It is one of the most iconic photos on Instagram, seeming to come right out of a Windows background. Horseshoe Bend, where the mighty Colorado River makes a perfect U-turn, is a bucket list destination for so many people, myself included. But it is just one part of a much larger system, defined by the controversial building of a dam along the river. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area has a lot to offer.

Horseshoe Bend

In 1936, the mighty Hoover Dam opened, blocking the Colorado River to form Lake Mead, adding both the nation’s largest reservoir and hydro-electric plant. For the southwestern United States, the reservoir was a boon, giving a bit of water certainty to an area quickly growing in population, and subject to huge swings in rainfall and snowpack. Subsequent proposals to add dams both to the lower and upper Colorado were studied, and one that went forward was a dam in the Glen Canyon area of the river along the Arizona-Utah border.

In 1963, Glen Canyon Dam opened, flooding the canyon and its maze of passageways along the river, creating Lake Powell, a long and narrow reservoir that would be second to Lake Mead in size. In 1972, the area surrounding the lake, and extending to the lower Glen Canyon (below the dam) became Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and since then, has attracted water lovers from all over the world for boating sans speed limit and exploration of the myriad of canyons contained in Lake Powell. The city of Page, originally a home for those working on construction of the dam, quickly became a tourism center. Hotels and boat rentals became the predominant features of the landscape.

But what is there to do in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area? And is damming a river to create a reservoir worthwhile? Let’s take a deeper look into these topics.

What to Do in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Any trip to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area has to begin with Lake Powell itself. It is, by any objective standard, a gem for boaters. Whether speedboats or houseboats are your preference, Lake Powell can accommodate. The lake is long and narrow, 186 miles long and only 25 miles wide at its widest point; most of the lake is even narrower, less than a mile wide, as Glen Canyon itself never overflowed after damming, leaving most of Lake Powell as a flooded gorge. What this means is a ton of narrow passageways to explore, winding one’s way through the canyons flooded along the Colorado.

Adventurous water lovers can rent kayaks and explore Lake Powell, or connected slot canyons like Antelope Canyon, under their own power. Or they can kayak the lower canyon, where the Colorado River still flows.

Kayaking into Antelope Canyon

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area extends well below the dam, protecting the Colorado River all the way to the border of Grand Canyon National Park. The most famous feature of this area is Horseshoe Bend. A well maintained path takes visitors from the parking area (it is owned by the city of Page so there is a fee regardless of whether one has a national parks pass) to a viewpoint for the most iconic view. It is easy here to see what Glen Canyon would have looked like before the building of the dam, a narrow gorge cut into red rock by the force of the mighty river.

For a closer encounter with the Colorado River, head to Lee’s Ferry, the only place one can actually touch the river – and the launch point for rafting trips through the Grand Canyon. Just below the launch point is the first rapid of a long and rough journey for intrepid adventurers.

Rapid #1 at Lee’s Ferry

If seeing Glen Canyon Dam is on your list, I think the best view is the Glen Canyon Dam Overlook in Page itself. It is a short (but steep, with stairs) hike down to an incredible view of both the dam and parts of the lower canyon.

Glen Canyon Dam

Do you like hiking? A short and easy hike takes you to the Hanging Garden, a natural living wall of ferns growing out of a rock cliff. The ground is uneven but relatively flat – unless one takes the spur up a nearby hill.

The Hanging Garden

This is just a short list of things. There are others I haven’t personally experienced (and therefore can’t accurately write about), like Rainbow Bridge, the world’s longest natural arch, or other hikes in and around the lake/canyon, and tours of the dam itself.

Controversy Surrounding Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

From basically the moment Glen Canyon Dam was built, it has been steeped in controversy. On the one hand, the dam provides a significant power output (approximately 1320 MW), and Lake Powell helps store water that the southwestern states desperately need during times of drought. On the other hand, there are significant environmental issues, even more than with dams on the lower Colorado River.

Let’s first look at the positives. Lake Powell, at capacity, contains 27 million acre-feet of water. That’s a lot. The Colorado River is fed by snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains, and is depended upon by six southwestern states. Canals take the water collected by Lake Powell (and other reservoirs) throughout much of Arizona, allowing for cities like Phoenix and Tucson to exist in the deserts. (Yes, there are other dams on other rivers, but they pale in comparison to those on the Colorado.) If not for Lake Powell and its brethren, it is uncertain as to whether these urban centers could exist.

As an aside, today Lake Powell is at less than 40% capacity, as is Lake Mead. Flow of the Colorado River is not what it has been in the past, due to decreased snow in the Rockies, as well as increased temperatures that lead to more water being absorbed into the ground in the mountains rather than flowing down to the river. It is unlikely that this trend will reverse in the intermediate term, though short term year-to-year snowfall is less predictable and there can be a year or two that bely the longer pattern. If this continues throughout 2021, it is estimated that for the first time, a clause in the compact between the states dependent on the Colorado for water will be triggered, leading to water austerity measures. The most noticeable immediate result will be a cut of nearly one third to Arizona’s agricultural water allotment.

Lake Powell’s Wahweap Bay is an easy place to see just how far the water has receded. The brown area in the upper right should be underwater.

Without Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, these austerity measures would likely be even more severe, although for the time being, Lake Powell in its entirety could simply drain into Lake Mead. However, if both reservoirs return nearer to capacity, that wouldn’t be the case. Water is the limiting factor to growth of the American southwest, and while one can argue whether that growth is a positive, as long as people want to live there, water will be needed.

On the other hand, the environmental impact of damming a major river is huge. First, there is the impact of the dam on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The Colorado is a sediment-heavy river, and much of that sediment is trapped behind the dam. While this leads to the filling in of the reservoir itself (estimates of its lifespan average 3-500 years before that sediment makes it unusable as a reservoir), more importantly, the lack of sediment on the lower river prevents sandbars and islands from forming or maintaining inside the Grand Canyon, leading to a severe reduction in ecological diversity within that fragile ecosystem. Secondly, a reservoir the size of Lake Powell loses a tremendous amount of water, close to 900,000 acre-feet per year, in evaporation. Furthermore, climate scientists believe that the reflection of reservoirs adds to global warming and further climate change.

Groups like the Sierra Club have been advocating for the demolition of Glen Canyon Dam for decades, and although the movement doesn’t seem to have any real legislative momentum behind it as of yet, a more environmentally-conscious younger generation might see that shift. It might be that we see stronger advocacy for a radical shift like this in the way we deal with water in the southwest over the next decade or two. That would obviously have profound effects both on the states dependent on water from the Colorado and its reservoirs and for the fragile environment the river sustains. Where is the balance? I don’t have a good answer.

For now, though, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area makes a great destination for outdoor enthusiasts as well as environmental historians. It offers a myriad of ways to experience the wonder of the Colorado River and its tributaries, and to marvel at the power – and importance – of water to this remote landscape.

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