This shot was barely edited - those were the natural colors of the sunset!

Once I found a good place for the tent, I set it up and immediately I hopped into my sleeping bag just in time to avoid the 20-degree temperatures. What I couldn’t avoid was the incessant howling from what seemed like a desert full of coyotes. They were worse than your average annoying neighborhood howler!

I woke up to a light layer of frost on my tent and shoes, but the view was worth the cold. Having to get a move-on, I packed up and got back on the road before the sun was over the distant hills—it really was a quick trip.

Now that I know more about the area, I plan on going back and taking advantage of the beautiful scenery and fish-filled waters with an extended trip down the lake. The dream is to paddle from Bullfrog to Wahweap, 100 miles away, down the canyons and crevices of Lake Powell’s unending arms. Maybe next summer…