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Houseboating on Lake Powell amid arches of red stone

To hear the people working at Wahweap Marina tell it, you'd think Lake Powell was their personal playground. Francis Owens, who manages the Lake Powell Motel, loves it for the fishing. "I don't even care if I catch anything," she says. "Just to be on the water with a fishing pole in my hands is tranquilizing."

Harbormaster Bud Finch vacations as well as works here. He hikes in Reflection Canyon each year when the cottonwood trees are dressed in spring green and the new grass is two feet long. "Put your sleeping bag on that and you've got a comfortable pad for the body besides all the sights you could want for the eyes."

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Ray Watton thinks the lake's "overall view" is the best thing about it and, as boat tour manager at Wahweap, he's out on the water somewhere every day, so he should know. He likes working on Lake Powell for the fishing , the boating, and the scenery. "It changes all the time," he says.

Even a short-time visitor can see that it does.

Look at Lake Powell's canyons and snaking waterways in midafternoon, with the sun white-hot in the Arizona and Utah sky, and it seems bold and uncompromising. The water is a vivic blue reflection of its celectial canopy, and the sandstone cliffs are scorched red.

At dawn, the scenery blushes salmon, then a more florid pink as the day gathers strength.

Sunset brushes the western horizon with bright orange. Behind you, though, to the east, you can see darkness creep like someone drawing a black curtain. Then the cliffs stand against the sky like so many fantastic paper cutouts.

Maybe that's how it looked to John Wesley Powell when he first came to this area. In his journal he recorded seeing "ten thousand strangely carved forms . . . and beyond them mountains blending with clouds."

That was in 1869, and to get here, Major Powell had to boat 99 days down the Green and treacherous Colorado Rivers. (He and his party were the first to navigate the latter.) At the place he later named Glen Canyon, he left the boat and scaled a 1,200-feet butte to gaze out on the rock world around him.

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Nearly 100 years later, in 1964, when the gates of Glen Canyon Dam were closed, the Colorado River water that pooled this area was called Lake Powell after him.

Lake Powell, created by edict of Congress and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, exists to provide water storage, fish and wildlife conservation, electrical energy, and recreational development. And it is so sparkling a visage in this desert expanse of northern Arizona and southern Utah that the US Department of the Interior, the agency responsible for administering it, call it "the jewell of the Colorado."

The scenery certainly is one. The buttes, bridges, arches, and sandstone cliffs with their patina of desert varnish -- streaks of black, deep red, brown, and green that iron, silica, manganese, and copper washed by rain and baked by sun bring out in the solidified sand dunes -- bring artists, geologists, photographers, even movie companies. "The Outlaw Josie Wales" was filmed here, as were "Planet of the Apes," "McKenna's Gold," and "Bandolero."

The history is another: There have been Indians here for 5,000 years at least. The Navajo are the present residents, but their predecessors, the Anasazis, are very much in evidence, too. They've left a record of their tenure in the area in the form of pictographs (primitive writings done by painting pictures and symbols with natural dyes) and petroglyphs (carved linear figures) on canyon walls. In clefts high above ground level you will often find piles of brick and clay dust that once were their dwelling places. Moqui steps were what they used to reach them. A few good examples of these rock- carved stationary "ladders" are visible today, too.

Yet another facet is the water. There are some 150,000 surface acres of relatively clear mountain runoff water here.

It brings the fishermen, of coursE. In December, January, and February they are after trout. The last two weeks in March, all of April, and the first two weeks in May are best for largemouth bass and crappie. Striped bass were introduced into the lake only four or five years ago and already fishermen are taking 17-pounders out. The best place to find them in October is Wahweap Bay. Earlier in the year, it's Rainbow Bay. "They seem to work their way from there through Rock Creek down to Last Chance Canyon, then Padre Bay and Warm Creek, before they reach us," says Mr. Watton.

Fishing is in season 12 months a year here and licenses for both states are easily obtainable.

The water also brings the boaters. There are plenty of sailboats on Lake Powell. Afternoon winds favor Bullfrog, Halls, Padre, and Wahweap Bays. But since there are roughly 1,800 miles of shoreline to explore, you might want to try powerboating houseboating, or both.

There are five marinas on the lake, all owned and operated by Del Webb Recreational Properties. Rainbow Marina, near Rainbow Bridge, provides fuel, ice, and basic food supplies only. The four others -- Wahweap, near Page, Ariz. , and Glen Canyon Dam; Bullfrog and Hall's Crossing, in Utah near midlake; and Hite, serving upper Lake Powell, just off Utah Highway 95 -- offer houseboat and powerboat rentals, fuel, dockside and dry boat storage, fishing and water sports gear, groceries, and general merchandise.

