Essential Paddling Guide: Prime Paddling Spots, Rocky Mountains

I gave my heart to the mountains the minute I stood beside this river with its spray in my face and watched it thunder into foam, smooth to green glass over sunken rocks, shatter to foam again. I was fascinated by how it sped by and yet was always there; its roar shook both the earth and me. — Wallace Stegner

Rivers run fast and tumbling throughout the National Park System, there are streams with lazy meanders, and placid lakes perfect for dipping a paddle. This diversity poses a delightful dilemma when you have the urge to float and paddle. What follows is just a sampling of the experiences that await you, whether you have hundreds of watery miles under your paddle, or are looking for calm waters to take your youngsters. Where available, links take you to paddling information specific to the park unit.

Rocky Mountain Parks

Glacier National Park, Montana

Paddling information: http://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/boating.htm 

Though best known for its soaring peaks, glaciers, and wildlife, Glacier also counts some great lakes for paddlers. Lake McDonald and Swiftcurrent lakes are the most obvious options, though Sherburne, St. Mary, Upper Waterton, and Lower Two Medicine lakes also are popular destinations for canoeists and touring kayakers.

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Swiftcurrent Lake isn't huge, but you can spend a few hours exploring it by boat./Kurt Repanshek

Overnight trips can be planned, though you’ll need to get a backcountry permit from the park staff and reserve space in designated backcountry campsites along the lakes. If you’re considering a trip on Waterton Lake, which extends into Canada and Waterton Lakes National Park, you’ll need to check in at the Goat Haunt Ranger Station (don’t forget your U.S. Passport to prove U.S. residency).

Paddlers looking for whitewater can descend the Flathead River that marks the western border of Glacier.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Paddling information: http://www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/boat.htm

For those who ply the waters of this majestic park, the Tetons loom constantly overhead. Paddlers can enjoy that perspective from four lakes -- Jenny, String, Leigh, and the big one, Jackson. Jenny, String, and Leigh are for day-trippers, as the lakes aren’t large enough to require multiple days to navigate. Their generally calm waters also are good for family outings. Jackson Lake, though, can provide you with a two- or three-day adventure.

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Jackson Lake can offer multi-day paddling trips with the Tetons always in view./Kurt Repanshek.

If you’re looking for something that packs a little more adrenalin, then take a float on the Snake River as it heads out of the Jackson Lake Dam south towards park headquarters at Moose. Paddle through Oxbow Bend and you’ll encounter some wildlife -- eagles, osprey, perhaps some bison and antelope coming down to the riverbanks for a sip.

While many folks tackle this river on their own for an afternoon or morning float, it can be tricky, so unless you're fairly well-skilled and somewhat familiar with the Snake, you probably would be wiser to go with an outfitter.

Next Week: Mid-Continent Parks