Kayaking Lake Powell in Winter Trip Report and Photos by Hilary Oliver

My bivy sack made a sound I’d never heard before on the first morning of the trip, as I rolled over, waking up. Through my sleeping bag, I could tell it felt a hair stiffer—it was crunchy with a coating of ice. Chuckling to myself as I sat up, I thought, well, this is no spring break trip, is it? It was nearly 8 a.m., and the sun was still low, not a single other tent or vehicle in sight at the Halls Crossing campground, near the northeast end of Lake Powell. Ice? Seriously? What exactly had I gotten myself into?

kayaking with a group on lake powell

Eighty-plus miles of paddling in eight days. Eight of the shortest days of the year, to be exact. It was the complete opposite of a spring break vacation, but that was the point, really. The idea was to kayak most of the length of the lake while the motor traffic was low, to get an idea of what Glen Canyon features might be visible with the low water levels. The reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam was about 50% full. Naturally, the best time to do this was when nobody else was doing it—in the middle of winter.

When I say nobody, I literally mean nobody. Each day of the trip, we saw a single motorboat, usually in the distance, zooming by, apparently on a mission. We wondered if they had even noticed the bobbing crew of five kayakers gawking at the canyon walls and poking our noses into side canyons. Certainly other people kayak Lake Powell—we rented the kayaks from a local company. But the company had opened their shop especially for us. They, and all the others, were closed for the season.

kayaking in backcountry

As we paddled nearly into the darkness to find a campsite the second day, the desert wind chilling my sweaty body as soon as I stepped out from under the spray skirt, I thought, maybe this truly is folly. But the days that followed proved to be folly of the best kind.

Pushing out into nature for a week straight shifted my circadian patterns and stretched out my thought processes more to the scale of the wide, sandstone walls on each side. Dipping my paddles in the water rhythmically, I realized I needed to not see motor vehicles. I needed to be away from the electric lights. I needed all that to be able to quietly understand what was lost when the dam flooded Glen Canyon, covering over the irreplaceable landscapes that lay ensconced in sediment underneath my gliding boat.

kayaking lake powell

I found sobs catching me by surprise in my throat after exploring what was left of the Cathedral In The Desert—a massive, graceful amphitheater that was now mostly under water. Paddling along with the Cathedral behind me, I thought of places dear to my heart and how it would feel if they were lost forever. A rush of anger and frustration rose up in me.

Setting up backpacking sleeping pad and sleeping bag

The next night, the five of us pulled our boats onto a magical beach surrounded by curving and arching sandstone formations, something out of a Disney movie or child’s fantasy. As the sky dimmed fuchsia and violet, we set up our bivy sacks on a stone ledge overlooking the cove, and my heart sank low as I found beer cup after beer cup strewn alongside plastic wrappers on the beach. Each living plant that had any sort of branches that could have been stripped for firewood had been torn to shreds. The feeling of coming across an untouched paradise was dashed. We were four days into what felt like a remote backcountry trip—we’d packed in dehydrated meals and packed out our own waste—and we found the remnants of what looked like a frat party. It felt confusing. And disappointing. I imagined seeing the ghosts of spring break houseboats in the cove, and wondered if they’d worked harder to get there, would they had taken better care of the place?

setting up camp on Lake Powell in Winter

It was strange each day to float on a giant body of water in the desert, where so much water seems completely illogical and unnatural. And even stranger to picture the water crowded with motorboats and jet skis. I felt like I was getting away with something, sneaking in a unique experience, even though as I shivered in the night I knew exactly why most people don’t kayak Lake Powell in winter. As strange as the experience was, when we paddled past the houseboats at Antelope Point Marina to take out on our final day, I knew deep down that this was the only way I really wanted to experience that place. Everyone else can enjoy their air-conditioned boats with water slides. I’ll just be packing an extra-thick sleeping pad, and a camera. Because there’s nobody else around to photobomb my shots—and I like it that way.