Park Trips: Paddling Into Yellowstone National Park

Paddling Yellowstone's Shoshone Lake, with its own geyser basin, offers a great backcountry adventure. Kurt Repanshek Photos.

Slipping away from the Lewis Lake boat dock in Yellowstone National Park opens the door to a backcountry adventure few parks can match. Paddling, hiking, and hot springs are just part of the package.

Neither the largest nor the smallest of Yellowstone’s lakes, Lewis and its larger sibling, Shoshone, boast what I would argue is the most personality of the park’s waters. Though Yellowstone Lake is many times larger, at times masquerading as an inland sea, the smaller sizes of Lewis and Shoshone make them quicker to be whipped into a frothy frenzy by the slightest winds. Fortunately, they settle down just as quickly.

It’s both surprising and rewarding that so few people are drawn to these waters. They are the quickest avenues into the backcountry and, if you’re properly outfitted, about the easiest routes, too. Though it might seem to be more of an adventure than some bargain for, if you've got sound paddling skills with either a canoe or sea kayak, the trip is well-worth the effort.

Preparation for a Shoshone trip starts with downloading Yellowstone's backcountry planner, a document you can find here. You have to reserve your backcountry campsite, and the park's backcountry office runs a lottery in April to assign sites. You'll find a reservation form in the planning documents, and, after selecting your preferred sites and dates, you can either mail it off to the backcountry office or fax it there.

Reservation forms received before April 1 go into that lottery. After that date, sites are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. The rangers in Yellowstone's backcountry office are great to work with, and, if there's a reservation conflict with your dates and preferred sites, they will call you to find a reasonable alternative.

I've done it both ways, and managed to find acceptable sites every time. In fact, on one trip I ran into a couple in the South Entrance Ranger Station that showed up without any previous reservation and was able to cobble together enough campsites on the spot for a Shoshone trip.

Choose your campsites wisely for a Shoshone trip, as varying lake conditions can make what seems like a relatively short paddle much more difficult. The trip across Lewis Lake to the Lewis River Channel should be done early in the morning before the winds kick up. I usually try to land a room at Colter Bay in Grand Teton National Park the night before my trip. That way it's a short drive to the put-in the next morning.

In fact, arrive at Colter Bay early enough in the day and you can head up to the South Entrance Ranger Station to obtain your backcountry permit the day before you head out across the water. That way you can get a good start the next morning with permit in hand.

On the first day of your trip, if you leave the Lewis Lake boat dock by 9 a.m. and the weather is good, you should be OK. Heading up the channel to Shoshone Lake usually only takes about an hour, with about half of that time spent walking your boat up the shallow channel.

I try to land campsite 8Q4 for my first night, as it's roughly three hours from the Lewis Lake boat dock. That way I can linger if I want along the Lewis River Channel, which, after crossing Lewis Lake, is akin to stepping out of the ocean into a pond. Only a hundred or so yards wide at this point and lined with trees, the stream is glassy on its surface and clear to its bottom.

Along the channel's western shore you can see 10 feet down to where the roots of lily pads are firmly anchored. Pause long enough, and quietly enough, and you might encounter some of the river otters that live here. The channel also is popular with waterfowl such as Bufflehead ducks and mergansers.

Site 8Q4 is on a small promontory and offers a nice sandy beach, which makes for easy landings. From there, the rest of Shoshone Lake is open for your choosing. Since the Shoshone Geyser Basin is on the western end of the lake, I try to land a campsite in that area for the second night.

While 8T3 is a heavily treed site with great views, its downside is that you have to negotiate a somewhat steep trail from the shore to the campsite. If you've got coolers to haul from boat to campsite, you might consider looking elsewhere.

Your final night on Shoshone is best spent close to the "Narrows." Since the lake can get whipped up quite easily by mid-day winds, if your last night is spent on the northern side of the lake you'll want a relatively short crossing to the south side and the Lewis River Channel and the Narrows is where you'll want to cross.

Campsite 8R1, known as "Windy Point," is an excellent site for this purpose. There's a small beach for easy landings, great choices for pitching a tent, and a nice overlook for watching the lake, sunsets, sunrises, and other groups crossing the Narrows. From this site, you can get on the water by 8 a.m. before the winds pick up, cross in safety, and reach the boat ramp before noon.

