trash tracker lake Powell

Resting after a day as a trash tracker at Lake Powell. Photo courtesy of Tiffany Mapel

Lake Powell, located in south-central Utah and north-central Arizona, is filled with gorgeous sandstone vistas and pure blue water. Keeping this natural wonder clean is a constant challenge—and a surprising vacation option. Volunteers who agree to spend their days picking up trash along the waterfront can spend their nights relaxing under the stars—for free.

I have been going to Lake Powell since 1984. Any time of year is a good time to visit, but the summer months are the busiest. July and August are the hottest, with temperatures averaging in the upper 90s to low 100s. The water gets all the way up to 80 degrees—just right, in my opinion!

Lake Powell is my favorite place in the world, my number one place to escape. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the Trash Tracker program in 2002.  A free trip to Lake Powell?  Sign me up!! I was happy to help keep Lake Powell clean in return for enjoying the serenity of a sinuous sandstone canyon during the day and the dark sky sparkling with millions of stars at night.

Cleaning up the Lake Powell Shoreline

Houseboat for trash tracker Lake Powell program

Houseboating on Lake Powell. Photo credit: Greg Schaefer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Trash Tracker program was started in 1989 as a cooperative effort between the National Park Service and Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas to clean up the 1,960 miles of shoreline. The Park Service coordinates the program while Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas donates the houseboat, powerboat, barge, fuel, trash receptacles and captains for the boats.

Participants in the Trash Tracker program spend 5 or 7 days aboard a houseboat cleaning up trash in various locations around the lake. The location changes with each scheduled trip and trips are limited to four volunteers who each work eight hours a day.

Volunteers fill garbage bags and toss them into the barge “Eliminator.” In addition to looking for trash, volunteers are also tasked with raking fire pits to pick out things that don’t burn: aluminum cans, bottles, wire, etc. A lot of broken glass is found and scooped up to get it out of the sand.  Larger items found include Easy-Up canopies and umbrellas, which are also dug out of the sand with shovels.

The Trash Tracker program runs each year from April through November and accepts applications beginning February 1. It’s a hugely popular volunteer program, so trips fill up fast and there is always a waiting list. Click here to sign up or learn more.

Falling in Love with Lake Powell   

Houseboating is the popular past time and Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas rents boats of all sizes allowing families to make memories that will last a lifetime.  It is such a special place; once you start going, you have to keep going back, year after year. There’s so much to do there: camp, fish, hike, explore, waterski, wakeboard, paddleboard—you can pretty much choose your own adventure.  It is a true desert paradise!

Being a Voluntourist on Lake Powell

Trash tracker Lake Powell

Photo courtesy of Tiffany Mapel

My very first Trash Tracker trip was in summer, 2002.  I had such a wonderful time, I couldn’t wait to do it again the following year and bring some friends.  Trash Trackers is the one trip I look forward to each year and since I’m a teacher, summer works perfectly for me.

Lake Powell is my favorite place on the planet. Volunteering to pick up trash is a great way to ensure it maintains its beauty so that I, and others, can continue to enjoy it for years to come.

Due to my love for Lake Powell and experience with Trash Trackers, I also joined Friends of Lake Powell, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and preserving the area. Last year, I also became a member of the Board of Directors and will continue to serve the community with my volunteer efforts.

Bring Your Kids—If They’re Over 18

Because of the challenging and sometimes strenuous work, volunteers must be over 18 to apply. My 8-year-old daughter is dying to join me, but I told her she has to wait 10 more years.

You can get a group of moms together for a trip, sans kids, or how about a nice graduation gift for your 18-year-old?  A free trip to Lake Powell to help maintain the natural beauty of the area is truly a rewarding experience and something everyone can enjoy.

Why Be a Trash Tracker?

First and foremost, being a Trash Tracker is fun and you get to see parts of the lake that you normally don’t see from a boat.  You can hike into the backs of the canyons and see arches, ruins, petroglyphs and pictographs and all kinds of wildlife.  And that’s just the scenic part.

As for the trash, you discover all sorts of items that either fall off boats or get blown away in the wind, never to be seen again.  Since the water level fluctuates at any given time of year, you might find something that sank the previous year.

Sometimes we even find old sunken boats!  While those are too big for us to remove, we document their locations and let the National Park Service know where to find them. Being a Trash Tracker is like hunting for treasures, and since you’re helping the park by cleaning it up, you’re making a huge difference.  Every little bit helps.

When the workday is over, free time is ours back on the houseboat. My group always brings great meals to share. We like to hike and fish; simply relaxing in the water is the usual afternoon pastime.

I highly recommend the Trash Tracker program, it’s a gratifying experience to clean up such a beautiful place, and have a lot of fun in the process. I look forward to the trip every year.

For more vacation voluntourism ideas, check out this one at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. For more National Parks information, click here to learn about free admission days.

Tiffany Mapel is a middle school English teacher living the dream in Durango, Colorado. She loves to gallivant around the Colorado Plateau, especially Lake Powell, the Grand Canyon, and Moab, Utah, for her “desert therapy.” Tiffany is a board member of the Friends of Lake Powell, dedicated to protecting and preserving Lake Powell.  She also maintains the Friends of Lake Powell and Lake Powell Trash Trackers Facebook pages.