Shoshone Lake: Paddling to solitude through a crowded Yellowstone National Park

Trip report from the largest backcountry lake in the country

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By Benjamin Graham

Puffs of steam float above a gurgling cluster of thermal features on the remote western shore of Shoshone Lake, far from the crowds and selfie sticks normally associated with the natural wonders of Yellowstone National Park. From the backseat of our canoe, the geyser basin looks to be within striking distance — just a few easy miles of paddling. My wife and I take off for the basin across the open lake, but soon afternoon winds are whipping the water into a frothy mess of three-foot whitecaps.

We decide to wait it out. Waves splash over the bow as we point it back toward shore and, after a few minutes of heavy paddling, drag the boat onto the beach. Common sense, and the warnings of park rangers, win out.

While the T-shaped body of water is much smaller than its mammoth neighbor, Yellowstone Lake, Shoshone holds another distinction that makes it unique; it can't be reached by road. And with a size of more than 12 square miles, it's considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be the largest backcountry lake in the country.

Rangers recommend open water crossings at its narrowest point, a squeeze in the shoreline fittingly known as "the Narrows." But even that stretch can be perilous. In 1994, an experienced ranger died when his kayak flipped during an attempted crossing amidst high winds. After hours of struggle, he succumbed to the waves and hypothermia. A handful of other deaths took place on the lake in the ensuing years, including a father and son whose canoe capsized. It was June, and the water temperature at the time measured between 38 and 42 degrees.

With those warnings in mind, my wife and I dig our feet into the beach and resign ourselves to enjoying the gusting wind and general lonesomeness of the afternoon from solid ground. Solitude, after all, was the goal of the excursion.

Old faithful, where crowds of camera-sporting tourists gather each day like clockwork.
Old Faithful, where crowds of camera-sporting tourists gather each day like clockwork.

Up to that point in the summer, the newspaper headlines coming out of Yellowstone had been bleak — people falling into hot springs, visitors getting too close to large animals, a family of Canadians putting a bison calf in the trunk of their car. We had read the stories about the rowdy, record-breaking tourism numbers, and we wanted to find a backcountry escape to avoid them. It wasn't until we pulled up to the park's south gate on a July morning, joining a line of more than 100 vehicles, that we experienced what the crowding could feel like, the press of more than 3 million annual visitors clamoring to see the world's first national park. You could smell it in the car exhaust and hear it in the terse conversations from park rangers directing traffic.

But the promise of solitude and primitive wilderness seemed to grow as we passed through the gate, drove a few miles to the boat launch and slid into Lewis Lake with no other paddlers in sight. Within a few strokes, the din of the highway receded. We made our way to the far shore and pointed the bow north, toward the mouth of a three-mile channel that leads to Shoshone. The lake has actually become a somewhat popular destination within the park, but its expansiveness combined with its limited campsites still offer a good chance of avoiding human contact for a few days.

A small buoy bounced gently near the channel's opening, marking an underwater thermal feature distinguishable through the clear water by the bronze-colored mineral deposits built up around it. With late afternoon setting in, the wind picked up just as we pulled into the protected waters of the channel. Our plan was to take it to Shoshone Lake and spend two nights there before making the journey back.

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We dipped our paddles in the water and for the first time pushed against a current. At this early point in the channel, the flow was virtually unnoticeable, but the novelty of boating on any kind of moving water in Yellowstone was not lost on us. Paddling is barred on streams and rivers within the park, with Lewis Channel being the lone exception. A movement is underway to change that, led in part by a contingent of kayakers and packrafters based around Jackson Hole. Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis, a Republican who has historically been more of an advocate for mining and timber interests than non-motorized recreation, has partnered with paddlers to push legislation that would allow a study of whether paddling should be allowed on more rivers in Yellowstone and the neighboring Grand Teton National Park. The legislation has faced tough criticism from conservationists and hasn't yielded results thus far, but the efforts are likely to continue.

Back in the channel, we were simply happy to enjoy the novelty of the water beneath our boat. We pressed on silently. Just off the side of the canoe, an otter bobbed underwater, inspecting our hull from a safe distance before jetting out of sight. Plump trout darted back and forth under the shadow cast by our boat. After a few bends and turns in the channel, it narrowed significantly. A bit further, the current picked up. About a mile from Shoshone we scraped the bottom of the stream, forcing us to hop out and drag the canoe through ankle-deep water the rest of the way.

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After a considerable amount of grunting and grumbling with the tow rope, we emerged from the channel into the glassy expanse of Shoshone Lake and made for our first camp on its southern shore. We set up a tent on a black, rocky beach and spent the remainder of the day watching the sun arc gently over the horizon and fall beneath the trees.

The next morning we shove off toward our camp for the second night. Once past the Narrows, we see the rising steam of Shoshone Geyser Basin–and the rising wind of early afternoon. After our decision to head back to shore, we spend the day reading, skipping stones and watching birds, occasionally taking stock of the lake. The wind gusts do not let up, filling a hammock we strung up like a sail and rattling it sideways in the air. The geyser basin will get two fewer visitors today, but for an afternoon at least, we'll get our solitude.

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