The Cost of Taking My Mom on a Week-Long Trip to Lake Powell
It was a once-in-a-lifetime vacation.
If you haven’t been to Lake Powell before, especially on a houseboat, let me try to describe it. It’s like the Grand Canyon but filled with water. I would even call it better than the Grand Canyon because you can explore it without the use of a donkey. That being said, it’s not all sun, beach chairs and margaritas. It’s a ton of work and a ton of money to go.
We got our first taste of Lake Powell four years ago when a friend invited my wife and me to go on their friends’ boat. That was eye-opening for the amount of work involved, but not necessarily for the money involved. We split the expenses up at about $35 per day per person, plus food and drink. Yes, the owners of that houseboat did regale us with talk of boat slips costing $1,000 per month and the incredible cost of repairs, upgrades, maintenance and insurance, but I’m never going to be in the market for a houseboat to be honest. It’s too much work and, at $60K to $150K to start, way out of my price range.
However, after getting home and sharing some of our photos of the amazing scenery, my mom proclaimed “I have to do this before I die! When can we go?” Such a simple request, right? Will you take me and a week’s worth of my stuff on a huge boat hours away from all civilization at incredible expense, so I can do this too and take some cool photos? Sure Mom! Love to!
Actually, I really did want to. Lake Powell is so amazing that I wanted to pass on the secret of how amazing it is onto someone else, just like our friends had done for us. I could do this. I like goals. I love scheming, dreaming and planning, probably because I’m a freelance software developer and that’s how a lot of stuff actually gets done.
Let’s run down what this would take, and how much it would cost, before we actually even get on the boat or leave the dock….
$4966: 48-foot houseboat rental for seven days/six nights. This is after a 30 percent discount coupon via email.
$457: Cost to pre-board the houseboat one night prior to our departure. This allows us to get set up easily for an early departure and is easily comparable to two hotel rooms for one night in town (Page, Arizona).
$189: Rental insurance. This is just like the optional car insurance they offer you when you rent a car, but in this case I took it, even with a $1,000 deductible. This was a big boat on a big lake with the potential for big weather.
$27: Runabout slip rental. Runabout is our own ski boat that we will use to explore the canyons, once we anchor the houseboat in a camping spot. It’ll save on gas.
$40: A boarding ladder that we’ll use to “improve” the swimming ingress/egress from the houseboat. This is purely a hedge since some houseboats have a nice swim platform, while others only offer two or three very short ladder steps.
$50: A 100-ft heavy-duty tow rope, so we can pull the runabout behind the houseboat. This saves gas and money!
$2: A cheap ass styrofoam cooler from Walmart, so I can toss in some dry ice to take with us.
$14: A scuba mask and snorkel set. Another hedge in case there are any problems with either boat; we can look underneath and check for any damage or hangups.
$14: A 24-pack of AAA batteries for radios, walkie-talkies, etc.
$20: Dry ice. This was my first experience with dry ice, to be perfectly honest. As advertised, it will keep stuff frozen for up to three or four days. The plan was to buy a bunch of bags of ice and lay our dry ice on top of that so that the cool air would drop and keep our ice on ice for a few more days. The dry ice was bought before we left home, so it was only $1.89 a pound.
$66: Four packages of block ice and eight bags of regular ice. If you are doing the math, that’s $4.99 a bag of ice plus tax. Huge markup for the marina.
$20: Cash tip we gave to our porter for unloading/driving our stuff from the loading/unloading zone to the houseboat. They have a pretty cool set-up for this: an ATV with a few aluminum trailers daisy-chained together that they can drive right up to your car or truck and then right up to the front of the houseboat.
Before we even met my mom at the houseboat rental dock, we had trouble with the runabout. After launching the boat on the water, I started to circle around the outside of the marina breakwater heading to my slip, when it started to sputter and die. Restart. Sputter and die. Restart. Sputter and die.
