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Rafting, Kayaking, Boating & Swimming

My Paddling Trip on Yellowstone Lake, Miles From Nowhere

It’s long past midnight on the shores of Yellowstone Lake, and I’m standing, frozen, outside my tent. I’d intended only to sneak out of my cozy sleeping bag for a quick bathroom break. But then I looked up and saw the stars.

Don’t get the wrong idea—I’ve seen a wilderness sky before. But there are stars on display tonight I’m sure I’m meeting for the first time. Stars crowd into what I’d thought were blank, dark spaces in the sky. The Milky Way is so clear, it’s as if a giant thumb had smeared its way across the top of the heavens, leaving a bleary trail behind. As I’m marveling, the brightest meteor I’ve ever seen stripes the sky. It feels like I’m the only one on earth to see it.

If that all sounds a bit heavy on the superlatives, consider this: Yellowstone Lake is the largest high-altitude lake in North America, in the middle of the second-largest park in the Lower 48. My tent on the lake’s South Arm is eight miles from the nearest asphalt and only a few ridges away from the most remote, far-from-a-road spot in the continental US. If there’s any place for record-breaking nighttime experiences, it’s here.

My Route 

The author's paddling trip route on the South Arm of Yellowstone Lake

My group and I reached this quiet shoreline camp yesterday after hopping the shuttle boat from Bridge Bay Marina to Plover Point, a sandy peninsula jutting into the lake at the South Arm’s northwest boundary. After a hearty lunch and a talk about grizzly bear safety with our guides, we slid into double kayaks. My partner, Tom, and I practiced dipping our paddles into the lake, finding an easy rhythm that propelled us away from the speedboat zone and three miles deeper into the South Arm to camp.

Kayaks docked on Yellowstone Lake
Kayaks docked on Yellowstone LakeiStock

Once there, our group of seven settled into a tropical-island pace: wake up with the cup of coffee and hot face towel our guides delivered right to our tents. Stretch, stare at the sun rising over the lake, and tuck in for a hearty camp breakfast (and lunch, and dinner). Read a book by the shore. Take pictures. Sketch the flowers and leaves dotting camp. All is easy, peaceful, quiet.

But certainly not boring. On day two, two of our guides offer to take us exploring at the southern end of the lake. Four of us jump at the chance. I hop into a kayak with Sadie, an Idaho college student with blonde dreadlocks who spends her summers guiding in the park; as we dig our paddle blades into the water, she tosses me ecological tidbits about how invasive lake trout are battling for territory with native cutthroats beneath our boat.

After an hour or so of paddling, we glide by a tiny island near the Arm’s bottom with a ranger patrol cabin. Nobody’s home but a pair of huge golden eagles, which eye us suspiciously from their treetops as we float by. We land our kayaks on the wide beach pocked with elk tracks just beyond, trade sandals for hiking shoes, and strike out into the rolling meadows. An official park hiking trail snakes through this area, but Sadie and Dan, our other guide, wind us through the fields and forests on a cross-country track instead. Yellowstone’s roads, cafés, and drive-up attractions seem a world away as we hike into the wilderness; though I’ve visited the park before this, I realize I’m only beginning to see Yellowstone’s untamed heart.

The winds shift in the afternoon, and Dan and Sadie give each other a look

The lake’s notorious headwinds will make our return trip tougher. I do have to paddle a little harder through the rippling waves, but we stick closer to shore this time to avoid the strongest gusts. Between the warm sun and the pleasant burn I’m working up in my shoulders, I’m slicked with sweat by the time we reach camp. “We can’t come all this way without at least a quick swim,” I tell Debbie, a fellow traveler and photographer who’d been camping at Yellowstone all summer, so we change into bathing suits and wade into the lake. The clear water is stop-your-lungs cold, but I dive in anyway. The polar plunge makes me gasp, but every cell feels electrified, alive.

I squeeze the water out of my hair and perch on a shoreline rock to let the sun bake me dry. The lake’s waves and afternoon warmth lull me into a lazy trance. Later, there will be fresh salad and grilled shrimp and a glass of red wine. We’ll gather ‘round the campfire as evening’s chill descends. There’s a cozy cot waiting in my tent, and when I inevitably slip out for a midnight bathroom break, a dazzling array of stars will greet me. But now, I’m utterly satisfied to stretch out beside Yellowstone Lake and let the quiet swallow me whole.

Do This Trip

Prime season July-early September
Permits $5 for 7-day boating permit;
$25 reservation fee for backcountry camping permit
Guide: Far and Away Adventures;, $840/2-night trip

Related: Rafting & Water Activities in Yellowstone Country