Lake Powell’s winter allure
Spend a day around Lake Powell, and you might feel as if you should have done a few sessions of Rosetta Stone before your visit. You’re likely to hear German, French and Japanese being spoken—and that’s just before lunch.
Lake Powell, or more officially, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, (928-628-6200, NPS.gov/glca) draws 3 million visitors per year from around the world because it offers the classic red-rock geography Utah is famous for combined with a huge body of water.
“It’s the unique landscape,” says National Park Service’s Chris Thompson of Glen Canyon’s appeal. “It’s the mixture of colored sandstone and the volume of water that really attracts people.”
While the azure-colored lake is about 180 miles long, Thompson notes, “They use the reference of 2,000 miles of shoreline if you can imagine that with the ins and outs of all the coves.”
As Thompson says, “I’ve been here for quite a while, and every time I go out, I say, ‘Wow, I didn’t see that one before.’”
While Lake Powell is famous as a summer attraction, it also makes for an alluring winter retreat. For starters, it’s far less crowded. Part of the enjoyment of a lake that meanders in and out of all sorts of canyons is that you can find your own little corner—walled in by cliffs—and savor the silence.
Winter is also a great time to enjoy the landscape surrounding the lake. Red-rock canyons that can be dangerously hot in the summer are perfect in the winter for hikers wearing fleece and jeans. Daytime highs in the 40s and 50s make for a picture of snow-dappled red rocks in the high spots and the desert in full bloom on the ground.
Check out the options on the following itinerary that takes you to Bullfrog Marina (435-684-3000, LakePowell.com) and the surrounding area in Southern Utah.
Head out of Salt Lake City on Thursday taking Interstate 15 south to Spanish Fork. Then take U.S. Route 6 to Green River, and from there, briefly take Interstate 70 west to Utah State Route 24, which takes you to Hanksville. After that three-and-a-half hour drive, you’ll be ready to stop for a hearty meal at Duke’s Slickrock Grill (275 E. State Route 24, Hanksville, 435-542-2052, DukesSlickrock.com) for dishes like “The Stagecoach” (chicken-fried steak) or “Red River” (fresh Utah trout) with a side of Dutch-oven potatoes. Do not leave without trying at least one of the fresh house-made pies.
Heading south out of Hanksville, the road turns into Utah State Route 276. In about an hour, you’ll find yourself just outside the Glen Canyon Recreation Area.
There are a number of options for staying at or around the lake—campgrounds, RV hookups, renting a houseboat, or checking in at Defiance House Lodge (888-896-3829, LakePowell.com)—located right on the lake—or at Ticaboo Resort (Mile Marker 28, State Route 276, Ticaboo, 844-662-2628, Ticaboo.com) just a few miles north of the lake.
The resort’s location and on-site Adventure Center make it an ideal place to combine both water and land activities such as those detailed in this itinerary. The resort also has full-service rooms, picnic options and a store. There’s also Moki’s Grill on-site, which is perfect place to grab a good pizza when you get back to your room at night. Get rested and ready for a big day on Friday.
On Friday, grab breakfast at the hotel, walk over to the Adventure Center and hop in a two- or four-seat Razor. You can download a PDF map on your phone that will show you the options. Head west to find canyons and washes to explore. Heading east brings the opportunity to go along rim trails that provide spectacular views of Lake Powell.
Back at Ticaboo, grab a catered picnic to-go, hop in the car and head down 276 into Glen Canyon Recreation Area. The admission fee is $25 per car for seven days (also, $25 per boat for seven days). Today, you’ll be gliding across the water on Hall’s Crossing Ferry, which runs from the north side of the lake to the south. The 25-minute ride leaves on the hour every odd hour and costs $25 per car. The ferry is actually part of the state highway system and State Route 276 (435-893-4747, UDOT.Utah.gov). It’s a good idea to check on the ferry beforehand because it does not run when the water level drops below a certain point.
On the other side of the lake, you’re still on SR-276 headed east toward Natural Bridges National Monument (435-692-1234, ext. 16, NAPS.org/nabr), which is about a 90-minute drive away. Once at Natural Bridges, break out the picnic and enjoy the vistas before hiking. There are three major natural bridges in the park that can be seen in three individual short hikes, or check out all three while hiking the 8.6-mile loop trail through the park.
After leaving Natural Bridges, head northwest up State Route 95. It takes you around the north edge of the lake, and in about an hour, you’ll be back at the 276 between Hanksville and Ticaboo. Head a half-hour north to Hanksville for dinner at Stan’s Burger Shak, (150 S. Highway 95, Hanksville, 435-542-3330, StansBurgerShak.com), a classic small-town joint that’s been serving up burgers, onion rings and shakes since 1984. You’re once again an hour from base camp at Ticaboo.
On Saturday, grab breakfast at the resort then get ready for a day on the water. Given that the water temperature is in the 40s at this time of year, you’ll probably want to stay away from wave-runners and paddle-boards and go with a motorized boat. All shapes and sizes are available for rental either at Bullfrog Marina or from Ticaboo if you are set up to haul a boat.
Once in the water, make sure you either pull up a PDF map and have a GPS, but other than that, our advice is don’t overthink it or worry too much about where you’re going or listen to too many people giving you directions. The beauty of the Lake Powell water experience is turning a corner and having your breath taken away as you enter a hidden cove where red-rock cliffs rise around you on every side. Don’t be reckless or get lost, but this is the day to ask, “Hey, what’s over that way?” and then go find out.
You’ll want to stop for lunch at Hall’s Crossing (435-684-7000, LakePowell.com), open year-round on the other side of the lake from Bullfrog Marina—only about a 20-minute drive by motorboat. You can dock just yards from the store and snack bar. It’s a great place to grab food to take on the boat.
After an afternoon spent exploring the lake, stay down by the lake for dinner at Anasazi Restaurant (888-896-3829, LakePowell.com) for specialties like the bacon-wrapped, blackened meatloaf sandwich on grilled ciabatta.
The last morning of the trip is time for a scenic drive on the Burr Trail (NPS.gov/glca). Head south on SR-276, but just before getting to Glen Canyon Recreation Area, turn right and head west on the Burr Trail. It’s less than 70 miles, but passes through Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Capitol Reef National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
If the weather is wet, use caution and check with rangers before attempting to drive a road that is partially unpaved.
The trail is about a three-hour drive from Ticaboo to the town of Boulder, Utah, if you don’t make any stops, but you won’t be able to resist stopping and parking five miles in at “Pedestal Alley.” The three-mile hike takes you by numerous rock formations that look like, well, pedestals.
About midway through the drive, you’ll hit “The Switchbacks.” It’s a steep climb, but it provides beautiful views at the top of the pass where you’ll want to stop.
From there, you could keep going to Boulder, but since the road can be dicey in wet weather, it’s best to head back the way you came to SR-276 and trace your steps home. Build in a little extra time to head a little out of your way on I-70 to the Tamarisk Restaurant (1710 E. Main, Green River, 435-564-8109, TamariskRestaurant.com). The eatery sits on the banks of the river the town is named for and, since 1979, has been serving up a menu of steaks, fish, burgers, sandwiches and Southwestern dishes. Make sure to get the appetizer of Navajo fry bread with honey-butter.
For Utahns, visiting Lake Powell and the surrounding area during the winter months is a true get-away. It’s not only less crowded and less expensive, it’s more relaxed and serene. You’ll be reminded why the world comes to see the unique natural beauty of our state.
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