Editor's note: Though Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are renowned for their hiking opportunities, they also offer expanses of water perfect for wetting a paddle, whether in a canoe or sea kayak. And fall can be a perfect time for paddling, as the temperatures are moderate, bugs are gone, and wildlife are highly visible.
There are so many facets to Yellowstone, that it can be difficult to decide what to do if your time is limited. Should you focus on the thermal basins, the Lamar Valley with its elk and bison herds and wolf packs, or head out on a hike?
And then, there are the lakes.
Though most park visitors just stand on the shores of Yellowstone Lake and Lewis Lake, these bodies of water, along with Shoshone Lake, offer wonderful paddling adventures that can blend thermal basins and wildlife viewing with paddling and even hiking.
Shoshone Lake is an overlooked opportunity for many park visitors because it's difficult to reach. Squeezed between the Pitchstone Plateau and Craig Pass at an elevation of 7,791 feet, no roads snake back to the seven-mile-long lake where mechanized locomotion is banned and humans visit by foot or muscle-powered craft or not at all. A bowl-shaped depression blown out of the landscape by the park's prehistoric volcanics, Shoshone with its 28 miles of shoreline officially is the largest backcountry lake in the Lower 48. Little vegetation grows in the lake's clear, cold waters, which during their storm-tossed churning can resemble an inland ocean, one that's cruelly unforgiving to the unprepared.
Shoshone Lake, which you reach by paddling across much smaller Lewis Lake and then heading up the mile-long Lewis River Channel, is something of a haven for shorebirds, particularly along the western shoreline. There an extensive marshland has created the richest area, biologically speaking, on the lake. Thermal activity related to the nearby Shoshone Geyser Basin warms the marshland and nourishes its vegetation. During one trip there, gangly-legged great blue herons stalked through the marsh, using their keen eyesight, quick moves and sharp beaks to pluck meals from the water. Stilts, avocets, mergansers, king fishers, trumpeter swans and other waterfowl also frequent the area, particularly in the springtime.
More accessible than Shoshone Lake, and much, much larger, is Yellowstone Lake. Covering 136 square miles and with 110 miles of shoreline, Yellowstone Lake is a tempting backdrop for exploring a landscape unchanged by humans. The largest body of water above 7,000 feet in North America, on calm days Yellowstone Lake is inviting and picturesque. High-elevation weather patterns, however, can quickly transform the lake into a killer, with 6-foot waves and numbing waters that can leave one incapable of surviving within 20 minutes.
So big is this inland sea that the only way you can see the entire lake with its three arms -- Southeast, South, and Flat Mountain -- is from the air, or during a week-long paddle. But the effort, if only for a few days, is worth it.
Not only does the solitude of the park's backcountry wrap you, but if your timing is right, the wildlife practically comes to you. I discovered that two Septembers ago during a five-day paddle down into the South Arm of the big lake. Leaping out of my canoe to reach a campsite, I was greeted by a paw print in the sand.
And this was no ordinary paw print. Bigger than a saucier pan, the print held in the wet sand was unmistakable: Here was the home of Ursus arctos horribilis, aka grizzly bear. Practically overrunning the bear's imprint was a series of wolf tracks, Canis lupus in lope. And then there were dainty tracks possibly left by sandhill cranes.
As night fell, passed, and gave way to dawn, bull elk revved up, with a collection of bulls trying to out-do each other in their bids to build harems. Against their squeals, coughs and grunts, the cacophonous rattling and trumpeting of sandcranes from a nearby roost was surreal.
The rising and falling pitter-patter of rain kept us largely tent-bound the next day. But when the drizzle finally ebbed late in the afternoon we exited our tents ... only to find a grizzly working over the meadow adjoining ours. In mid-summer the meadow would be a rich source of food, as evidenced by the countless strawberry plants woven into the meadow's surface. Appearing to be a young adult in the 400-pound range, the bear, evidently unaware of its Latin name, paid us no attention, instead focusing his efforts on whatever morsels he could find in the meadow.
Following an evening cracked open at times by lightning bolts from thunderstorms passing to the north, the audio show resumed the next morning, as in the pre-dawn murkiness a rich, melodious howl first broke the silence and then hung in the air. Perhaps it was the wolf's presence that silenced the elk and the cranes that had been so vocal the day before.
It's only deep in the backcountry of a park, whether it's Yellowstone or Yosemite or Glacier or Great Smoky Mountains or Everglades, that you gain a good and sound appreciation of "the scenery and the natural ... objects and the wild life therein...." the National Park System.
Yellowstone's smaller sibling can't offer the big water of Yellowstone Lake, but it has a collection of shimmering jewels worth exploring from the water, as well as one of the most iconic rivers in the West to ride.
