Park Trips: Paddling Into Yellowstone National Park
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.