It was the same cove — partially hidden from view, just off a tiny island near the midsection of Halls Creek Bay. But, there was something very different.
It was the beach. A year ago, the stretch of sandy beach had been a thin sliver, no wider than a single stride, no longer than two, surrounded by the rich, red slickrock. Now, it stretched a dozen yards long and nearly as wide, reaching well down into the water. It turns out the added beachfront property is one element in the unique personality of Lake Powell — its ever-changing profile.
The rising and lowering of the lake's water level opens some beaches and covers others. It widens some canyons while narrowing others, covers or uncovers growing vegetation, covers some island and uncovers others. It can bring some landmarks closer or push them away or, in this particular case, improve what was already an ideal campsite.
The lake is down about 4 feet from its high-water mark hit earlier this summer. It currently sits at around the 3,636-foot elevation, which is roughly 64 feet below full-pool, but close to 90 feet above the low-water mark of a decade ago. And it's about 4 feet lower than a year ago.
The water level is still well above what is needed to pass through the Cut out of Wahweap. When water levels were lower and the Cut was impassable, boaters had to follow the main channel around Antelope Point, which added an additional 12 miles or anywhere from 45 minutes to more than an hour traveling time up-lake.
Water is now at a level where it's opening up beachfront property. And it's at a level where flooded vegetation has brought about one of the best fishing seasons in decades.
"Those people who've been coming to Lake Powell for many years realize full-pool simply means less beach area. This year, water levels are such that a lot of new beach areas have opened," said Kerry Mystrom, resident district manager for northern operations for ARAMARK, which oversees Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas.
Lake levels have also helped, in a way, in the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Rainbow Bridge National Monument.
A decade ago, when the lake had dropped, the hike to the bridge was nearly two miles, which in the heat of summer impeded and even prevented visits.
Today, the hike from the location of the courtesy dock is less than three-quarters of a mile. Prior to the creation of Lake Powell, visits to the bridge involved a "substantial hike" from Navajo Mountain.
The bridge is the largest known natural bridge in the world. The first Anglo sighting of the bridge was on Aug. 14, 1909. The following May, President William Howard Taft signed papers making it a national monument.
Attention focused on the anniversary this year has definitely drawn more people to the site, Mystrom said.
Greg Anderson with the National Park Service in Page, Ariz., said June visits, the most current count on record, "were up 30 percent from last year.
"In June of 2009, there were 20,035 visitors. This past June, there were 24,138."
Along with the rising lake levels, which have shortened the hiking distance to the bridge, annual visitation has also steadily increased.
Anderson reported that between 2005 and 2007, annual visitation to the bridge was around 80,000. In 2008, it was 96,000, and in 2009, it was 113,448. It is expected to be significantly higher this year.
Mystrom also noted that interest in marina-sponsored tours to Rainbow Bridge has increased.
From Bullfrog, individuals can rent a boat — complete with a captain, if they choose — and take the one-way, 50-mile trip (about 21/2 hours at a leisurely pace) down lake to the bridge.
From Wahweap, individuals can either rent a boat or travel on one of the large tour boats for half- or full-day tours to the bridge.
Along with visits to the bridge, visitor counts at Lake Powell are also up. The one exception was April.
"We had unusually bad weather in April," said Anderson, "and it showed. Last year, we had roughly 88,000 visitors, while this year we had only 24,112. The rest of the summer months, to this point, are up. In May, for example, we counted 197,000 visitors. This past June, we had more than 330,000, and I wouldn't be surprised if July turned out with similar numbers."
Last year, nearly 2 million people visited the recreational area.
It is a fact, too, that current economic conditions have changed to some degree the way visitors experience Lake Powell and its attractions. Many visitors these days are shopping before they buy.
Which, in this case, said Mystrom, "means looking at specials and package deals.
"We've seen an increase in visitation this year, which doesn't surprise me. Even in these economic times, people look to things they enjoyed, activities where they could relax with family. Along with looking at the packages that are available, we have found they're also saving money in other ways by doing things like eating out less."
