The mother of two boys was 28 when she was reported missing Dec. 7, 2009, after she failed to show up for her stockbroker job. The case has cast a harsh spotlight on Powell's husband, who remains the only person of interest but has never been arrested or charged.
It wasn't immediately known if the remains found Wednesday are those of Powell, or if they were even female. Authorities planned to resume their investigation Thursday morning.
"It's a game of patience at this point," West Valley City Sgt. Mike Powell said. "We need to slow down a little bit and identify what it is we found."
Meanwhile, friends and family waited and prayed.
Susan Powell's father, Chuck Cox, expressed doubt that the remains are those of his daughter. He said that would mean whoever took her would have had to have dumped her body in the middle of a high desert freezing winter, when the ground would have been covered in snow and frozen solid.
"We're just waiting," he said Wednesday evening.
On "The Early Show" Thursday, Cox said the area where police are searching has always been on a list that they've wanted to search, and that he doesn't know of any new information received by authorities that would have prompted them to search in that area..
He said, "This is just one of the places they felt they needed to search, and I think the opportunity of the weather and manpower and the prioritization of their lists, that this has come up at this time."
After two years of searching, Cox said, he knows now that he has to be patient.
"The first (searches) were very traumatic. And now, this is like the fifth or sixth time that this has happened, and now it's kind of -- I know that I have to ... wait for the police to come up with really what is found and do the forensics and things like that. But you always wonder, 'Is this going to be the time?' Because we have lived for almost two years now with the phone on at all times and every phone call, is, 'Who could that be? Could this be the one? Maybe they found my daughter."'
Kiirsi Hellewell, a close friend of Susan Powell, said the discovery of remains brought a sense of hope that the case might finally move forward, but also sadness that she might really be dead.
"It's always a mixture of emotions, because we've been down this road before with the discovery of bodies and remains," Hellewell said. "It's like a seesaw, because we also don't want to find out that she's dead."
In May, speculation swirled that remains found in the desert about 50 miles southwest of Salt Lake City might have been those of Powell, but authorities later said they were of a young adult male.
Authorities have been searching since Monday in the area near Topaz Mountain in Juab County. The site is about 135 miles southwest of the location where Susan Powell was last seen, where she lived, in West Valley City, Utah.
Last month, investigators searched mine shaft-dotted mountains near Ely, Nev., and later served a search warrant at the Puyallup, Wash. home that her husband, Josh Powell, shares with his father, seizing computers and journals.
This latest search is in an area popular for gem and rock hunters. Police have said Josh Powell liked to rock hunt in the area.
"From the very beginning, he clearly indicated he had been in and around the area," said Sgt. Powell, who is not related to Susan Powell's family.
In an interview with Josh Powell last month, CBS News contributor Hattie Kauffman asked, "In retrospect, do you think about how bad it looks that you left the house at midnight with the two boys, during the time she disappeared?"
Josh Powell replied, "We've gone out and done things like that before. ... Sometimes we go out looking for rocks."
Kauffman asked, "Were you looking for rocks that night? Was that a rock hunting trip?"
Josh Powell said, "We just were playing."
Kauffman remarked, "One report said it was a blizzard. Nobody goes camping in a blizzard."
Josh Powell said, "Yeah."
When asked if he had anything to do with her disappearance, he said, "No."
Kauffman pressed, "Did you kill your wife?"
Powell said, "I would never even hurt her. People who know me know that I could never hurt Susan."
Josh Powell says he believes his wife ran off with another man and has told police he left her at home about 12:30 a.m. on that Dec. 7 to go winter camping in freezing temperatures with their young sons -- then 4 and 2 -- about 80 miles west of Salt Lake City. The 4-year-old confirmed the trip to police.
Over the past weeks, the case has taken salacious turns, as family members on both sides sparred over truth and fiction, and accusations of sex and lies.
Josh Powell's family claims Susan Powell was sexually promiscuous, emotionally unstable and suicidal. They were offering as proof several diary pages from the missing woman's teenage years. Her family says the entries were written by a young girl still growing up and have no bearing on her disappearance. They got a temporary order in a Washington court prohibiting the Powells from distributing them.
Josh Powell has mostly remained quiet throughout the investigation, and police say he hasn't been cooperative.
But in a string of national television interviews in August, including the one with Kauffman, Josh Powell denied having anything to do with her disappearance.
In another strange twist, Steve Powell, Josh's father, said he and Susan Powell were falling in love and even implied a sexual relationship had occurred.
Susan's father, Chuck Cox, said the assertions are false. He claims it was Steve Powell who initiated unwanted sexual advances, and that his daughter had no interest in her father-in-law.
The feuding between the two sides got so heated that a court commissioner in Washington State ordered Chuck Cox and Josh Powell to keep 500 feet apart.
On "The Early Show" Thursday, Cox said that, right after Susan's disappearance, Josh Powell permitted his boys to come over for holidays and other visits, but the visits grew more infrequent, then stopped altogether.
Cox said, "Basically, after the second visit in New Year's, the grandchildren didn't want to go home with Daddy, and I think that bothered him. So, anyway, no, we haven't seen them after that. Basically, it's been less and less interaction with us and the grandchildren since then."
Josh Powell and his family released a statement Wednesday saying, "With very little information available to the public, we can only hope that additional information is released quickly to minimize heartache to those of us who love Susan. In the meantime, we continue to hope for Susan's safe return."