World's most spectacular desert
At each day's end, guide Les Hibbert, the admiral of our plastic flotilla, leads us to a campsite that he's judged unsuitable for houseboat anchorage ― the last thing we want is late-night revelry in the neighborhood. Hibbert has been leading tours either on Lake Powell or the Colorado River for 25 years, and he knows that the environment will provide ample entertainment by itself.
And on our second night, it does. After dinner we kill the camp lights and watch the moon rise over a ring of serrated bluffs behind our bay. The white lunar light turns the red mountains into silhouettes that glow with vague menace, like charcoal hoarding a secret fire. Then, unexpectedly, intimations of lightning begin flashing somewhere over the southern horizon. Soon, orange virgas scratch the sky, but the rain never finds the ground ― a reminder that, despite being surrounded by more than 8 trillion gallons of water, we are in a desert.
Geologically, the Colorado Plateau sports the world's most spectacular desert, furrowed with a startling variety of canyons and punctuated by spires, domes, cones, and buttes thrusting into the sky. In the last 500 million years on the geologic clock, it has entertained cycles of oceans, tidal flats, swampy lowlands, and arid deserts. The Navajo sandstone that forms most of Lake Powell's rim is a heap of windblown Jurassic dunes, cemented into mounds and gnawed by streams and wind. Its natural history is one of constant change, but Glen Canyon Dam accelerated the pace of change beyond anything that nature could engineer.
One of my paddling companions, Howard Greene of Taos, New Mexico, counts himself as an environmentalist, and he's seeing Lake Powell for the first time on this trip. "If this were natural," he says, "you couldn't help feeling it's fabulous."
Other places to visit
- Five great tearooms in Northern New Mexico
- Five great New Mexico roadside cafes
- The powerful simplicity of Ranchos de Taos