Outside magazine, June 1994
It's an old saw that the typical visitor to Yellowstone National Park is attached to his car by a 100-foot rope. But even backcountry diehards might be surprised to find out that getting off the beaten path in the nation's original hiking park now entails getting off the path altogether--and into a kayak.
For years, paddling trips on Yellowstone, Shoshone, and Lewis Lakes, all in the southern half of the park, have been quietly undertaken by a handful of Boy Scout troops, intrepid parties of locals, and most recently, guided groups: Last summer, for the first time, outfitters asked for and got permission to guide commercial sea-kayak trips on the lakes.
Breezing across Yellowstone Lake, it's hard to believe this didn't occur to someone earlier. On one morning of a trip I took last summer, we headed out of our campsite on Eagle Bay, on the western shore, noting the tight-toed tracks of a grizzly in the mud along the shoreline. Snow gleamed on the Absarokas to the east, and their jagged 10,000-foot peaks bit into crisp blue skies. From our silent, wide-angle vantage point, we spotted bald eagles, ospreys, and bison; one of our guides saw a grizzly or grizzly sign on every trip that season.
Similarly enticing sea-kayak routes along Yellowstone Lake's 110-mile perimeter can be found on the eastern shore in the Southeast Arm and in the calmer waters of Flat Mountain Arm, to the northwest. Five miles west, Shoshone Lake, which has 26 miles of shoreline, is less accessible than Yellowstone Lake (you have to cross Lewis Lake to get to it) but more visited by backcountry campers. The best time to go, weatherwise, is between July 4 and Labor Day, when temperatures are in the upper seventies during the day and the upper thirties at night. (Even then, be forewarned that the lakes can go from dead calm to four-foot whitecaps in half an hour and that during squalls, waves up to 12 feet tall sweep across Yellowstone. Rangers also warn that life expectancy is 15 minutes in the 40-degree waters.)
To plan your own trip, call either the Lake (307-242-2401) or Grant (307-242-2602) ranger station, where free backcountry permits can be obtained up to 48 hours before departure. Rangers will help chart your course based on your skills and the availability of some 60 backcountry sites. You must also buy a nonmotorized-boating permit ($5 for seven days, $10 for the season). For kayak rental, call Technical Sports ($40 per day; 307-733-2741) or Teton Aquatics ($30 per day; 307-733-3127), both in nearby Jackson.
At press time, a number of outfitters were crossing the permit-process finish line or planning new trips; call the park at 307-344-2109 for a complete list. Two pioneered trips in 1993: Far and Away Adventures (800-232-8588), which customizes three- and four-day trips on Yellowstone Lake for $550-$750 per person, and Rising Wolf Expeditions (406-745-3212), which operates six-, seven-, and eight-day tours on Shoshone and Yellowstone Lakes for $700-$900.