Horseshoe Bend & Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona


Alt-89 finally dead ends at its parent road, the original US Highway 89.  For miles, the road had run at the edge of the Vermilion Cliffs, the second step in the Grand Staircase.  Had I turned right at the intersection, it would have continued to do so.  But I was turning left, headed north, and as I paused at the crossroads, I tried to figure out where the heck US 89 went.  It looked like it drove straight into the mountainside, and disappeared.

Well, it didn’t.  Instead, US 89 climbed up the staircase, somehow finding a way to the top of the seemingly impassable mountain.  It was a dramatic and exciting drive, as the road curved in and out around giant red rocks, hugging the hillside until it finally reached the top.

Horseshoe Bend

Just a few miles south of Page, there’s a turnoff that leads to a parking area, not far from the road.  A trail promises a view of Horseshoe Bend, a dramatic twist in the Colorado River, carved deep into the Vermilion Cliffs step from out of which, just minutes ago, I had climbed. Sure it was hot (still around 106o if I recall correctly), but it seemed like one of those things everyone really should see.

I often wonder who decides where a road ends and a trail begins.  This was one such place.  The trail began at the bottom of an unnecessarily steep hill.  Starting the 3/4 mile journey required immediate effort, climbing through the deep sand to the top.  The road could have easily gone around this hill, I thought, ending with a parking area on the other side.  But it didn’t, so I climbed.

Like that familiar law of physics, this trail was destined to go down, after it went up.  I trudged through more sand, with an occasional patch of rocks to allow a slight break.  At this point, I knew where I was headed…

… since all those people must’ve been staring at something.

After the long, hot hike, you finally receive your reward:

It’s a very impressive view, and if you’re not afraid of heights, you can walk right out to the edge.

As I stood here, I quickly observed two things about this viewpoint.  One, late afternoon is not the best time to take pictures here.  As the sun goes down, you’re staring almost directly at it.  Second, Horseshoe Bend is very big, and very close: so close in fact, that you can’t take a picture of the whole thing, without an extremely wide angle lens.

You can, however, take some nice pictures of part of Horseshoe Bend.

And that’s it.  There’s nothing else to see here, and nothing else to do but turn around and trudge up the same 3/4 mile path you just came down.  The walk is long enough to give you time to wonder why you left your water bottle in the car, why they made the trail cross over thehighest point of the hill, and of course, why they didn’t just bring the road around, and build the darned parking lot at the edge of the gorge.

Glen Canyon Dam

It was already getting late, and I knew Zion was still a long distance away, but there was one more stop I had to make: the impressive Glen Canyon Dam, which holds back the Colorado River to form Lake Powell.

US 89 crosses the Colorado River just below the Glen Canyon Dam.

The Glen Canyon Dam Bridge is 1,271 feet long, about 700 feet high, and was completed in 1964.

There’s a pedestrian walkway that allows you to safely gawk at this…

… the 1,560 foot wide, 587 foot high Glen Canyon Dam.  Just like at Horseshoe Bend, my wide-angle lens wasn’t wide enough to capture it all in one picture.

The Glen Canyon Dam was built between 1956 and 1966.  It generates enough hydroelectric electricity to power 650,000 homes.  However, it has been plagued by controversy, even before it was built, mostly because it flooded Glen Canyon, creating Lake Powell.

There’s an expensive, fancy visitor’s center at the edge of the canyon, overlooking the dam.  Most likely, quite a few of your tax dollars went to building it, so you’d better enjoy it… that is, if you can get in the front door.

Remarkably, the most frustrating moment of my entire trip–dealing with long security lines, metal detectors, and full body searches–didn’t happen at the airport.  It happened right here at the visitor’s center.  In order to enter the visitor’s center you must pass through security.  Let me be clear.  I didn’t say you had to pass through security to take a tour inside the dam, or cross the bridge in front of the dam.  No, the threat-level-red precautions are all designed toprotect the visitor’s center!

I took my place in line, which stretched out the door for some reason.  It was about 10 minutes before the building closed, and I wanted nothing more than to buy a magnet at the gift shop.  An entire busload of foreign tourists had just queued up in front of me, all of whom, it seemed, could not understand the concept of removing your keys from your pocket.  The line crept forward, until finally, the person in front of me tried to go through.  The bell rang, and he was led off to the side for a one-on-one inspection.  This gave me a moment to think about any possible piece of metal, anywhere on my body.  I had removed it all, and awaited my moment to step through the detector.  But no!  One of the six or so guards held up a hand, and told me that I couldn’t go through until the previous guy came back from his pat-down, and successfully walked through the metal detector.  In just five seconds, I could have been inside, but instead, I was told to stand there, for nearly ten minutes!  And again, all of this was to ensure that a visitor’s center was secure.  Once inside, I walked around, saw the entire facility, made my purchase in the gift shop, and was out the door, all in less time than it took just to walk inside.

Still shaking my head from the totally unnecessary security exercise, I drove on up US 89.

For a few minutes, as you drive away from Page, you’re treated to beautiful views of Lake Powell.  These pictures really don’t do it justice. It’s other-worldly.

It does make you wonder, though, what it would look like here without the lake.  Could those environmentalists be right? What amazing world lies underneath that flood of water?  We’ll probably never know.

There is much more to see in this area, including the awesome Cottonwood Canyon Road, which travels through the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument.  I traveled this road in 2004, but it was closed due to poor road conditions during this trip (in 2007).  You can read about my drive down Cottonwood Canyon Road here.  Also worth visiting in this area are two spots of particular interest to photographers: Antelope Canyon and The Wave.  A visit to either requires some advanced planning, so you might need to add an extra day or two to your trip.

US 89 heads west through southern Utah, eventually turning north at Kanab.  About 17 miles north of town is Mt. Carmel Junction, and the beginning of the amazing UT Rte. 9, which takes you through Zion National Park to Springdale, which is where Day 1 ends.

Note: This trip was first published in 2007.

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