Indeed, the Snake River is Grand Teton's main aqueous attraction, and it has many personalities. Paddle the relatively slow water right below the Jackson Lake Dam and you drift through placid waters with fat fish that lure ospreys and bald eagles to roost in the fringing trees, ever watchful for a fish that swims too near the surface. Otters are at play here as well, and moose browse the thick riverside vegetation.
We discovered the latter fact one day soon after we had slipped our canoe into the water, sliding it off the cobblestone beach below the dam and into the current that draws its life from the flume of water being spit from the dam’s penstocks. The 65.5 foot-tall concrete dam, the successor to a three foot-tall log structure anchored with rocks that was built in 1906 to improve on a glacial moraine that had created a much smaller lake than the one that now exists, slows the Snake but can’t drown it.
True, gone are the many lazy meanders that crisscrossed the narrow valley framed by 11,355 foot Ranger Peak to the west and 8,274 foot Pilgrim Mountain to the east before the present dam rose up in 1916. But once it spills out of the dam the Snake returns to its former self. It lacks the force to scour the valley as its prehistoric ancestors did, but today’s Snake still more or less sticks to the course those watery predecessors laid down so long ago and is robust enough so as not to be confused with some tranquil backwater.
With channels braided by deadfall and shoals and the ever-present wildlife roaming its banks and flat pools, the Snake is almost as emblematic of Grand Teton National Park as are the park’s jagged mountains. Certainly, it’s not as dramatic as those ice- and snow-coated peaks that tower over the park. But it’s just as constant, and it’s definitely more vibrant.
A sinewy ribbon of life that is at the headwaters of the Columbia River system, the Snake River cuts both placid and tumultuous for about 50 miles along the park’s eastern border. From snowmelt that mingles with runoff from spring and summer rainstorms and the draining of lakes, ponds and springs, the river gains its mercurial temperament.
Also contributing to the river’s ebb and flow are Pacific Creek, Buffalo Fork, Spread Creek and the Gros Ventre River, a collection of streams that flush out the surrounding mountains in spring only to run gravy thin in late summer when there’s scant water left to drain. So meager is the water that trickles down these tributaries when cottonwood and aspen leaves begin to glow yellow and gold that you could, with some well-placed steps, walk upstream into the mountains much as you would along a trail.
On this trip we floated beneath Cattlemen’s Bridge and headed on toward Oxbow Bend, a side channel to the main Snake. In this marshy backwater cinnamon and green-winged teals cruise like feathery flotillas with ducklings in tow among downed snags and willow thickets searching for snacks, while elegant trumpeter swans and white pelicans glide majestically atop the water's surface. Great blue herons, necks long and beaks sharp to snatch unsuspecting fish as they drift by, and double-crested cormorants, which spread their wings to dry after plunging into the river for a meal, also are frequent visitors.
We skimmed across the rippled reflection of Mount Moran and bypassed the bend in favor of the main channel. Having started the day in Yellowstone, where we had spotted bison and elk, on the Snake we add to our wildlife bingo with sightings of osprey, eagles, otters, white pelicans and trumpeter swans and begin to wonder whether we will see any moose. It's while recounting the day’s sightings that our question is answered by a tremendous crashing through the woods. Wheeling our canoe about to see what the commotion is, we are rewarded by three moose bolting from the woods and into the river.
Not much farther downstream we come upon Deadman’s Bar, a sandy spit that anecdotal evidence suggests was named in dubious honor of an 1886 triple murder spurred by a dispute among miners panning for gold. This ominously named feature, which is now a popular put-in for commercial trips ferrying park visitors past the Tetons and a take-out for those who started by the dam and desire their rivers calm, not aggressive, offers a clear line of demarcation between the placid upper section of the Snake and the rambunctious lower stretch. Here the Snake’s comparatively sedate upstream section is replaced downstream by a decidedly more sweeping river, one that rushes through the landscape in a hurry as the increased gradient gets help in flushing the river downstream by a pinching in of the river banks.
Signs at Deadman’s Bar promise those continuing on down the river to Moose that the trip will be anything but lazy. There are no technical rapids along these 10 miles of river, but the signs caution that advanced boating skills are needed just the same for navigating extremely swift currents and cold, near 50-degree water that is not what you want to be splashing around in.
Of course, if you prefer lakes, Grand Teton has them as well. Jackson Lake is rimmed with backcountry campsites that allow you a multi-day trip, and if something a tad more subtle is appreciated, then String and Leigh lakes are both well-known for their relatively warm waters. String Lake is the warmer of the two, thanks to its relatively shallow water (nothing deeper than 10 feet). The big lake, Jackson, has waters that can be tolerated, but not everyone likes the power boats that rip it up.
Whether you prefer the wildness and solitude of the backcountry, or a comfortable paddle that can be followed with a night in a lodge, these two parks can meet your needs.