We had driven the runabout from Phoenix (about five hours away), and I became convinced that I must have had something come loose on the long drive. I could start the runabout but it wouldn’t run for more than 2–3 seconds. I checked everything I could before finally calling in vessel assist. Vessel assist is offered on every lake and is just as the title implies: to help boaters get back to shore in case you have trouble with your boat. Two lovely, and very funny, women helped me get my boat to my slip and I am forever grateful to them and the National Park Service.
As I lay awake that first night on the houseboat, worried to death that I wouldn’t have the runabout available to take my mom to the side canyons, it occurred to me that I had probably just clogged the fuel filter with the long drive up here. Next morning, I pulled the fuel filter and headed to the Parts and Service shed at the marina to see if they had another. They did not. The technician there said that there was nothing in my fuel filter at all when he dumped it out and it was probably one of my fuel pumps. To rebuild those fuel pumps, it would cost around $1,400. All of this was completely out of the question given my family was waiting on me, right this minute, to start a vacation. I put the fuel filter back on and gave it a try just for the hell of it and it ran! It ran! After a quick test drive to make sure it would keep running, it was time to start a vacation.
A captain helped us get the houseboat out of its slip and out to the marina breakwater. This is a free service offered by the rental company to get boats safely in and out of the marina, and I would highly recommend it. The first day we drove about five hours to Dungeon Canyon for our first campsite. Let it be said now that our houseboat was slow. So slow that we only passed one other houseboat in the entire five-hour drive up there. The plan was to go as far as we wanted that first day, then work our way back (home, to the marina) an hour or two at a time and be fairly close to the marina for the last day or two.
Dungeon Canyon was a great campsite with nearly 360-degree views. There were only a few houseboats in that part of the lake, so we had a fair amount of privacy. My only regret there was that we had to take a campsite with the nose of the boat facing south. My preference was to have the nose of boat facing west, so we could enjoy the sunsets highlighting the canyon walls, off the rear of the boat. East to west or west to east is also the safest way to park, if I had learned anything from my previous trip out here, because if you get any wind, you don’t get it broadsiding the houseboat and trying to push you off of your anchor points.
On day two, we toured farther into Dungeon Canyon with the runabout and ran across the lake to tour Rock Creek Bay.
On day three, we headed out to our second campsite in Gunsight Bay. Here we were able to find a good camping site, with my preferred option of parking the boat with the nose to west. Gunsight Butte absolutely dominates the view here and is so named because the top of the butte looks just like a gunsight.
We did make one mistake here though, when we anchored. They tell you that when you anchor the boat, you dig 3 feet down and 3 feet wide, at a 45-degree angle to the rear of the boat. That’s where you bury the anchor. We had good sand off to the left of boat to dig in, but mostly big rocks off to the right of the boat. My stepfather uttered a completely logical statement as we were evaluating our right-side options: “The wind never blows out of the north.” I agreed, so we tied the anchor around the biggest rock we could reach. Next day, as I was snapping photos of those very same rocks, the wind came from the north. It was one hard gust that started small but built to around 40–50mph sustained. I saw the anchor and rock start to rotate and started sprinting down the hillside. According to my mom’s version of events: “Wow, that’s a lot of wind…. oh no… oh look, here comes our boat captain!”
I managed to get into the boat in time, start it, and pin the right engines throttle to hold the boat to the shore. This led to at least an hour of debating options, freeing the newly pinned anchor and rope and moving the boat a little to the left… but we did it. Never had to call for help, but believe me, that was a legitimate option if we couldn’t get the anchor from underneath that rock.
On day four, we toured Labyrinth Canyon in the runabout. Labyrinth is really small but gorgeous. It has a couple of areas where the runabout just fits through a slot and then the canyon opens up again. We also toured Gunsight Pass, which is the canyon (or bay) directly opposite our campground site.