All my trips to Shoshone have been via canoe, which is a great mode of transportation since you can haul large coolers with *real* food. I've taken in steaks, chicken breasts, pastas, and even salmon, along with a choice beverage or two.

My first trip was in a Mad River Explorer. While this is a very stable boat, it's more of a river boat in design and so is a plodder on open waters. More recently I've turned to a cruiser, an 18'6" Kevlar Wenonah Odyssey. This is a true lake boat, with fine lines and light weight that make for quick, easy paddling.

Sea kayaks would be ideal for Shoshone, thanks to their low profile, but you're much more limited in what you can bring in terms of food and ancillary gear, such as folding chairs.

Whichever craft you choose, be sure to have all the necessary safety gear. PFDs, of course, are mandatory, as is an extra paddle. To that I add a throw rope, bailing bucket, sponge for soaking up those last few puddles of water the bucket can't get, and dry bags for cloths, sleeping bag, and tent.

While July and August are great months to visit Shoshone, you'll encounter swarms of mosquitoes and other biting bugs in July and into early August. Late August, or even September, offer incredible weather, and fewer bugs.

But not even the bugs can quite convince me to stay away from Shoshone. Larger than any other backcountry lake in the Lower 48 with a surface spanning 8,050 acres, Shoshone can be wild, wooly and even deadly when storms sweep 6-foot waves from left to right across its surface. Or, it can be as placid as a backyard pool, a rare occurrence you’re most likely to encounter shortly after dawn before the winds have had a chance to awake and right around dusk after they’ve blown themselves out.

The perfect ending to a Shoshone trip is a night at Old Faithful. There's nothing like a nice, hot shower and a great meal after leaving the lake, and a night spent here also offers time to explore the Upper Geyser Basin.

Comments

I'd be interested in hearing how you hung up your cooler with steaks, pasta and salmon to keep away from the bears.

Yogi, it actually was pretty easy. A good stout rope, some pulleys, and the ever-present bear bars made hoisting the coolers out of reach a cinch.

The 1st paragraph mentions hot springs, but never mentions them further. Are there hot springs you can bathe in? Why mention them and fail to describe them?

Richard, I mentioned the Shoshone Geyser Basin down in the 12th paragraph, although there are no hot springs there that you can bathe in. To find those, you have to head down to "Cascade Corner" in the southwestern corner of the park. There you'll find some stretches of river where hot springs discharge into the river waters, allowing for bathing. There also are some spots along the Gardner River near Mammoth Hot Springs where you can soak in warm waters.

I did this trip in 1997 with some friends when I was working in the park during my college years. We borrowed two Coleman canoes and headed up the river. Best trip I ever took while there except a float trip up the Smith river. We packed in tons of food and gear. It was just great. In the morning I would paddle out on the lake past the drop off and cast into the abyss. I was always rewarded with big lakers coming out of the dark like silver torpedos and taking me for a ride. (We ate a lot of fish.) It was just perfect. Two weeks later I was in my last semester of college. I'm gonna go back one day and do it again.

Can this be done on ground only? I've canoed it before, but I was wondering if you can hike around the lake and up the river channel. If so, how long does it take?

Shon, you can, but how long it takes depends on what you want to do and where you start. There's a trailhead a bit north of the Lewis Lake Campground that takes you up to the lake and over to the channel, which you'd ford to continue on. Basically, two nights and three days would be sufficient to go from the Lewis Trailhead to Old Faithful, unless you wanted to do some exploring. There are some night backcountry campsites to pick from.

We have an explorer canoe as well as a sturdy inflatable raft, both of which can be rigged up with a sail kit. Which do you think would be a better choice for a brief (1 or 2 night) visit to Shoshone from the Lewis Lake CG?

An Explorer -- I'm inferring that it's a Mad River Explorer -- would be better, though a bit sluggish compared to a longer cruiser such as a Wenonah Odyssey. I wouldn't want to mess with sails on a raft in those lakes.

Kurt, you mention bathing in hot springs. Isn't "hot-potting" still forbidden in the park? Lots of people have been badly burned when they've tried it and discovered that the nice warm pool they're slipping into has some very hot water jetting into it somewhere.

