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Between a Rock and a Serene Place

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Thanks to its dubious spring break reputation, Lake Powell may not seem like an ideal destination for quiet beauty and solitude. Jayme Moye uncovers the off-season pleasure of stand-up paddleboarding this much-loved gem
A striking monolith jutting 200 feet from the middle of Lake Powell, Lone Rock dwarfs the occasional paddleboarder.
A striking monolith jutting 200 feet from the middle of Lake Powell, Lone Rock dwarfs the occasional paddleboarder. Photo by Jim Cottingham/ Dreamstime.

The mention of Lake Powell, for me anyway, conjures fond memories of a certain type of travel experience. Let’s call it “houseboat debauchery.” Under a wide-open, starry night sky, in command of a motorized water vessel stocked with beer, otherwise demure tourists turn into uninhibited pirates. Forget the fact that we’re anchored on a beach, and that “walking the plank” means riding a slide off the top deck — we’re off the grid, in the middle of the desert, and things are going to get crazy.

Imagine then, my surprise when my friend Melanie, a personal trainer and outdoor adventure guide, tells me that she recently started leading stand-up paddleboard (SUP) excursions on Lake Powell. Beer and boats and stand-up paddleboards? It sounds like a death wish. At least kayakers have the protection of being halfway inside a hard plastic shell.

Melanie insists it is perfectly safe and that Lake Powell has more to offer than my limited experience of powerboats and spring break benders. Plus, it’s fall, so the summer vacationers have gone back to work. Or school. Considering she’s living 12 miles away from Lake Powell, in Page, Arizona, and I’m living in Colorado, it’s hard to prove her wrong. So I throw my camping gear into the car and drive out to see for myself.

Lone Rock’s sandy, undeveloped beaches provide an ideal camping spot after a full day of paddleboarding. Photo courtesy of iStock.
Lone Rock’s sandy, undeveloped beaches provide an ideal camping spot after a full day of paddleboarding. Photo courtesy of iStock.

I meet Melanie on the Utah side of Lake Powell, at an undeveloped beach on a southwest swath of shore known as Lone Rock. There, you can camp for only $10 a night anywhere along the beach — a wide, flat expanse about a half-mile long. The sand is clean and soft, with no paved boat launch, which makes it difficult to put-in a powerboat. That could explain why the beach is deserted. I have to admit — it is downright serene.

Melanie has already picked up two SUPs from Lake Powell Paddleboards in Page. The marinas also rent them, but Lake Powell Paddleboards uses higher-quality boards, which are easier to maneuver and balance. We strip down to our swimsuits in the 74-degree sunshine and carry the SUPs down to the azure water. As we glide off from shore, I remark on how glassy the surface looks. “Welcome to Lake Powell in the fall,” Melanie says. Not only is there no wind, but there’s little risk of an afternoon thundershower, which can suddenly hit in the summer. Bonus.

The only thing visible in the water other than us is Lone Rock — a striking monolith jutting up from the center of the lake, some 200 feet tall. In the muted light of fall, it glows a photogenic orange. We turn left and hug the shoreline to access one of the nearby slot canyons. After about 15 minutes of steady paddling, we come upon a wide opening that indicates the mouth of Wiregrass Canyon.

Once we’re inside, the canyon narrows into a fun, twisty channel. Melanie, ever the guide, tells me that the towering walls were made from Entrada sandstone, dating back some 206 million years to the Jurassic era. The color, which can range from sun-bleached tan to red-orange, comes from the iron content. When we pass a particularly idyllic knoll, Melanie giggles. “I was paddling here in the summer and assumed I was alone, so I took off my top to even out my tan lines,” she says, in between snickers. “I came around this corner and a kayaker was sitting on the shore reading a book with his dog.” Note to self: Keep bathing suit on.

We paddle as far into the slot as we can go, about a half-mile, before the water peters out, and then we turn around and paddle back to the beach. Melanie looks smug; she knows I’m convinced that the Lake Powell SUP scene is, so far, fantastic. I tell her not to get too cocky. The next day would be the real test, when we’d paddle across one of the main boat channels en route to explore Lone Rock Canyon.

Back at the beach, we have company — a small group of kayakers from Phoenix. We exchange pleasantries and then stake out our sleeping quarters. It is a clear night with a new moon, which means the stars are going to be out in full force. I want to sleep beneath them, without a shelter. Melanie reminds me that unlike where I live in Colorado, there are scorpions and tarantulas here. I reluctantly set up my tent.

Smooth water and and storm-free afternoons make autumn a great time for paddleboarding on Lake Powell. Photo courtesy iStock.
Smooth water and and storm-free afternoons make autumn a great time for paddleboarding on Lake Powell. Photo courtesy iStock.

The next morning, we are greeted with a style of sunrise you see only in the desert: dark rock silhouettes against an orange sky. I know my camera wouldn’t do it justice, but I scramble for it anyway.

For day two, we plan a more aggressive paddle that will take twice as much time. From the beach, we point our SUPs straight for Lone Rock, about a 25-minute paddle through open water. I feel a little surge of adrenaline leaving behind the comfort of the shoreline. As we approach Lone Rock, I marvel at its magnitude — the monolith looks much larger up close. We scoot around to its backside and then veer left across open water toward Lone Rock Canyon.

After 20 more minutes of paddling, we reach the entryway — and a 600- to 700-foot rock wall that seems to appear out of nowhere once we turn the corner into the canyon. I realize we’ve just paddled right through the boat channel and I hadn’t even noticed — so much for my last shred of evidence that this may not be a good place to SUP.

Inside Lone Rock Canyon, we take our time. We watch fish jump and bighorn sheep drink from the stream. At one point, the canyon is so narrow that it feels like I could stretch out my arms and touch both sides. On the paddle back out, I concede that Melanie was right. There was a side to Lake Powell that I hadn’t even known existed.

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