Day five, we moved the houseboat to Warm Creek Bay, which got us a lot closer to our final destination (the marina) and a short drive from Navajo Canyon. Warm Creek Bay is absolutely huge and loaded with sandy beaches. We cruised around a bit in the houseboat, debating the pros and cons of our options here before settling on a fairly protected (from the wind) beach that would have us facing south. We pulled the houseboat in there and jumped off with our shovels at the ready only to discover that it was super shallow and our anchor ropes would never be able to reach out long enough to reach some dry ground. This led us to back out and try again. I took the runabout to scout out other locations from a little closer to shore view and left my mom to drive the big boat. As I found a good spot across the bay, I radioed back to them to bring the houseboat right to me. I beached the runabout and started digging some anchor holes, so that meant Mom was going to beach the big boat. You know what? She did great! Only took two tries. Watching from the beach, it had the look of a new SUV or truck owner on their first trip to the mall. Big wide turns, quick aborts, but she got the job done.
On the second to last day, we set off in the runabout to see Navajo Canyon. Navajo is the the canyon to see at this end of Lake Powell. An absolute stunner: 15 miles long, with 600-foot sheer walls towering above you. Islands in the middle of the channel that you can slice around fairly safely. My mom loved Labyrinth Canyon initially but Navajo Canyon made her cry. No kidding. It was much later in the day, after we had returned to the house boat, but I think she was reflecting on the entire trip and all that we had done to make this happen. Mostly she was proud. Proud of what I had accomplished. Proud of what I could accomplish if I set my mind to it.
She said that as a parent, every decision haunts you a bit. The big ones. The small ones. You never know if you are making just the right decision at just the right time and how it’s affecting your children — good, bad, or not at all.
On the last morning, we left for the marina and home. Let’s run down the expenses after we returned the houseboat to the dock and took our little runabout back home.
$180: Houseboat gas, 44 gallons. This cost was way lower than I expected it to be, mostly because I thought they might charge us like they had for the ice. I had also read beforehand that our boat would burn 10 gallons per hour at cruising speed, so I expected this number to be much higher. They also recommend that we run the generator for 6–8 hours per day, which burns about a gallon per hour, to keep your house batteries charged up, but we only ran ours about 2–3 hours a day.
$20: Cash tip we gave to our porter for unloading/driving our stuff from the houseboat back to the loading/unloading zone for cars and trucks.
$75: Replacing the wood in one of the runabout seats that broke. The pounding our runabout took on such a big lake was just enough to accelerate this problem into reality much sooner than if we had only used this boat on our small local lakes. I had to take it to an upholstery shop to remove the vinyl, replace the wood and put it all back together.
$9: New fuel filter for the runabout. I should probably buy two.
$30: Copay for my first doctors visit to look at my knee. On our last canyon trip, I was leaning off of the runabout’s ladder at a weird angle looking at the props when my knee gave out and dropped me into the water. Hopefully I haven’t done any real damage, but we’ll see.
$60: Runabout gas, 30 gallons. About what I expected.
Total cost: $6,239.
Some general tips on things that worked out, didn’t work out or were complete surprises:
- Radios were a huge help to us. The marine radios in the runabout and the houseboat are your lifelines to the outside world and real help, if you need it. We also packed two handset walkie-talkies that we used to communicate from runabout to houseboat and upstairs to downstairs on the houseboat. I can’t tell you how many times those handhelds helped us navigate, work together, communicate status, etc.
- My mom brought along these two battery operated, motion detector LED lights. If you step within 8–10 feet of them they come on for 30 or 60 seconds. We were able to position one in the bathroom at night and one at the bottom of the ladder between the top deck and main deck of the boat. Since we slept on the roof of the boat, these were incredibly handy every single night.
- The dry ice idea didn’t really help us out much. Our regular ice, that we had in coolers, didn’t make it more than two days. Our block ice lasted another day beyond that. Maintaining our ice level, and keeping drinks cold, was an everyday and ongoing crisis/discussion about what we should try next. The refrigerator/freezer on the houseboat works, but not very well. Perhaps I would buy more dry ice next time, or a little closer to departure time.
- The boarding ladder we bought did work out. We were so lucky that we could line up one of the boarding ladder steps to the last rung of the houseboat ladder and help my mom (and her one bum knee) get in and out better.
- Dig those anchor holes and dig them deep. Never use rocks. Never assume what the wind or weather will do inside of a canyon.
This article is part of our ‘Summer Series’ collection. Read more stories here.
The author would do all of this again if his mom asked.