Families flock to this enormous body of water straddling the Arizona-Utah border for its otherworldly landscape and lively houseboating scene. We met some devotees and discovered what the splash is all about
Emily Shur Lake Powell
| Credit: Emily Shur

Each summer morning, as the red-rock cliffs start to glow, the houseboats begin their parade across Lake Powell. Gleaming vessels with spiral staircases and rooftop hot tubs pull away from the six marinas. Rickety old crafts with names like Dock Potato and Sotally Tober slip out of sandy coves where they’ve been moored for the night. All cruise down the stunning 186-mile-long expanse of calm water, trailed by a flotilla of motorboats, dinghies, and Jet Skis, looking for fun.

A 2 1/2-hour drive northeast of the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell is the centerpiece of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which extends across southern Utah and dips into Arizona. The 1963 damming of the Colorado River to create the lake was hotly opposed and helped spark the environmental movement. But the controversy hasn’t kept the lake from being a magnet for 3 million visitors annually, most of them returning families.

The Huffmans of Salt Lake City are one such clan. At least three times a year this group of nine treks to Wahweap Marina, where their family’s quadruple-decker house-boat awaits—already lowered into the water and fully provisioned (mom Kathleen faxes ahead her order of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, sliced pastrami, and SunChips to a grocery store in nearby Page, Arizona). The family has only to putter off to a secluded beach and inflate the water trampoline. Base camp established, it’s into their speedboat for wake-boarding sessions or trips to petroglyph-filled Moki Canyon, where they anchor and hike. "It’s a low-maintenance vacation," says dad Jim. "When you’re hungry, you eat; when you’re tired, you sleep."

And on the lake, eating and sleeping don’t mean sacrificing familiar comforts. Seven years ago Diana and Paul Kessler of Los Angeles purchased a fractional ownership in a lavish five-cabin cruiser, which gives them two weeks afloat every year. Days start with pancakes for their five kids, ages 2 to 17—the houseboat’s kitchen has an oven, microwave, and suburban-size refrigerator. Dinner is steaks or swordfish, barbecued on the gas grill, followed by DVD’s in the air-conditioned living room. In between, the Kesslers water-ski and do backflips off the upper deck. Says Diana, "We hang out in our suits all day."

During his first hours in his rented houseboat last summer, Steve Shimahara wondered whether he’d ever get to put on his swim trunks. He and his sister had brought their fishing rods when they drove in from L.A. with their families and a few friends for five days. But they were novices; only after sweatily grappling with their rig’s fuel tanks and waste pumps did they finally "figure out the technical stuff" and begin reeling in ice chest–size striped bass.

It’s easy to get hooked on the lake even if you don’t houseboat. Mississippians Emma and Bob Miller and their Ohio grandteens Rebecca and Nathan Krauss dropped by on a driving tour of the Southwest’s national parks. They checked out the Lake Powell Resort and hit the water on a daylong cruise. Their sightseeing boat squeezed through an exceptionally narrow canyon before ending up at Rainbow Bridge, a 290-foot-tall pink-sandstone arch that’s a sacred Navajo site. Thirteen-year-old Rebecca pronounced the monument, shaped by wind and water, "amazing, beautiful, unique." Not unlike Lake Powell itself.

Lake Powell is 380 miles from Salt Lake City and 270 miles from Phoenix. Great Lakes Airlines (800/554-5111; greatlakesav.com) has daily flights from Denver and Phoenix into Page, Arizona, which is 10 minutes by car from the park’s southern—and busiest—entrance.

Where to Stay

Park concessionaire Aramark (800/528- 6154; lakepowell.com), which operates five of the lake’s six marinas, rents out one- to six-bedroom houseboats (from $1,345 for a three-day minimum) at the centrally located Wahweap Marina. Aramark also runs the 350-room Lake Powell Resort (800/528-6154; lakepowell.com; doubles from $169), which offers five boat tours.