Among the special programs available is a fall houseboat offer at a 40 percent discount for houseboats ranging from a 46-foot Expedition to a luxury 75-foot Excursion. The offer is for boats rented between Sept. 1 and Dec. 22. Reservations must be made before Sept. 15.
"The benefit, of course, is that the discount on a houseboat can make for an economical family vacation. Then, of course, there's the option of camping," said Mystrom.
Recognizing that not everyone feels comfortable piloting a houseboat, Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas will hold three "Introduction to Houseboating" weekend packages starting at $299. The packages include two nights lodging at Wahweap or Bullfrog, daily breakfast for two and an opportunity to spend a day on a houseboat with a captain and crew, learning how to maneuver, anchor and dock a houseboat.
There's also a Rainbow Bridge Centennial package that includes two nights' accommodation, daily breakfasts for two, two seats on the tour boat and a commemorative book. Starting price is $449.
Another package is a powerboat rental out of Bullfrog and includes use of a powerboat for a day, two nights' lodging and $50 credit. Starting price is $520.
According to Wayne Gustaveson, lake biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, for the first time in nearly two decades, there's balance in Lake Powell that is ideal for fish: plenty of food, good water levels, prime habitat and good numbers.
For years, lake conditions favored a certain species. First it was largemouth and crappie, then striped bass and walleye, then stripers and smallmouth.
"This year, conditions favor all species," he said. "During my tenure, which began in 1975, this is probably the best year I've seen for balance, conditions and numbers of all sport fish."
Early morning and late-evening fishing has been the most productive.
"It is now wise to have a rod rigged with a full-size surface lure that can be cast long distances. When fish come up, the rod can be quickly deployed and a fish caught as soon as the boat nears the surfacing fish. If the first fish is landed quickly enough, a second can be caught from the same school. Boil duration will increase with each day in August," he said. (A boil is when striped bass surface to feed on small shad.)
He also noted that 1-pound smallmouth have been moving out into open water. Largemouth have also been coming to the surface to feed.
Catfish and sunfish have been providing good fishing for young anglers from shore and off the back of houseboats.
Those bringing boats to the lake are still under the zebra and quagga mussel alert, which means owners must first fill out a questionnaire indicating that in the past 30 days their boat has not been in mussel-infested waters.
The questionnaire then asks for boaters to practice "self decontamination," which involves cleaning all parts of the boat, fish, mussels and mud from the boat and trailer. Then, drain all water from ballast, bilge, livewell and motor. This done, the boat must sit for seven days in the summer or 18 days in the fall and spring or 30 days in the winter.
The other option is to have the boat professionally washed with scalding water.
This done, the owner is given a certificate of decontamination that allows the owner to launch the boat. The certificate must then be displayed in the front windshield of the vehicle.
This past May, launch hours on the lake's ramps have been extended. The Wahweap, Stateline and Antelope Point ramps are open from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Bullfrog from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and the Halls Crossing and Hite ramps are open daily. Launching is also allowed at Lone Rock and Stanton Creek.
Lake Powell remains one of Utah's most popular recreational attractions. Between the lower water level, fishing, new beaches and recreational opportunities, and the 100-year celebration at Rainbow Bridge, it may well be even more popular this year.
Lake Powell facts
Water elevation: 3,636 feet
Low mark: 3,556 feet
Full pool: 3,700 feet
Shoreline: 2,000 miles
Length: 186 miles
Distance from Salt Lake City to Bullfrog: 298 miles
Distance from Salt Lake City to Wahweap: 375 miles
Number of major canyons: 90
Ranking: Second-largest man-made lake in U.S.
Average summer temperature: 90s to 100s
Average water temperature in August: High 70s
Glen Canyon headquarters: 928-608-6200
Wahweap: 928-645-1111 or 928-645-24332 comments on this story
Halls Crossing: 435-684-7000
Boat reservations: 888-896-3829 or 928-645-1070