Kayaking Near Yellowstone
Paddling through the pristine wilderness of Yellowstone National Park is a dream for many kayakers. While the park is most well known for its boiling mud pits and spurting geysers, it also has more traditional landscapes that are suitable for big hiking and paddling trips. Kayaking in the park is a great way to get off the crowded trails and see wildlife (particularly bison) that might be more suspicious of upright walking humans.
There are no kayak or canoe rentals available within the park, though Bridge Bay Marina on Lake Yellowstone does offer rowboats. If you bring your own boat or rent one outside the park, you’ll need to get a boat permit from one of the visitor’s centers which will certify that there aren’t any invasive species clinging to your watercraft. Additionally, if you take any of these routes as an overnight trip, you’ll need reservations at one of the park’s campgrounds or a backcountry camping permit for one of the designated sites. Both can be difficult to obtain if you don’t make reservations early.
1. Lewis River Channel
This is easily the most popular section to kayak within the park, extending for three miles between Shoshone Lake and Lewis Lake. It’s well known for its excellent brown trout stocks, making it very popular with anglers during the fishing season (Memorial Day until the beginning of November).
One of the biggest challenges to paddling the Lewis Channel is getting to the put-in point at the end of Shoshone Lake. You must hike in via a three-mile-long path from the Dogshead Trailhead. There are no good access points on Shoshone Lake, so this is really your only option. To take out, you can paddle back towards the trailhead on the eastern edge of Lewis Lake or get out at Lewis Lake Campground on the other side, two miles away. However, park officials warn paddlers that they should not attempt to cross Lewis Lake in a kayak as sudden storms can lead to big waves that will swamp your boat. In general, you’ll find calmer waters the earlier you start too.
This section is pretty tranquil and has no real hazards besides the occasional downfall blocking part of the channel. After Lewis Lake, there’s some interesting whitewater in the canyon below Lewis Falls, but the park disallows paddling in any whitewater sections.
Where to Rent a Kayak: West Yellowstone Adventure in West Yellowstone
2. Yellowstone Lake
The park’s namesake lake is really the heart of Yellowstone National Park as the volcanic caldera that feeds superheated water to the park’s geysers and hot springs sits at the bottom of the lake. One of the best places to put in is at Sedge Bay on the eastern shore of the lake. There’s a decent gravel beach that would make putting in and taking out easier, plus the coves around there are a bit more protected. To make it an overnight trip, head down to the south arm of the lake, which is about twelve miles from Sedge Bay; this is where many of the lake’s campsites are located.
The sheer size of the lake is its biggest danger, as winds can whip up waves that are a few feet tall. Unless you came here to surf, make a point of staying close to shore to avoid these hazards.
Where to Rent a Kayak: Gradient Mountain Sports in Cody
3. Snake River in Grand Teton National Park
This relatively easy but still exciting trip in Grand Teton National Park runs from the dam on the southeastern corner of Jackson Lake over to Pacific Creek Landing, a distance of five miles. There are no hazards to worry about along this route with the exception of some fast water near the take-out point that can be a little difficult to maneuver.
To cut the trip in half there’s also an access point at Cattleman’s Bridge that’s about two miles downstream from the lake. The river widens and slows down here, and there’s even a small island worth investigating. The best time to paddle this section is in July when the spring runoff has petered out and the water is a bit clearer (and warmer).
Where to Rent a Kayak: Rendezvous River Sports in Jackson
4. Yankee Jim Canyon
Just outside the northern entrance of the park (Gardiner, Montana) is a fantastic whitewater section on the Yellowstone River known as Yankee Jim Canyon. While the river is quite placid from its source inside the park to where it meets the Missouri River nearly 700 miles away on the North Dakota border, this section is about as rough as you’ll find anywhere in Montana.
The put in for the canyon is about twelve miles north of Gardiner, near the Yankee Jim Picnic Area. This whitewater section is about five miles long and you’ll be hitting rapids nearly the whole way through, so be prepared and ready to portage if something appears above your skill level. The first rapid is known as Yankee Jim’s Revenge, which is actually made up of four to seven smaller rapids that will toss you around like clothes in a dryer if you can’t manage to stay afloat. You can avoid the brunt of the rapid by sticking to the left side of the river. Following that is the Big Rock Rapid, named for the massive rock in the middle of the river. It’s easy to avoid and creates some interesting water that’s fun to fool around in. Then there’s the Boxcar rapid, named because of urban legends that there is an overturned boxcar underneath the water churning up all the waves. It’s actually an all-natural feature and is the narrowest point in the canyon, making it especially dangerous at high water. Finally, you can take out by paddling towards the eastern shore at the Carbella fishing access.
Yankee Jim Canyon is an absolute blast if you know what you’re doing as a whitewater paddler and ask around about the conditions. Rapids can look vastly different at high water compared to other times of year and the danger can be much greater.
Where to Rent a Kayak: Northern Lights Trading Company in Bozeman