Lee, there are a few places in the park where you can enjoy runoff from hot springs that blends with river water and is not too hot, and not too cold;-) One of the famous spots is Mr. Bubbles down in Cascade Corner. I mentioned that one in this story:

http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2011/10/trails-ive-hiked-bechler-river-trail-yellowstone-national-park8892

There are a few other spots in that area of the park where you can soak, too. And, of course, there's a spot just outside Mammoth Hot Springs in the Gardner River where you can soak. By and large, though, you're not allowed to enter any of the park's thermal features.

Kurt,

Thanks for the nice article. I've been thinking of adding Yellowstone to our list of youth outings, whcih includes paddling the BWCA and Everglades National Park, whitewater rafting, and more (see www.trailguards.org). My big concern is grizzly bears, and the canoeing option caught my interest as a possible compromise. But you mentioned six-foot waves, and that makes me nervous. Is this a trip you would consider taking other peoples' kids on?

Tom

Tom, that's an excellent question. I guess it depends on a few things, such as paddling experience, how old the kids are, backcountry experience, etc.

I have encountered Boy Scout groups out there that I was certain were going to lose somebody.

One of the keys that I've found when paddling in Yellowstone is you don't want to paddle in the middle of the day, which is usually when the winds come up.

With Shoshone Lake, if you stay on the northern shore of the lake, you want to cross the "Narrows" early in the morning, as I mentioned in the story. The last time I was there, in 2007, we watched a scout group come north across the Narrows in the morning around 11 ... when the winds were going strong...and then go back around 5 in the afternoon, when the winds were still strong. My buddy and I were watching this and discussing how best we would go about rescuing anyone that capsized. Fortunately, they all made it across.

We crossed the next morning by about 8 a.m., and it was glassy, simply a beautiful paddle.

Hope that helps.

Outstanding info... my wife and I are visiting Yellowstone and Teton for the next 6 days. We're not camping this trip - renting a house outside West Yellowstone and then shifting to Jackson for the last 3 days. We have a tandem recreational kayak (Old Towne Dirigo) and are experienced paddlers. We just enjoyed 2 awesome days in back country lakes in Glacier NP. What would you recommend for day-tripping on lakes at Yellowstone and Teton. This is our first trip here and we want to see a wide variety of sights. Lastly, we have a small dog that has her own PFD and likes to kayak with us. Any pet restrictions on the water in either park that you are aware of? Thanks!

Roland, unfortunately, from West Yellowstone the paddling in Yellowstone is a fairly good drive. It's probably about two hours to Grant Village, where there's a boat ramp and dock where you can launch into Yellowstone Lake. From there, you can work your way east along the shoreline, checking out Solution Creek and around Breeze Point and into Breeze Bay. They're good places to look for bald eagles and osprey.

Depending on the conditions, and how early you can start, you possibly could work all the way down to Flat Mountain Arm and check it out, but that'd make for a long day if the winds come up (which they're apt to do in the afternoon).

The drive to Lewis Lake is even farther from West Yellowstone, but you could hit it en route to Jackson. From the Lewis Lake boat launch you'd head north to the Lewis River Channel. If the waters are calm, you can cut diagonally across the lake. If not, hug the shoreline. The channel is the connector to Shoshone Lake, and a great place to check for wildlife.

On both Yellowstone and Lewis lakes, you really need to keep an eye on the weather. Winds that build in the afternoon can kick up some pretty good waves, and the water is unforgivably cold.

At Grand Teton, head out on Jackson Lake. There's a put-in at the Signal Mountain boat launch. From there you can explore Elk Island, a decent half-day trip, maybe longer. Depending on how early you can launch, you can even work your way up the eastern shoreline. Other possibilities include Jenny Lake and String Lake, but they're on the small side.

As for pets, they're typically banned in the backcountry, so probably banned on the water, too. Check with the rangers.

A good book to pick up is Paddling Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks by Don Nelson. It's a Falcon Guide, and likely can be found in the parks' gift shops or general stores.

Also, you'll need a boat permit. Last time I checked, one that was good for a week and which covered both Yellowstone and Grand Teton was in the $10-$20 range for a non-motorized boat.

Have a great time!