At Bullfrog, Hall's Crossing, the Wahweap marinas there are campgrounds. Bullfrog has a mix of housekeeping trailers and motel units. Hall's Crossing and Hite also offer housekeeping units, and all three have trailer and recreational vehicle hookups.

Wahweap, with a 125-room lodge, provides the lake's most complete resort facilities, including dining room, lounge, tennis courts, and swimming pool. Rates at Wahweap Lodge run from $33.50 to $38.50 per night, double occupancy. For four adults per room expect to pay $43.50 to $46.50.

Housekeeping units at Bullfrog, Hall's Crossing, and Hite are $32 for one or two adults. Camper and trailer areas cost from $6.25 to $7.50 per day.

Houseboats rent from $330 for 3 nights ($440 for 4 nights, $550 for 7 nights) for one that fits four people to $585 for 3 nights ($780 for 4 nights, $975 for 7 nights) for one large enough for 10. Not all size boats are available at all marinas. A confirm-and-damage deposit of $200 is required.

The houseboats, manufactured by Boatel, are really water-borne campers, with kitchen, bath including shower, and bench seats that turn into bunks. They have sun decks for enjoying this area's almost full-time sunshine, and catamaran hulls, which give them the kind of stability in the water a novice boater, especially, can appreciate.

Navigating is relatively easy, since maps and channels are both clearly marked. A pilot's license is not required, but a half-hour lesson is maneuvering and docking is.

If you stay in the main channel, of course, the amount of maneuvering you'll have to do will be limited to making sure you keep the buoys on the proper side of the boat. But if you stay in the main channel you'll miss the twisting, winding side channels that take you into canyons that offer some of Lake Powell's best sights: natural rock formations such as Gregory and Lancaster Archer, both on the Escalante River; balanced rocks such as the one near Lee's Ferry that looks rather like a lumbering giant bent at the waist; buttes that look like castles and a Roman Forum; and a bridge that might well be a rainbow.

Nonnezoschiem is the Navajo word for Rainbow Bridge. It means, literally, " a rainbow turned to stone." When the sun glances off it, this piece of rock seems almost like a prism.

There was a time when the only way to reach Rainbow Bridge was by horseback. A 1911 National Geographic article cautioned that "a minimum of 18 days should be allowed for the round trip . . . the trip is an extremely arguous and toilsome one, and would be fraught with danger to an inexperienced traveler."

Even so, this 278-foot span was an attraction. Because it is larger than any other known natural bridge -- it arches to a height of 309 feet and is as think at the top as a three- story building is tall -- Teddy Roosevelt visited here in 1912. And Zane Grey, a member of the same group, wrote a book, "The Rainbow Trail," about it.

It's easier to take the rainbow trail today. Skywest Airlines will fly you to Page from Phoenix or Las Vegas or Flagstaff (American Airlines services Phoenix from New York, Toronto, and Chicago; TWA flies to Phoenix from Los Angeles; both airlines serve Las Vegas from various cities). Rainbow Bridge is just 50 Lake miles from Wahweap (near Page), Bullfrog, and Hall's Crossing marinas and only a short hike from a boat dock in Forbidding Canyon.

If you're land-bound, staying at Wahneap Lodge, for instance, and don't want to rent a boat, there are regular boat tours out of that marina. An all-day package, including box lunch, costs $40 for adults, $30 for children. A half-day cruise is $31.50 and $23.75, respectively.

When John Wesley Powell led his 1,000- mile rowboat trip through what he called Glen Canyon, the area was the largest uncharted portion of the United States. A little over 100 years later he'd be surprised at the number of visitors who consider this their personal playground, too, and who find their way here: in 1979, over 1.5 million.

Does that make it too crowded for someone wanting a rustic vacation spot?

"That's a tremendous amount of people," says Bud Finch, "but you never see them. You don't ever feel like you are leaving the crowded city for the equally crowded country."

For a comprehensive rates chart or reservations at Wahweap, Bullfrog, Hall's Crossing, and Hite resort-marinas, write LAke Powell Resorts & Marinas, PO Box 29040, Phoenix, Ariz. 85038, or call toll-free 1-800-528- 6154 (in Arizona, 1- 800-352-6508).

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